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Left Out

Washington Diarist

I wasn't supposed to be here. I was supposed to be at a ball, a genuine inaugural ball with tuxedos and presidential seal-emblazoned square napkins and succulent miniature crab cakes. Regrettably, we're a liberal magazine and, consequently, many of us are less than perfectly organized (although, at The New Republic, some of us prefer to think of ourselves as neo- disorganized)—and, well, I failed to honor certain press-credentialing deadlines. Instead, I was forced to cover "counter-inaugural events," and, as a result, last Thursday night I found myself sitting in a low-budget church on G Street in downtown Washington listening to speakers at an International Socialist Organization (ISO)-sponsored gathering called "Town Hall: Empire and Resistance."

NEEDLESS TO SAY, this wasn't much fun. I could have thrown a stone as far as my strength allowed and still have been certain of not hitting a crab cake. On the other hand, everyone else seemed to be having a good time. The 100 or so people there frequently applauded and hollered, and, as expected, phrases like "exposing Bush for what he is—a cold-blooded killer" were particular hits. I didn't even think there was much to report on. After all, who cares what the ideological fringe of the losing side has to say? But the more I heard, the more I became convinced that I had discovered something truly threatening: This band of socialists was the most effective recruiting tool for the Republican Party I'd ever encountered. 

TO BEGIN WITH, there were the posters on the wall: money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation. Let's leave aside that the meter is somehow dissatisfying (nine syllables followed by eight). The main point is, if the shallowness of this statement bothers you, to what party do you look for comfort? To the Democrats, many of whom condemn building firehouses in Baghdad and closing firehouses at home? Or, do you say to yourself in that moment, "I don't much care for Newt Gingrich—nor does anyone else, for that matter—but I bet he hates that goddamn poster as much as I do"? I know where I was leaning. 

THEN THERE WAS the pooh-poohing of elections—any elections. Former soldier Stan Goff (supposedly of the Delta Force, Rangers, and Special Forces) spoke at length about the evils of capitalism and declared, "We ain't never resolved nothing through an election." This drew loud, sustained applause. Nothing to get worked up about, I thought; just a bit of leftist trash talk. But today it seemed particularly bad. It wasn't just that I was missing what might be lovely canaps (or perhaps spring rolls brought about on trays with delectable dipping sauce); rather, it was the thought that the speaker was dismissing something that Afghans had recently risked their lives to participate in, something Iraq's insurgents view as so transformative that they are murdering scores of Iraqis to prevent it. No, what I needed to counter this speaker was not a Democrat like me who might argue that elections were, in fact, important. What I needed was a Republican like Arnold, who would walk up to him and punch him in the face.

BUT THE WORST came with the final speaker, a woman by the name of Sherry Wolf, a member of the editorial board of International Socialist Review. She talked, and talked, and talked; terms like "architects of the slaughter," "war criminal," and "Noam Chomsky" wafted about the room; my eyes grew so bleary that I ceased taking notes. But then she brought up the insurgents in Iraq. Sure they were bad, she admitted: "No one cheers the beheading of journalists." But, she continued, they had a "right" to rebel against occupation. Then she read from a speech by the activist Arundhati Roy: "Of course, [the Iraqi resistance] is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery, and criminality. But, if we were to only support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity." In sum, Wolf said, the choice boiled down to supporting occupation or resistance, and we had to support resistance. So there it was. I even forgot about the Constitution Ball for a minute. Apparently, we were to view the people who set off bombs killing over 150 peaceful Shia worshippers in Baghdad and Karbala as "resistance" fighters. And the audience seemed entirely fine with this. These weren't harmless lefties. I didn't want Nancy Pelosi talking sense to them; I wanted John Ashcroft to come busting through the wall with a submachine gun to round everyone up for an immediate trip to Gitmo, with Charles Graner on hand for interrogation.

I LEFT EARLY (I couldn't stomach the question-and-answer session) and made my way to the Metro. In the station were people wearing fur coats and tuxedos and lovely gowns and shiny shoes. I assumed they were in town to celebrate Bush's reelection, and, for a moment, I wanted to join in. After my session with the ISO, they suddenly looked, well, so appealing. Maybe I was feeling like New York Times columnist David Brooks after Osama bin Laden released another tape last October. Brooks wondered whether John Kerry felt the evil of bin Laden "deep in his gut—not just in his brain or in his policy statements, but ... so deep in his soul that it consumes him." It was a fair question. 

DURING THE COLD WAR, part of what made communism so dangerous was that many of its stated ideals overlapped with those of modern liberalism— anticolonialism, equal rights for women and minorities, economic justice. Today's Islamic militants, by contrast, stand for no values that a lefty could love. It takes a Sherry Wolf to believe that the shooting of Iraqi election workers is an outgrowth of the shared value of anti-imperialism. But, today, you get the sense that Democrats—who happily attend Michael Moore premieres— simply disagree with her; they don't hate what she stands for. Having attended college in New York City, I know what it's like to be confronted with some of the more irritating forms of campus leftism. Yet I never quite understood why, ultimately, such leftism should drive sensible people away from liberalism. An hour on G Street made it a little more understandable. Sure, the Democrats might be eager to smoke Osama out of his cave. But, sometimes, you just want to be on the side of whoever is more likely to take a bunker-buster to Arundhati Roy.

This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.