Your Other Left
Don't Know Which Way to Turn
Harris polling agency last week released the results of an interesting
study. In a survey of 2209 adults, they discovered that most Americans
only have the vaguest idea of the meaning of two important pairs of
words that play crucial roles in the national political discourse: conservative
and liberal, and left and right.
of the numbers are surprising. According to the survey, 37 percent of
Americans think liberals oppose gun control, or else they are not sure
if liberals oppose gun control. Likewise, 27 percent of respondents
thought a right-winger was someone who supported affirmative
action. Furthermore, the survey showed that respondents generally viewed
the paired concepts liberals and left-wingers and conservatives
and right-wingers as possessing, respectively, generally similar
political beliefs—with one caveat. In both cases, respondents were roughly
10 percent more clueless about left-wingers and right-wingers
than they were about liberals and conservatives.
label left-winger is broadly perceived to be similar to liberal,"
the agency concluded, "except that more people are not sure what
were asked to define the labels according to what their positions were
on seven "political issues": abortion rights, gun control,
cutting taxes, gay rights, same-sex marriage, affirmative action and
moral values. This list of issues is preposterous in itself as a symbolic
reflection of the political landscape, but that's a discussion for another
time. To me the most instructive category was "moral values."
According to the survey, 78 percent of respondents believe conservatives
support moral values, while only 40 percent said the same about left-wingers.
In fact, 29 percent said they believed left-wingers actually opposed
glad the Harris people never called me for this survey, because I would
have had to answer "not sure" to every question. Even after
working as a political reporter for many years, I still have absolutely
no idea what the American versions of left and right mean—what
they mean in an ideological sense, that is. It's hard not to be confused
when we call a saber-rattling free trader like John Kerry far left,
while a man who keeps a portrait of Lenin on his wall, like Grover
Norquist, is considered the very definition of a right-winger.
I see someone called a leftist or left-leaning in print,
I'm never sure whether they're talking about an actual communist, or
just some timorous capitalist yuppie whom David Brooks spotted drinking
a latte, or standing in line to see Cinema Paradiso. Politically,
it's just not a very concise definition.
of course we all know exactly what left means, when we're talking
about social labels. In common parlance, left is clearly code
for "feckless, pseudo-intellectual wiener," while right
is code for "winner" and "the people who are actually
running things while you assholes are reading James Joyce." Left
also emphatically stands for "wrong side of history," while
right is explicitly understood to mean the only remaining legitimate
vision for future social organization. All ambitious politicians run
screaming from the word left, understanding it to be a fatal
electoral contagion, whereas being labeled rightwing even adds
a winner's aura to an openly drooling political psychopath, like Kentucky
Senator Jim Bunning.
the term left originated with the French Jacobins (they
sat on the left in the Assemblies of the French Revolution) and the
Stalinists who gave a 20th century gift of Jacobinism to about 20 million
victims. That's what the term leftist meant for about 200 years:
a bloodthirsty fiend who seized your property and chopped off your head.
You'll never hear the editorial board of The Nation admitting
that they're in any way the inheritors of this excellent legacy, but
this implication is always lurking somewhere in the back of every right-wing
caricature of the modern left.
one thing, the left in these quarters is always described as a tiny
minority of over-educated elites, desperate to seize power and impose
some blockheaded, sweepingly sinister grad-school theory on decent folk.
Beyond that, conservative writers always manage to have guillotines,
terror-bombers, death-camps and other relics of the glorious leftist
past ready to stick in some nearby paragraph whenever the modern left
this trick on display in a Miami Herald piece from last fall
called "Left-leaning intellectuals, voters and their values."
It takes writer Carlos Montaner about three sentences here to turn Noam
Chomsky into a Shining Path terrorist:
The American academic left, sweet
and law-abiding, usually grazes in the fields of the Democratic Party.
Although it can be as radical as Noam Chomsky, its lucubrations end
up in some fiery article disseminated through the Internet or buried
in an obscure publication read by barely a few hundred members of the
same sect. Thankfully, blood is never spilled.
In Latin America or Europe, the situation
is different. The criminals in Peru's Shining Path emerged from the
philosophy department of a provincial university. They began by reading
Hegel and Marx and went on to slit the throats of peasants they called
only the constant vigilance of the right prevents all those kids with
pointy beards working in coffee shops from organizing massacres. Thankfully,
blood is never spilled!
gets back to the Harris poll. If people are confused about what left-wing
means, there might be a reason for that. If you can call both Leon Trotsky
and Eric Alterman left-wing and be technically right in both
cases, then clearly the word is doing injustice to one of them. They
have nothing in common; Trotsky had a much better sense of humor.
was an hilarious example last week of how loosely left-wing can
be interpreted by our media. While covering Condoleezza Rice's visit
to Europe, FOX News White House correspondent James Rosen described
France's Institute for Political Sciences as "left-wing."
Here's the exact quote, from a Feb. 8 broadcast on Special Report
With Brit Hume:
ROSEN: Speaking to one of France's
leading left-wing political science academies, Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice urged old Europe to put aside the old differences over Iraq...
institute in question is so left-wing that it claims L. Paul Bremer
III as one of its graduates. Other graduates include Jacques Chirac,
Francois Mitterand, Georges Pompidou, and Boutros-Boutros Ghali. What
Rosen was obviously trying to say was that Rice was speaking to a bunch
of recalcitrant Europeans. Left-wing is becoming a synonym for
there's no way to really stop a group of people bent on demonizing dissenters
by the tireless use of some all-encompassing, Satanic label. When even
Nancy Pelosi can be described as a "left-wing torch-thrower"
(a small California paper used that term last week), it's pretty clear
the word is more meant as an insult, to describe a fuzzy-headed refusal
to accept patriotic orthodoxy, than it is to refer to a concrete set
of political beliefs.
at some point it says something about you if you allow these labels
to stick. Either the left is not being very clear about the winning
politics that it stands for, or else the word accurately describes a
secret willingness to be constantly abused by bigots, a market niche
full of bashful subscribers to Total Pussy Weekly. Because nothing
else makes the American left look worse; it can't even change your mind
about its name, much less change the world.