McAllister focuses on split in political left during Iraq talk

James McAllister, assistant professor of political science, addressed an alumni-packed Brooks-Rogers with a speech entitled “Should We Fight the War on Terrorism: The American Left and 9/11” on Oct. 12.

In his hour on the stage, McAllister discussed several factions of the American political left and assessed their debates about America’s relation to the world after last year’s terrorist attacks. He also answered questions from an involved and occasionally boisterous crowd.

McAllister opened his talk by stating that the events of 9/11 had a different impact on the American liberal and conservative communities. He said that while the right displays a generally unified front and has only minor disagreements about issues such as the Department of Homeland Security, the American political left has separated into two distinct factions. McAllister termed the two groups the “Chomsky” and “Hitchens” left.

According to McAllister, the Hitchens left subscribes generally to the views espoused by former Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens in viewing 9/11 as an example of Islamic fascism, comparable to the acts of Hitler. Considering the interests of the nation as a whole, this faction believes that the left has a moral duty to provide critical support to President Bush.

McAllister called the second group the Chomsky left, in reference to Noam Chomsky, a noted political dissident and professor of linguistics at MIT. According to McAllister, the Chomsky left has downplayed the atrocity of the events of 9/11, viewing it as an understandable response to legitimate grievances on the part of Osama bin Laden. It has also denied any positive role for the use of force in American policy. The Chomsky left believes that America should not be fighting a war, but should instead be working to remove the grievances of the perpetrators.

McAllister stated that while there was nothing wrong with setting forth a plan to deal with long-term grievances and social problems that give rise to Islamic fundamentalism, there are short term problems, such as the physical threat represented by al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden, that are not solved by this philosophy. McAllister also criticized the Chomsky left’s tendency to view anything patriotic as equivalent to angry jingoism, saying it was “an obnoxious set of attitudes.”

McAllister said the Chomsky left has claimed to be the only side worried about the death of innocent civilians due to war, but that it does not distinguish between sympathy for victims of intended attacks (such as 9/11) and the victims of unintended attacks (such as airstrikes).

Alternatively, the Hitchens left believes that the left does not need to side with every anti-American idea, and that it is foolish to see President Bush as worse than Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, McAllister said, the Hitchens left encourages the entire liberal spectrum to have an ambivalent view of American power, and not to condemn every act of American intervention simply on principle.

The Hitchens left also takes the view that some wars waged by America can be moral and just, even if innocent civilian lives are lost. “It is impossible to wage a war in which innocent civilians will not be killed,” McAllister said, and the consequences of not going to war must also be considered.

McAllister predicted that “the disagreements [among the left] are far too fundamental to be solved quickly,” but he also stated that “if the left is to become a viable and responsible force it must overcome crude and simple anti-Americanism.”

After his speech, McAllister took many questions from the alumni, including a question about student activism at Williams. He replied that he preferred debate forums to activism, and that he wished the College would sponsor more debate forums about Iraq.

When questioned specifically about the students, McAllister responded that Williams students are generally critical of society. “Willing to debate and to see both sides of an issue, they are always thinking” and less ideological or radical than their counterparts at the University of California at Berkeley, he said.

McAllister then entertained several questions from the audience about the current situation in the Middle East. The alumni were keenly interested as well and knowledgeable about the issue, which occasionally led to heated and argumentative discussion between the audience and the speaker. McAllister invited some audience members to contact him for further discussion.