It is always difficult to explain to friends who picture themselves standing to my left why I cringe at words like the ones Jeremy Corbyn employed in his victory statement the other day.
Corbyn said: “Let us be a force for change in the world, a force for humanity in the world, a force for peace in the world, and a force that recognizes we cannot go on like this, with grotesque levels of global inequality, grotesque threats to our environment all around the world,” and so forth, on behalf of the safety of refugees and the well being of the poor.
I am in favor of every one of those points, and I think it is disgusting when I hear anybody sneer at any of them. And yet, when certain kinds of people invoke language of this sort, I hear a different speech entirely, which is in favor of dictatorship. I cannot point to the precise element that makes me hear the different speech, and yet I know imprecisely what is the element. It is the earnest tone. The more earnest the speech seems to be, the more frightening is the tone; and, if the speaker is unaware of the frightening tone, the frightening quality doubles or triples.
If the speaker seems modestly earnest, I am convinced that he or she must be an admirer of the Hugo Chávez regime in Venezuela, which, in damaging democracy and press freedom in that country, has destroyed for a generation Venezuela’s chances to put its oil wealth to good use. If the speech seems keenly earnest, I am convinced that the speaker admires the Castro brothers for having destroyed Cuban culture under the iron heel of a dictatorship that has reigned unchallenged since 1959. If the earnest quality increases yet again, I become convinced that the speaker must admire dictatorships of the right, as well. A truly earnest speaker makes me imagine that, at the end of the day, he or she will have words to say in defense of Vladimir Putin and his businessman’s dictatorship and his aggressive wars against his neighbors in Georgia and Ukraine and his promoting of a new right-wing program of nationalism and homophobia for the whole of Europe. And if the earnestness increases yet again, I know entirely what to expect.
And so it turns out to be with Jeremy Corbyn. The Chávez regime, exactly. The Castro dictatorship, yet again. The defense of Putin and his foreign conquests, another yes. And thus to the inevitable endpoint, which is the Jews, as shown by Corbyn’s denomination of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”—though Hamas and Hezbollah are, both of them, explicit in their genocidal intentions.
How can this be? I think it is the product of a certain kind of blinkered vanity that calls itself “leftist.” You begin by rightly decrying poverty and inequality in your own country. You rightly declare yourself the enemy of your country’s elites, who, in one fashion or another, are responsible for the unequal distribution of wealth. But then, yielding to the pleasures of hatred, you declare your enmity to be all-encompassing. Do the elite journalists or the government in your country denounce the Chávez regime? You prefer to believe the Chavista propaganda, which is, after all, attractive. The Castro dictatorship? The Castro brothers’ propaganda is better yet. And so on, into the realms of the far right with Putin, whose propaganda may not be attractive, but by this point you are beyond listening to what people say. And thus into the nether world of the beyond-ultra-right with Hamas and Hezbollah, who can be defended only by people who, as a matter of principle, refuse to listen to propaganda.
The more earnest the speech seems to be, the more frightening is the tone.
You say to yourself and the world: The accusations against these various left-wing and right-wing dictators and movements are slanders. Or you go the next step and you say: Maybe the accusations are not entirely slanderous, but that is because the ruling powers in the world are so dreadful that only dictatorships and terrorist movements can stand up to them. As for the Jews, their own power is so enormous and sinister that—but you stop. You are, after all, an enemy of anti-Semitism. Or maybe you don’t stop.
And none of these additional steps in your analysis seems to you a cause for reflection. It is because, with each new step you take, you congratulate yourself on the ruthless sincerity of your commitment to the poor and the oppressed. The greater the number of dictatorships and extreme-right movements you support, the more heroic appears to be your idealism. And people will vote for you! It is not because masses of voters agree with your analysis, though some of them may do so. They will vote for you because of precisely the quality that seems to me most worrisome: the earnest look on your face.
Those same people will turn to me and say: “You are a man who has lost your sense of idealism. These worries of yours about the poor Venezuelans, the unhappy Cubans, the frightened neighbors of Russia, and the Jews, not to mention those other fake concerns of yours, the Arab victims of Baathism and Islamism, plus the Kurds—these are signs of a loss of principle on your part.” To which I have never known what to say, except to remark that, if Corbyn is a man of the left, there has been, for a long time now, not one left, but two.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.