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Why There Cannot Be a Decent Left: An Answer to Richard Landes

Last week, I wrote a column challenging Professor Richard Landes of Boston University to respond to the critique I wrote of his own arguments against Judith Butler. In that article, I argued that well-meaning men of the Left like Prof. Landes should give up trying to tell people like Butler that the reasons for their hostility to Israel contradict the humanist values of the Left. I argued that it is a fool’s errand trying to save the Left from itself; that in today’s world, what defines being on the Left are precisely the kind of positions Landes and others disdain.

Writing a day after my column appeared -- ironically on the anniversary of 9/11, on which most of the Western Left took the position that “the chickens had come home to roost” and that the attack on the United States by al-Qaeda was nothing but payback for American imperialism -- Landes countered that I was only talking about “the revolutionary Left,” whereas when he talks about the Left he is referring to what he terms a “demotic” Left. Its principles, he wrote, are really basic “liberal” principles -- those of “free people, entering with personal dignity into uncoerced relations with others,” including “the dignity of manual labor … equality before the law,” and “the value of human life (rather than the sacrifice of the well-being of the many for the pleasure of the few.)”

These principles, Landes argues, were “hijacked by revolutionaries on the Left in the 2oth Century,” from Hitler to George Bernard Shaw, Heidegger and Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Noam Chomsky, all of whom, he writes, defend “revolutionary state terrorists.” Landes praises the work of Bruce Bawer on the threat of Islamism in the West, and he accuses scholars like Judith Butler of adapting “aspects of the authoritarian personality” and of identifying with aggressors against the humanist values he supports.

Landes’ flawed argument falls apart when he writes -- after showing how stupid people like Butler are when they argue that terrorist groups like Hamas are part of a “progressive social movement” -- that “every decent person is on the demotic Left.” What he has done, literally, is to argue that all those who oppose evil are on the Left. Really? Is he now going to therefore continue to argue that Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and other conservative opponents of Hamas, who unlike so many of the Left, fully realize the evil of that movement, are all on the Left? I agree, as I said last week, with Landes’ own attacks on Butler. But I am a conservative. According to Landes, however, I too am a leftist. Or, are the Republicans I named and myself as well all leftists?