Just Our Bill?

The Left Reconsiders Its Relationship to Clinton and Comes Out Swinging— Especially at Christopher Hitchens

Indeed, Clinton has been better on AIDS funding than his predecessors, just as he has staunchly defended abortion rights, two areas— along with education— in which his case can be made on substantial grounds. "The first thing he did on entering the White House was to end the policy forbidding abortion in any country receiving foreign aid," Steinem recalls.

Yet, even as the A-list of the women's movement took to the airwaves in Clinton's defense during the impeachment, a less celebrated group of feminists hammered away at both his behavior and his policies. "I wish, at times, that Pat Ireland [of the National Organization for Women] would say we like him because he's prochoice, but we think he's a bastard," says Barbara Ehrenreich, one of Clinton's sharpest critics. "Sure he's been good on abortion, but the biggest setback for women in many years was welfare reform. Adults on welfare are mostly women."

Steinem points out that she held a hunger strike in front of the White House when the welfare bill was passed, but she maintains that "in an ultraright time, Clinton's policies are both a disappointment and a better alternative." To which Ehrenreich replies: "Looking at it from some remove, you can see that, on the one hand you have the Republican right, which is rooted in nationally based capital and which has its ferocious social campaign, and on the other hand you have the Democrats, who are rooted in international capital and who don't have that social agenda— but who are just as bent on savaging the working class. If that's my choice, I'd sooner go after them all."

Hitch the Snitch: delighted to be despised
Hitch the Snitch: delighted to be despised

At first glance, this may seem like a clash between the "hard" and "soft" left, but as Ellen Willis notes, "Anyone who uses that dichotomy gives themselves away. We all know who's hard and who's soft, don't we?" Yet these terms hearken back 150 years to the war between Marxists and Socialists. In the 1960s, the battle was joined by a new tendency: identity politics. This largely middle-class ideology has been rubbing up against the class-based left for 30 years now, and Clinton rides this conflict like a rhinestone cowboy. He has effectively supplanted the far left by fashioning his own coalition of labor, women, and minorities, combining it with Silicon Valleyites and soccer moms. It's triangulation with a vengeance, and it's undermined a more radical politics.

"Labor and liberals have become a safe wing of the Democratic Party," says labor historian Stanley Aronowitz. "They feel they have such a precarious hold on power that they can't afford to alienate him. John Sweeney [head of the AFL-CIO] has been so soft on Clinton that he doesn't know where his ass ends and his interests begin. Is there a payback? In a pig's ass— because they're so worried about the right that they're not about to make any noise."

Combine the president's manipulation of the left's domestic agenda with his outrageous military strikes and you've got a leader every bit as martial as Lyndon Johnson and a good deal less activist. It's these foreign adventures that the anti-Clinton left is focusing on (in part because they're easier for radicals to deal with than the sex scandals are). Horrified by support for the bombings by Congressional progressives, a group of historians has been circulating a petition to"impeach Clinton for the right reasons." So far, about 240 prominent scholars— including Noam Chomsky and Edward Said— have signed the petition. No one expects it to change history, but at least it's a manifesto of dissent. As Sam Husseini of the left-wing Institute for Public Accuracy puts it, "Supporting Clinton is assuring that you will get the worst possible Clinton."

"In a political sense, I'm an anti-Clintonite," says cultural critic Ellen Willis. But she distinguishes between those who want Clinton removed because of Iraq and those who "essentially agree with the right that he should be impeached because of his conduct with women. I think this latter group has the same fundamental motivations as the right. The bottom line is that Clinton represents someone whose sexual persona violates their sense of traditional masculinism. Someone like Clinton was never supposed to be elected. And that's the cultural unconscious of some people on the left."

It's certainly true that Hitchens, like Nat Hentoff, is antichoice and frequently critical of identity politics— and the venom in their bite can match any fanged conservative's. Historian and gay activist Martin Duberman calls this crew "the angry white men of the left. They say they understand our oppression, but the real issue for them is class. What they really want is for us to drop our group identities in order to come back under this central banner."

Just because these guys are progs doesn't mean they feel less marginalized by the changes in American life, or less appalled by the varieties of sexual experience. Yet, this being the left, the factions don't quite fit the mold of sexual politics. Some men Duberman considers angry and white— such as Michael Tomasky and Todd Gitlin— have defended Clinton, if only because he echoes their consensus liberalism, while radical feminists with militant class politics are leaders of the disloyal opposition.

« Previous Page
Next Page »