The Late Great Left
The Left I Used to Like Talking To
Back in the early 1990s, I came back to a college that I'd left, and found -- for a brief forgotten moment -- great solace in the political left.
I had dropped out part of the way through university and fallen on hard times. During those hard times, I had seen some very ugly things going on in the homosexual world of the Bronx, where I lived. I saw that people who were poor and desperate would trade their dignity and chastity for rent. I saw that men with low self-esteem would fill the voids in their lives with addictions like drugs, party boys, pornography, and pretty male prostitutes.
When I had set aside enough cash to return to Yale, I wandered into feminist criticism as part of my plans for a senior essay in political science. Cathy Cohen, a radical black lesbian, was teaching a seminar on the politics of AIDS. During that autumn seminar, I was introduced to Foucault, Blanchot, and Arendt.
Feminism had gone pop. Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Katie Roiphe, and Camille Paglia were bringing academic jargon to the New York Times bestseller list. And a new ideology was blossoming, called "queer theory," which was going to dispense with the rigid old binaries of gay/straight, to encompass a larger analysis of the many faces of sexual oppression.
Two feminists stood out as writers I wanted to study for my senior essay: Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. Both of them had mobilized a feminist movement against pornography. John Stoltenberg fascinated me as a feminist gay man who had joined the MacKinnon and Dworkin movement against pornography. Over the Christmas break, I read Larry Kramer's 1978 novel Faggots, detailing the oppressiveness of sexual excess among post-Stonewall gay men.
One day, I walked frightfully into Cathy Cohen's office to find out what grade she'd given me on my thesis, The Pornographic Regime. It was over 80 pages long. My argument was that pornography was not merely sexually explicit media, but rather a larger machine of social control. To give free rein to the pornographic imagination, I asserted, was to empower a specific economic regime that would pervert constitutional law in order to take away people's capacity to govern themselves. While women were the most obvious victims of the Pornographic Regime, I believed that gay men would be next, and finally all men, controlled by an unfettered collective id serving the agenda of those with greatest power in society.
My fear was that Cohen would tell me I had flunked. She must have known that I was Christian and that my view of the pornographic regime was inflected with religious guilt over what I'd seen and done in the homosexual lifestyle. As a radical lesbian, she would probably not take my thesis kindly. It could easily come across as a man using feminist rhetoric to re-inscribe patriarchal views on modesty and chastity. Was I doomed to have to return to the filthy basements from which I'd just returned, because I wrote a paper to anger a leftist professor?
She greeted me politely, with a poker face. I'd gotten an A-. In fact, the other reader who'd signed off on the thesis was a radical feminist. I was going to get my Yale degree. The years of struggle were over in more ways than one. The left had shown me, at the very least, that I wasn't alone.
Where has that left gone?
Fast-forward twenty years. The day after the poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb, which would lead to President Obama's perplexing quest to launch missiles into Syria, I sat in an English department retreat. Twenty of my left-wing colleagues surrounded me in a semicircle as we discussed the future of critical theory.
It was my first retreat with tenure. Most of my colleagues have been cordial and unproblematic. A certain gaggle has warred incessantly with me since the moment I arrived, for they could not abide by the thought of having a conservative peer. They'd conspired with each other behind closed doors to sabotage my relationship with students, to block me from grant money, to isolate me from other professors, and to batter me psychologically, I assume in the hope that I would simply leave.
Posters promoting Obama had hung outside many of their doors in 2008. Fewer Obama signs had been brandished in 2012, but nonetheless, as I'd been told by one senior colleague just before he and two other professors bounced me off the department listserv: "this department expressed great joy when Obama won [...] a junior colleague should listen a bit more than be heard." In other words, shut up. This is a left-wing department, and we don't respect you enough to let you say a single word in our presence.
At the retreat, I thought less about critical theory and more about the fact that the left no longer offered the illumination of twenty years earlier. Critical theory has gone through successive decades of self-loathing and soul-searching, and it hasn't been able to stop its steady march into smug satisfaction and hopeless irrelevance. All the camps my colleagues speak for -- the pacifists, the queer theorists, the feminists, the multiculturalists, the postcolonialists, the Marxists -- can offer nothing of substance to the young man I was in 1992. That young man was lost and searching for a way to understand life as an outsider. That young man needed some community of thinkers to give him the tools to deconstruct the invisible laws that wasted so many lives.
Come to think of it, I am still that young man. It is the left that's changed. It can't speak to any of those queries, because the left proved itself infinitely corruptible. It can no longer speak to people who want to be purified or cured of corruption around them. Part of this stems from the fact that the left simply doesn't talk to anybody anymore. Even themselves.
The left browbeat and crushed the stodgy old men who preceded them; the left got tenure; the left took over schools; and in 2008, the left took over the government. With the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and Obama's decision to place females in combat, they can't even claim to be unfairly treated by the military. They run the IRS, they run police unions, they control all the universities, and they own the soul of a United States president who is itching to bomb Syria for some reason.
Of course, people on the left, including a number of my colleagues, are going to protest like damsels shocked -- shocked! shocked! -- that someone they supported would be willing to lie and kill people in Syria for no good reason. But their protestations are all the more offensive because they come so late and sound so pathetically clueless.
Conservatives have been sounding the alarms about Barack Obama since 2007, especially when news broke about Jeremiah Wright. We noticed that Obama's viewpoints were inconsistent, his stories changed, and he had a cold, calculating attitude that couldn't be trusted. Even the one controversy that leftists always flagged as evidence of conservative quackery -- the birth certificate row -- didn't reflect well on Barack Obama. He had circulated a brochure from his literary agent indicating that he was born in Kenya. Even if the birthers were quacks, what does that say about him?
The academy is a microcosm of the larger left that has glutted itself on self-serving strategy. (Brent Bozell wrote an engrossing column about the weakness of the antiwar left in the face of Barack Obama's warmongering over Syria.) Yes, I am bitter about having been perennially dismissed by a left in directionless decadence -- comfortable, rude, snobbish, tenured, and totally incapable of taking responsibility for the monsters it has unleashed.
But I am also mournful. Had I been born twenty years later, and wandered back to college after similar scandals, to find this left waiting for me, I wonder how my life would have been different. There are debates we conservatives will never have, because the once-great left stopped talking to us and then infected itself with some fatal intellectual palsy and simply choked on its own undigested vomit. How sad.
Robert Oscar Lopez edits English Manif.