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The Talented Mr. Beinart and the New Republic's War on the Left

Peter Beinart, the new editor of the New Republic, has been casting the views of the "left" as unpatriotic and politically correct. So much for subtleties of opinion about war and terror.
 
 
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Peter Beinart, the newest editor of the New Republic, is going to be a very busy young man in the weeks to come. Apart from running the magazine, and recently taking over authorship of its signature TRB column, Mr. Beinart, it appears, now intends to run his own sort of Homeland Security office.

As the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan stretches out over a longer time frame than some originally imagined and as more political debate and dissent naturally evolves, Mr. Beinart will be besieged with myriad requests -- from peace activists and civil libertarians from Berkeley to the Berkshires -- to have their activities vetted or vetoed after his personal review.

One's sympathy for Mr. Beinart's swelling work schedule should be tempered, however, by the knowledge that this heavy burden is a product of his own doing. In his first column after the World Trade Center attacks, Mr. Beinart, relying primarily on some anecdotal and anonymous Web postings for evidence, attacked the anti-globalization movement for its supposed softness on the Al Qaeda network as he warned that it was on the verge of "hav[ing] joined the terrorists in a united front." Professing profound horror that otherwise honest American college kids might be led to treason by the fiends who had organized the protests against the WTO meeting in Seattle, Mr. Beinart throatily ruled that, in an environment of war, "domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides."

He did not detail, unfortunately, what the precise nature of the application process would be for those prospective protestors seeking moral sanction. Dissidents will merely have to check regularly the TRB column to insure they have not strayed to the wrong side of history. (Lucky for them it is now written by the vaguely more tolerant Mr. Beinart as his immediate predecessor, Andrew Sullivan, has already decreed anti-war activists to be a "fifth column".)

Under Mr. Beinart's stewardship, the New Republic has enthusiastically and rather unconditionally enlisted in the new patriotism. A recent lead editorial outflanks Colin Powell on the right, chiding him for his "fetishization" of the so-called Powell Doctrine: the demand that the U.S. employ overwhelming force in conflict to minimize American casualties. That same cordite-laced editorial excoriated ex-President Clinton for showing any concern over civilian casualties when he launched his own attacks on Bin Laden and -- now that Mr. Beinart has recently passed maximum draft age -- the editorial openly celebrates the notion that "America is less afraid of body bags now..."

As ardent a militarist as Mr. Beinart has become, his favored target seems to be the American Left. In yet another of his signed columns, this one based not on Web postings but rather on a demotion of a conservative university professor (which was reversed before the column even went to the typesetters), Mr. Beinart extended his attack on dissidents arguing that the Left's professed concern over maintaining civil liberties in times of national emergency are disingenuous.

"[W]hen the left condemns the war against terrorism for threatening free speech, its real motive may not be devotion to free speech at all," Mr. Beinart wrote. "Its real motive may simply be hostility to the war . . . "

To make his argument, Mr. Beinart submits to us the case of Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., the conservative Director of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). At a university public forum a few days after Sept. 11, Fairbanks got into a contentious shouting match with a young woman in the audience. Among other points, she took exception to a flippant reference that Professor Fairbanks had made to the Koran. A few days later, Mr. Beinart informs us, Professor Fairbanks was demoted from his job by the interim dean of SAIS.

On that basis, Mr. Beinart then expends a thousand words to argue that Fairbanks is only the latest victim in the Left's relentless war of political correctness and identity politics. Ipso Facto, the Left in persecuting Professor Fairbanks, says Mr. Beinart, reveals itself as a muzzler of free speech. Case closed.

Mr. Beinart's column appears in the same magazine he edits so I suppose there was no one there to gently tell him: 1) that at the end of his piece, in parenthesis no less, when he informs us that Fairbanks was re-instated to his job almost immediately, Mr. Beinart's argument .... um ... falls apart and, 2) that Professor Fairbanks' even brief travail was the result not of a leftist conspiracy or even a single leftist demonstration but rather a product of the usual sort of spinelessness shown by university administrations. It has been those quaking administrations -- horrified by the specter of student restlessness and possible legal liability -- that have been the most vehement enforcers of restrictive and, here I would agree with Mr. Beinart, outright odious campus speech and conduct codes.

But no matter. Even though Fairbanks wasn't really fired, or even demoted. And even though it was an administrative bureaucrat who tried to punish Fairbanks and not peace protestors or even treasonous dissidents, Mr. Beinart, concludes that "he lost his job because of the culture of the American left."

I will give Mr. Beinart credit for this much: when he affirms that a zealous clamp-down on free speech has defined the Left, he qualifies this assertion saying it has been the case only for the "last 20 years." Mr. Beinart's bitter conclusions, then, are apparently not based exclusively on whatever persecution by the Left he personally might have experienced at Yale and Oxford. It means he did some real scholarly research on the subject, because 20 years ago, by my calculations he was only in the 5th or 6th grade, and I don't think that speech codes had yet filtered down to grade school by the early 1980's.

And this is why I can't really be very angry with Mr. Beinart's errant conclusions. He's still a bit too young and still way too green to realize just how much he has in common with those he now scolds and satanizes.

Allow me to explain. In blasting the Left, he has singled out some of the most aberrant, and loudest, behavior to be found on this side of the fence. He has elevated some of the softest-headed and most politically immature as exemplars for the entire left. If Mr. Beinart truly believes that zealous defense of odious campus speech codes, for example, encapsulates the sum experience of the "culture of the left," then he should demand a refund on his own college tuition.

The left contains within it a broad spectrum of views, including on this war. Some honest and sincere, and I would add patriotic, leftists have raised questions and doubts about the prosecution of military action. And just as many, or more, have endorsed the use of force against bin Laden and the Taliban, this writer included. Mr. Beinart should know this and to claim otherwise would test the imagination.

If history has taught us anything, it should be a slowness to claim any moral superiority on the basis of ideology alone. Just as there are sectors of the left that are more or less rational or mature, so it is on the right. A conservative John McCain and a conservative Ann Coulter come not from two different political currents, but seemingly from two different planets.

Liberals, as Mr. Beinart defines himself, are no different. Some are firmly rooted in political and historical reality -- while others are as muddle-headed and detached as the few leftists who claim the U.S. "deserved" the WTC attacks. The former know that the true "culture of the left" celebrates Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman and the risks they took in the fight for personal liberty. From Roger Baldwin to Rosa Parks, up through the era of Vietnam and into Reagan's covert wars, liberal-left coalitions have been the best guarantees of progress and, yes, freedom.

Reality-based liberals remember the last time there was a "real war" in this country and the hand-to-hand fight it entailed not only to stop the slaughter, but to keep pried open a space for domestic dissent and the exercise of civil liberties. If someone had written then, as Mr. Beinart did last month, that a pre-requisite for that dissent would have been to "choose sides," he or she would have been laughed into the dustbin of history.

This meditation, of course, requires an historical memory greater than two decades in scope. And it requires a level of intellectual honesty and integrity that refuses to confuse some of the most noble currents in American history with the tragicomic antics of a few overzealous university undergrads.

Just as I will refrain from confusing the entirety of American liberal tradition with a few ill-reasoned and ill-motivated columns penned by a magazine editor whose world view has yet to be tempered by sufficient exposure to reality.

Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to The Nation magazine and a columnist for L.A. Weekly. His latest book is "Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir."