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The Enduring Dangerous Legacy of the Sixties New Left

The second article is by William Voegeli, and it appears in the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Voegeli, one of our most astute commentators on politics,  has written a lengthy essay in which he seeks to comprehend how the new liberalism is impacted by the views of the now old New Left of the 60s. In particular, he takes up the issue of how liberals in that earlier time did not directly challenge the views of the far Left, preferring instead to view them as slightly misguided comrades in their own political world. Voegeli writes:

[The record] shows that neither then, when it would have counted, nor later, when it would have clarified, did most mainstream liberals offer up anything as direct and definitive as a stern, unqualified denunciation of the New Left, black nationalists, or other activists inspired by them. The more common response was to try to have it both ways, to suggest that the radicals behaved regrettably, at worst, but that the social evils they opposed explained and to some degree justified their conduct. As the years went by, having it both ways meant that this ambivalent response to the radical fringe would be collectively remembered as having been a principled, unyielding one.

Thus, when Bill Ayers became an issue in the 2008 campaign, Voegeli explains:

Some respectable liberals did denounce him and what he stood for. They did so, however, on the narrow, self-serving grounds that extreme leftists had embarrassed less-extreme leftists. Ayers and the Weather Underground "did real harm," according to Michael Kinsley. ‘Their victims were liberals: the millions of people who...opposed the Vietnam War but didn't hate their country."  As Katha Pollitt wrote in the Nation, "I wish Ayers would make a real apology for the harm he did to the antiwar movement and the left.... I'd like him to say he's sorry...he helped Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people."

In fact, Voegeli even quotes Michael Walzer as admitting reluctantly that while his wing of the movement (in the '60s they did have some activists in Michael Harrington’s democratic socialist group) did not spell America with a “k,” and did not wave Viet Cong flags at rallies and demonstrations, “we never figured out how to distance ourselves from them.” They did not because it was impossible: they had to attend rallies organized by the mass Left—whose leaders then, like International Answer today, were all anti-American and pro-Communist.

When he gets to the question of the New Left and its influence today, Voegeli provides more evidence for its continued legacy to today’s anti-American activists. Quoting Paul Berman, he notes Berman’s argument that their concept of participatory democracy  became the seedbed for SDS’s “degeneration into violence and irrationality,” and its “final embrace of totalitarian doctrines.”

Today, it is that SDS mentality -- not that of Johnson and Berman -- that makes up the contemporary Left’s ideology. And because the liberals adhered to the doctrine of “no enemies on the Left,” Voegeli adds,  the “respectable liberals couldn’t bring themselves to criticize the tame activists, who couldn’t bring themselves to dissociate from the fierce ones.” Thus, Voegeli writes, “the 60’s liberals in academia, journalism and politics fawned over the New Left radicals who delighted in tormenting them.”  After all, they thought they had a common enemy with the New Left, even though they opposed their tactics. And, worse than the New Left was the boogeyman of the Right. Hence they had a corollary to their doctrine, that of “no allies on the Right.”

That, of course, has lingered on to our own time. As Voegeli notes, Obama biographer David Remnick chose not to criticize Ayers in his book, preferring only to call him a “punching bag for the right wing.” As I pointed out in a blog I wrote on PJM, Remnick even allowed Ayers to state his own case in the pages of The New Yorker, and did not criticize him at all. Instead, he let Ayers lie about his own past, while writing that Ayers was no threat to the United States in our own time, and to bring up his name was the Republicans’ “vilest hour.”

So Voegeli concludes:

Barack Obama's Democratic Party is as congenial a home for the 1960s' rebels and their apologists as William Jennings Bryan's Democratic Party was for the 1860s' rebels and theirs. It looks non-judgmentally upon Bill Ayers's demand, as lethal to constitutionalism as Jefferson Davis's, that those who deplore a policy enacted by a democratically elected government may rightfully seek to thwart it by asserting all the prerogatives of revolutionaries without surrendering any of the rights of citizens. When the government dropped criminal charges against him because some of its evidence had been obtained by illegal wiretaps, Ayers gloated, “Guilty as hell, and free as a bird. It's a great country.”

The truth is that today’s liberals never came to terms with the legacy of the New Left, just as many Germans for a long time failed to come to terms with the Third Reich. Voegeli is on the mark when he writes: “The radical fringe wanted to live outside the law and also inside the law. Respectable liberals wanted to let them. They lent a hand by praising the radicals with faint damns, then quickly changing the subject to the extenuating circumstances that rendered the fringe's deeds kinda-sorta understandable, acceptable, and even admirable.”

The point is well-taken. Ayers’ years of bombing are in the past, but as his involvement with the campaign to delegitimize Israel reveals, “the political dangers of Ayers-ism remain.”  To win over the network of radical Islamists who join together with unreconstructed leftists, the issue must be addressed, and the sooner the better.