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Left Out of the Left

An old acquaintance, who fought in the Vietnam War, when the U.S. war there was in its infancy, said “You can take the man [sic] out of the war, but you can’t take the war out of the man.” He demonstrated the latter decades later while he was grilling food at a barbeque in his backyard and had a flashback of a horrific episode in which he was involved in Vietnam when innocent civilians were killed.

I now find myself with a similar feeling so many years later about the political Left in the U.S. It has literally been decades since any serious opposition to the power elite has had significant influence on any policy in this nation (Readers can argue that the success of the gay rights movement in recent years is an exception, but I would argue that the frontal assault on women’s rights might “balance” out those gains). September 2001 was perhaps the nail in the coffin of any meaningful debate about domestic and foreign policy. “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” was the way George W. Bush put it as he began the endless wars that continue to this day. The political, economic, and social turf is now split up between the neoconservatives and the neoliberals and those on the Left are in a political desert, exiled. A candidate who opposes war in the U.S. has about as much chance of leading the nation, as does the proverbial snowball. Check out every single major candidate’s position on war and peace in the 2016 presidential campaign to verify the latter. But still, “You can take the man [sic] out of the political Left in the U.S., but you can’t take the Left out of the man.”

A few years ago I wrote a commentary piece about a road trip to Canada during the summer of 1971. In it, I noted how good it felt to be out of a country involved in an endless and immoral (Is there any other kind?) war, if only for a short time. One of the participants in that trip stopped writing to me following the essay’s publication, obviously offended by the reference to being briefly away from what seemed like an eternity of war, or perhaps I challenged her newfound idea of patriotism?  She had been a committed antiwar activist during the Vietnam War and prided herself as being in the feminist vanguard of the antiwar movement. She now categorized our youthful idealism and antiwar sentiments as being naïve (“We were only kids back then.”) in a discussion about my road trip piece.

Political activism in the U.S. is now all about identity politics. And because of the strong thrust for political correctness that followed the end of the Vietnam antiwar movement, it is impossible to criticize a single aspect of any of these movements without a swift and sometimes vicious reaction. The latter is like the orthodoxy of the Old Left when criticism of its agenda was tantamount to exile, which is also sort of humorous (unless freedom, or work, or life itself were lost for one’s political beliefs and actions) since there were relatively few Communists, and being ostracized from the Old Left did not generally have  lifelong repercussions, as those who named names found out during the McCarthy era of the 1950s. Tragically for the Old Left, it was all about political orthodoxy.

Now, commenting on the lack of major results of the environmental movement, or a critique of the unquestioning and unequivocal acceptance of the issue of militarism in this society is tantamount to political suicide. There is almost no press coverage of the many wars that the U.S. now fights and what was left of the antiwar movement crumbled inexplicably during Obama’s first term in office, as the so-called antiwar liberals abandoned ship. No one will publish a writer who questions why inclusiveness in the military may not be the most progressive of stands, especially after the September 2001 attacks against the U.S. Talk about political orthodoxy!

Over the past quarter century, I’ve written and published several articles about the massacre at Kent State in May 1970. Now it seems that as Kent State and Jackson State pass from tragedy into history, almost no one is interested in the issues raised by those atrocities.

Finally, remaining an activist and writer on the Left doesn’t feel all that rewarding anymore. Going to demonstrations became more and more of an isolating experience from my point of view as the millennium arrived. I’d often go to an event and feel no more involved than if I had remained away. And there seems to be an almost complete disconnect between the varying factions of what remains of the Left. Often an action takes place and it is all but impossible to learn about the event before it happens, which adds another layer to the feeling of being disconnected.

As an example of the disconnectedness that I feel, I wrote to Democracy Now when I won my case against the FBI about the record that they (the FBI) maintained about me from the Vietnam War era. I thought it might be of interest to Democracy Now to report on how the FBI can maintain a record on someone without justification (in my opinion) for so long. With government surveillance at historic levels, I thought that the case of removing one single political record from their files might be of passing interest. I even wrote two separate emails to Juan Gonzalez, a host on Democracy Now, since he once stated on the program that he always responds to his mail. I also wrote the program to ask why no war resisters from the Vietnam era ever appeared in recent years and only the testimony of veterans of recent wars seemed to be worth reporting on in the program. For all of the communications that I’ve sent to Democracy Now, I’ve never received a single response. And as far as broadcast journalism goes, Democracy Now is the only show in town for the political Left.

This is a society that isolates people from action in favor of materialism, or the pressing demands of their lives. The demise of the political Left in the U.S. further hastens that increasing sense of isolation. Is it possible that in a society that isolates people from one another that the best a political activist can hope for is to be left alone?

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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