Just Our Bill?
Ever since he signed an affidavit last February claiming that his friend Sidney Blumenthal told him Monica Lewinsky was "a stalker" thereby contradicting Blumethal's sworn testimony Christopher Hitchens has been the scourge of the literary left. Hitch the Snitch is the mildest of the nicknames that have been pinned on him. "A Judas," Alexander Cockburn snarled. "An informer," Victor Navasky railed. "I don't think anyone would call you a feminist," Katha Pollitt wrote in a "Dear Christopher" letter that ran in The Nation as a response to his own apologia. Lefties who lunch have hurled even harsher charges. The writer Edward Jay Epstein claims he once heard Hitchens deny the Holocaust. ("A demented liar," is Hitchens's response.)
For his part, Hitchens is crying all the way to Meet the Press. Though he staunchly denies taking a fall for fame, notoriety is the best publicity for a brainy Brit who can't even say "Yipee-kay-yie-yay." As a result of his sins, Hitchens's forthcoming book about Clinton which turns on the thesis that the president's sexual proclivities are an apt metaphor for his political corruption is likely to be taken far more seriously than if he had confined his thoughts to The Nation and Vanity Fair.
Hitchens's book, No One Left To Lie To, will join a pack of tell-alls that seem destined to turn April into the cruelest month for Clinton. There's George Stephanopoulos's $2.75 million memoir, All Too Human, in which the author casts himself as John Doe 1, another victim of the Great Compartmentalizer; and Michael Isikoff's Uncovering Clinton, in which the Newsweek sleuth inserts himself into the middle of Monicagate as every insider journalist with a clothing budget seems compelled to do. "Clintonism poisons everything it touches," as Hitchens writes.
Whether or not you consider him a pinko self-promoter, Hitchens has accomplished something tangible with his telltale ways. He has thrown into high relief a roiling debate about whether progressives are soft on Clinton. There are no trends on the left only tendencies but an unofficial survey of writers and activists who call themselves radicals, socialists, or just plain progressives affirms that the Clinton Question has become the hottest topic of debate since, well, Israel.
Like most disputes on the left, this one has gone unnoticed by the mainstream media, which prefer to cast the battle of Bill in neatly dichotomous terms: liberals adore him, conservatives abhor him. In fact, on the left, Clinton inspires feelings that are ambivalent at best. "I don't feel any attachment to him," says Gloria Steinem, who is widely considered a feminist Friend of Bill. "I feel an aversion to his adversaries."
To many progs, the impeachment seemed like a clear and present danger "a peaceful attempt to assassinate the president," in Steinem's words. Though Hitchens dismisses the idea that the campaign against Clinton was an attempted coup, it certainly seemed to many activists that his removal from office would have ushered in a period of right-wing dominance. Even a hardcore radical like Mary Lou Greenberg of the activist group Refuse & Resist speaks of "the dire consequences for the people" in a takeover by the Christian right. That's why Greenberg, who is also a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, felt compelled to defend a president who declared that "the age of big government is over." She took her cue from "the errors of the Communist forces in Weimar Germany. One error was not taking fascism seriously, and another was not uniting with a segment of the ruling class to defeat these fascist forces."
While Clinton's appeal remains unwavering among minorities (he's the most popular figure in the black community except for Jesse Jackson, says Manning Marable, who recently completed a nationwide survey of black political attitudes), in activist circles he has long been regarded as a wolf in multiculti clothing. "I don't really get it," says Gwendolyn Mink, the author of Welfare's End. "The president has added more death-penalty crimes than any of his predecessors, and you certainly know about the racial effect of the death penalty. He's enacted a welfare reform that not only cancels an entitlement but also takes away rights from a certain caste of women. He pushed through NAFTA, which undermines the position of American workers. If there's a right-wing conspiracy, it's Bill Clinton."
Manning Marable has an explanation for the spell Clinton has cast on the African American community. "I mean, he's one of the few white people who knows all three stanzas of 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' " says the director of Columbia University's Institute for Research in African American Studies. "And when he works a black audience, everything in his behavior shows that he feels at home." Then, too, notes Marable, "black people are not surprised by the contradictions in Clinton's conduct. We understand the gross behavior of the white ruling class." Finally, there's a certain realpolitik behind the song and dance: "Clinton appears to many black people as the left of what's possible in national politics."
A similar sense of Clinton as the lesser evil informs what many feminist and gay activists feel about him. "I lived through Reagan and Bush on AIDS," says Urvashi Vaid, director of the Policy Institute at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "It was a nightmare. You had Bill Bennett and Gary Bauer throwing up all sorts of obstacles. To me, that's immoral so I don't see a greater moral deficiency in this administration."
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."
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.
"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.
Already, the right is rubbing its hands over what The Weekly Standard calls "the silence of the Dems." As Noemie Emery declared in its latest issue, "Every feminist Democrat . . . who ever backed the Violence Against Women Act and then either defended Bill Clinton or has said nothing about him, is now fair game." This may be whistling in the wind, but the prospect of being saddled with Clinton's sins is something the left can't ignore.
"There's been a certain duplicity on the part of many progressives," says Barbara Ehrenreich. "It has to do with the feeling of being part of the majority. It's interesting that the right likes to feel it's a tiny beleaguered minority, whereas the left loves the opposite delusion, which is that it's part of some vast groundswell that's not getting through to the media. You have to get beyond that and live with being a minority, and make the best possible attempt to change that status by arguing your case, not muffling it."
After all, what if we had put up with Vietnam to preserve the War on Poverty? What if we'd let Reagan's popularity push us into a permanent retreat from politics? And what if, after 20 years in the wilderness, we settle for coffee with Bill and Hill as a surrogate for speaking truth to power? Then we have met the enemy, and he is us.
Research: Steph Watts
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.