How Much History Does the American Left Need?

When it came to the ROTC at Columbia, students seemed uninterested in the ethics of Army activities. Credit: Creative Commons/pennstatenews.

I participated a few years ago in a public debate over whether to allow ROTC back onto Columbia University’s campus. When my turn at the microphone came, I talked about that week’s latest atrocity in Afghanistan: a U.S. helicopter attack that had killed some Afghan boys who were out on a hillside gathering firewood. It had been an accident. But to show that there was every reason to expect accidents like this, I listed the dates and places of U.S. military actions since 1900. A few of those actions involved armed assistance to American employers trying to break strikes. But the vast majority involved interventions in the affairs of some other country, interventions that in retrospect were widely acknowledged to have been shameful and illegal and that invariably resulted in a considerable number of civilian casualties, direct or indirect. Against this historical background, I asked those assembled to consider the larger question of what the U.S. military was for, not in theory (yes, it’s called the Department of Defense) but as proven again and again in practice. I asked them how well this record of military action accorded with the mission of a university.

Sadly, I found that my invitation to take the long historical view did not register as pertinent to the debate. And the vote that followed the public debate re-established by a broad margin the university’s eager participation in military recruitment. It was not that the undergraduates did not care at all about justice. They had been quite exercised by “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and after its repeal—the reason for the renewal of the ROTC campaign—many of them seemed pleased that, thanks to ROTC, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds would be able to get their college tuition paid by the Army, thereby making our campus a less unequal place. They seemed utterly uninterested in what the Army would most likely ask these same young people to do once they were overseas, and to whom. They were clearly uninterested in the historical record concerning this issue. To my eyes, their sense of justice seemed entirely restricted to the here and now.

At the time, this myopia was enraging to me. But I have since tried to step back a bit from my own emotional investments (thank you, Tikkun, for providing the occasion). And I find myself wondering whether my rage is the rage of a Leftist or the rage of a humanist. Humanists (that is, people who study the humanities) by definition exist in order to get people to remember things, especially old things, that they would not otherwise have a call to know in the ordinary course of their lives. The Left is not committed to that goal in the same way. In fact, I would say that it can’t be—not in the same way, not to the same extent. My proposal here is that one trap the Left faces, at least to the extent that that Left is located in the academy, is an overemphasis on making a political program out of what it already does for a living.

Politicizing Our Financial Crisis

Declaring that “what is to be done” is a restoration of memory and/or a choice as to which is the most usable of the Left’s pasts suits scholars’ professional inclinations. But the memory project is arguably less suited to the needs and desires of our wider constituency. The idea of taking our political bearings today either from a gallery of heroes or from more or less distant atrocities will run into a certain instinctive, perhaps unarticulated impatience.

On reflection, it seems to me that this impatience can’t be so easily dismissed. Without it, we would still have to deal with Serbs using their betrayal on the Plain of Blackbirds in 1389 as legitimation for the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s, six hundred years later, or Zionist settlers citing the Bible to establish their claim to the Occupied Territories. If the genocide of the Native Americans were only about what happened between 1620 and 1900, say—if it could not be reframed as an ongoing set of violations—it would make a lesser claim on our political attention. Go back far enough, and who is not an aggrieved victim, who is not a monstrous aggressor? Are we ready to start drawing political conclusions from, say, the active participation of the Comanche nation in the early nineteenth-century slave trade? There’s no end to it. That’s what my audience was no doubt feeling, if not in so many words, when I brought up the ignoble list of U.S. military involvements. Why was I dredging up this ancient history? They had a point. Sure, all that stuff was awful, but did I really think it should be politically decisive now?

Why is it so hard to connect the financial crisis with low wages, hence high debt, and with the need to finance foreign wars? The moral here would seem clear: higher wages and no more wars. Credit: Creative Commons/DVIDSHUB (above) and Creative Commons/SEIU International (below).

As an academic, I happily vow to pursue the task of acquainting the fresh young minds in my classes with as much pertinent history as I can. As a leftist, I’m not sure that my scholarly interests are a sufficient or trustworthy guide to what needs to be said. The word “presentism” rarely seems to be pronounced without contempt. But after all it represents an impulse that in one degree or another any leftist will be called to honor. The American Left needs all sorts of things. I’m not sure a better history is at the top of the list.

Top of the list for me—assuming we agree that a Left is not a Left if it is not pushing for serious economic equality—is knowledge of how to politicize the ongoing financial crisis. This was an opportunity that we arguably flubbed in 2008, but the window has not closed: look at how financial institutions have been reasserting their power and the substantial numbers of people who still view them with suspicion and resentment. So what are we up against? Why is it so hard to connect the financial crisis on the one hand with low wages, hence high debt (mortgage, credit card, student loan), and on the other with the need to finance foreign wars? The moral here would seem clear: higher wages and no more wars.

One complication, as Julia Ott suggests, is that the mentality of Wall Street has come to permeate the mentality of Main Street via investment in retirement funds. The more ordinary people have their pension money, such as it is, invested in the stock market, the harder it is to point the finger at the Mitt Romneys or the figure of the rentier—a word we barely know how to pronounce, let alone make political hay of. And it’s that much harder to win support for serious regulation of the financial industry. I’ll conclude with a small, non-utopian wish: it would be a step forward for the Left in this country if everyone knew why “balancing the budget” doesn’t mean the same thing for a family and for a government.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2014 print issue: Does America Need a Left? Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)


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