Abu-Jamal and the Costs of Reflexive Anti-Leftism
In the interests of showing that I will disagree as loudly with my friends as with my foes….
Mark invokes what has become a stand-in for every “loony left” cliche there is, the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. If perhaps you haven’t heard the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal, he is a man convicted of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia, and sentenced to death for doing so. His case has become something of a cause celebre on the left, owing to questions about either his factual guilt, or the impartiality and fairness of the actors in his trial (and thus the trial itself). Personally, I don’t hold strong opinions either way about the case, but I do have to say that many of the statements by the judge, particularly during his sentencing of Abu-Jamal, seems to me to make it abundantly clear that Abu-Jamal’s political views (Abu-Jamal is a Black Panther and radical African separatist) were illegitimately considered in sentencing Abu-Jamal to death. I could easily be wrong; I just don’t think in being wrong I’m somehow handing away my membership card to the “To Be Taken Seriously” club.
I am disinterested in (metaphorically) legislating the Mumia Abu-Jamal case in this space. I only have to ask the question: based on the available information, should questioning the fairness and legality of his trial, conviction or sentencing relegate someone permanently to the ranks of the unserious? That, after all, is the point of treating the Abu-Jamal case like the anti-leftist dog whistle it has become. One only needs to say “Mumia”, and eyes glaze over, discretion leaves, and we are suddenly aware that the person being considered is “one of those”, unworthy of invitation into the realm of the thoughtful. Serious people can disagree about controversial matters, and while I don’t think we have to take everyone who believes in a flat earth or fluoride in the drinking water as government mind control as a serious participant in the conversation, I think we are much too quick to bring people into that level of dismissal. Arguing that Abu-Jamal is entirely innocent of his crimes is going too far, as I see it. But does that really mean that anyone who thinks so is necessarily unworthy of listening to? I’m biased. But I don’t think so. And I think it has everything to do with the cultural definition of leftism as it exists in our media.
Sadly, this is not just a phenomenon that we find regarding Abu-Jamal, but of a piece with a sustained campaign to exclude leftists from serious political discourse.
Ross Douthat, who I have great respect for, wrote a First Things piece (I can’t find a link, sorry) about the Iraq war, recently quoted in New York magazine, in which he wrote
I supported the war at the time, and it was a popular war, backed by liberals as well as conservatives … It was critiqued, of course, but mainly by left-wing shouters like the ‘poets against the war,’ and what seem in hindsight like the best arguments against the invasion—the conservative arguments against it—were often conspicuous in their absence.”
You see, what is important, really important, is preserving the cultural critique. Above the need to actually sort out who was right and who was wrong about a disastrous, hideously expensive, bloody and intractable fiasco like the second Iraq war, the need to determine who is serious reigns. The need to sort our political actors into the camps of the suitable and the not is the only lasting imperative. So much the worse for leftist shouters like myself that being unquestionably correct about one of the great policy decisions of my lifetime has such little salience, when weighted against the vital dictate to occupy the narrow confines of the Serious.
Poets, presumably, can’t be serious, or smart, or politically saavy. Poets couldn’t possibly understand the horror of war, I suppose, or have had the foresight to see what a massive disaster Iraq was to become. Never mind that these hypothetical poets were able to come to the correct conclusion about the Iraq War, an achievement which eluded Ross Douthat. No, that discretion and predictive ability is of course of little value when married to the wrong kind of politics, and more importantly, the wrong kind of cultural branding. This is why the ANSWER set is to receive no credit whatsoever for being so entirely correct about the merits of the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter if you’re right, only that you act and dress and talk in the way prescribed by the Serious. Better to be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong reasons! Better to be a serious person leading your country to an unmitigated fiasco than some left-winger counseling discretion and restraint. Priorities, people.
You can’t be too hard on Ross about this. This is what happens when a rhetoric of exclusion has grown to include such a large slice of political and philosophical life. The left-wing– you know, once half of the political spectrum, a vast, diverse and ideologically and intellectually teeming slice of thinkers– has been pushed out of the conversation. This would be wrong in general, but it has sadder in the wake of current events, which demonstrate how utterly necessary the political left is. There have been two vitally important lessons of the last decade of American political life: that wars of aggression, particularly those designed to spread democracy and increase stability, undermine democracy and destroy stability; and that the free market is not self-regulating and wise but rather requires strong hands to reign in risk and prevent human greed from damaging everyone working within those markets.
Neither of these notions, skepticism of aggressive war or skepticism of unfettered capitalism, are necessarily or completely the best way of looking at the world. And I should be clear: it is hardly the case that it is only or primarily conservatives who have marginalized leftists. No, as a matter of fact, it has often been liberals who have done the most work to silence or degrade their leftward flank, good liberal commissars like Peter Beinart organizing rhetorical culls of the unworthy. Whatever the case is, though, this is true: this is a country that needs the leftist critique, needs a counterbalance for the unrepentantly aggressive militarism of the mainstream right and the liberal hawks, and needs a vociferous opponent of the reflexive bias that mainstream political movements demonstrate in favor of corporations, the moneyed, and the powerful. This crisis shows us that.
But we can’t have the left and its necessary contributions when we’re stuck in a discourse that marginalizes without argument, excludes without discretion, and assumes away the opinions of many by trafficking in reductive cultural cues.