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"I'm just as critical of Clinton for the so-called cultural issues," says Barbara Ehrenreich. "One of my favorite things about welfare reform is the provision of money for chastity training for low-income women, on the Republican theory that the source of female poverty is promiscuity. I don't see how he represents personal liberty, and when accused of being an adulterer he turned himself into a profamily politician. So I have no brief for him on either side of that great issue."
Yet, as the Clinton Question demonstrates, the rift between the class-based left and its cultural cadres remains as profound as ever. A class-conscious scholar like Gwendolyn Mink worries about what the left has lost in capitulating to Clinton: "We've always been consistent in our claims, and now we've entered into this realm of relativism in which we just sort of like the guy, or feel safer with him. This is going to have very negative consequences. For example, it's going to be very hard, the next time a woman comes forward in a sexual harassment case, to insist that her complaint be fairly heard." To Mink, the Juanita Broaddrick rape charge proves the point about Clinton: "This isn't about social conservatism, it's about civil rights law."
But to a cultural radical like critic Greil Marcus, Clinton's sexual sins are less disturbing than the impact his impeachment would have had on the entire political structure. "We're talking about preserving a weird and tricky system that has kept government relatively fluid and kept alive a spirit of self- invention over a long period of time. Somebody like Hitchens doesn't give a damn about all that. The world he operates in is one where people will continue to service each other, shall we say, no matter who is president."
For his part, Hitchens gives as good as he gets. Earlier this month, he fended off a roundtable of angry Nation staffers, and by now his rap against Clinton is a well-honed saber aimed at everyone from Gabriel García Márquez ("the stupidest stuff ever written about Clinton") and Jesse Jackson ("There's some log rolling going on there") to the entire "soft left" that phrase again.
"It starts with lesser-evilism, which is the advertised willingness to be fooled. Then there's political correctness, the bogus surrogate for politics. Clinton is a genius at this. If you take the Chinese soft-money scandal, his reaction was to say it's Asian bashing. Then there's the strong woman by his side, who fucked up health care and seems to be the bodyguard of a serial rapist." (Hitchens says he knows of three other women who are ready to make the same allegation as Broaddrick.)
Are Clinton's crimes greater than his predecessors'? "I don't think we know yet. Suppose there's a crisis in North Korea, which would also be a crisis with China. Suppose, on that day, Kathleen Willey comes to trial and Clinton has to weigh whether a certain action would be precipitous. I don't want to be around for that. When I point this out, people say, 'Didn't Reagan invade Grenada?' Yes, but he didn't do it to distract attention from the fact that he couldn't get it up with Nancy."
Hitchens does admit that the rage against Clinton is "something of a male preserve. It's true, he's the sort of guy who irritates you if you're straight, because you can see that he has success with women that he doesn't deserve. There's a certain kind of woman most women dislike but many men like girls thought to let down their side by being too easy and there's a corollary: a certain kind of man most men don't like, a cold charmer." Here one glimpses the personality Katha Pollitt described in her "Dear Christopher" letter, when she wrote, "the complexity and erudition that characterize your writing, even at its most polemical, go out the window when women are the subject."
Hitchens's response to that charge was to invoke the S-word. Stalinism is the ultimate imprecation for a leftie, and Hitchens throws it like a sucker punch. It even comes up when he explains why liberals seem paralyzed when it comes to dealing with Clinton: "I think a lot of people are mesmerized with fear by the extreme right. I describe it as Medusa's Head Syndrome: just produce it if you want to stop an argument. It's a Stalinist trick to say there is a crisis and anyone who can't get on board is a traitor."
As for the clear and present danger of being banished from certain dinner parties, Hitchens professes to be "delighted at being despised." Besides, he's convinced that, as Clinton's crimes are fully revealed, "people will be more open-minded about what I did, and maybe even understand it." But sympathy is scant solace to an avenger: "All of these extraordinary betrayals inflicted on masochists I wouldn't be interested in them protesting now."
It's tempting to see l'affaire Hitchens as the latest example of sectarianism run amok. After all, who really cares about the bad faith of social democrats or the opportunism of Marxists with a hard-on for prime time? But something much bigger than anyone's ideological dong is at stake. This dispute is not just about misplaced loyalties; it's about the future of progressive politics.