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What We Call 'the Left' Is a Timid Distortion

August 24, 1986|JEFF COHEN and LINDA VALENTINO | Jeff Cohen is the director of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, based in New York. Linda Valentino is on FAIR's national advisory board and lives in Los Angeles.

Robert S. McNamara. William E. Colby. Jody Powell.

Are these men leftists? That's what our television networks would have us believe as they frame the debate on national policy.

Bereft of makeup and klieg lights, these men are stalwarts of the political center--pragmatic and moderate. They'd be the first to object to the label "leftist." Yet in TV debates, they are regularly called upon to do battle with partisans of the ideological right--George F. Will, William F. Buckley. Nowhere to be found on television are true partisans of the American left.

During the nuclear-freeze campaign, leaders of the peace movement had to watch from the sidelines as TV debates repeatedly cast former Defense Secretary McNamara and former CIA Director Colby in the role of doves. These men, who had been denounced by the peace movement for Vietnam War atrocities--were the "responsible" freeze advocates preferred by television.

Meanwhile, articulate spokespersons of the left are deemed not ready for prime time--or even the off-hours.

Take the case of MIT Prof. Noam Chomsky, author of a dozen books on U.S. foreign policy. Chomsky receives standing ovations at overflow audiences on campuses across the country, but if he's not allowed into the discourse on television and the other mass media, he might as well be in political exile.

Ironically, while Chomsky is marginalized on the political fringe in his own country, his views on international relations garner major media attention in Western Europe. The media of our European allies are far more receptive to leftist viewpoints. By comparison, the spectrum of political opinion in the U.S. media runs only from center to right.

In fact, it has been so long since progressives were afforded their place in political debate that many have forgotten the rich history of the American left and its contributions to society.

The left has consistently been in the forefront of social movements whose objectives eventually have been accepted by the majority of the public, albeit some years later. By contrast, the liberals have often been Johnny-come-latelies hovering timidly about the edges of social movements while others put their lives and livelihoods on the line. Typically, the liberals have entered the fray only after the waters were tested and deemed safe. Examples are plentiful:

--The left, then referred to in the press as "radicals," were prime movers in the abolition of slavery.

--The left was in the forefront of the movement for women's suffrage, and has played a vanguard role in today's feminist movement.

--The left's opposition to U.S. military meddling in Latin America is no new concern. Anti-intervention movements have blossomed in the U.S. since the 1890s when a radical named Mark Twain declared: "I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its claws on any other land."

--The labor movement and the struggles for the minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, Social Security and unemployment compensation were all pioneered by progressive left activists.

--The left, which championed civil rights as far back as the 1930s, was in the forefront of that movement in the 1950s and 1960s, while liberals, typified by the Kennedy Administration, admonished civil-rights leaders to "be patient, the time isn't right yet."

--The left opposed the liberal Roosevelt Administration's internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was supported by liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren, then governor of California.

--The left was practically alone in defending civil liberties in the face of McCarthyism, while many liberals toadied to the witch-hunting committees, naming names and pointing fingers--"Not me, him."

--The left led the earliest movements for nuclear disarmament in the late 1950s and remains prominent in this effort today.

--Perhaps the single greatest achievement of the American left in this century is the movement that it built in opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. While the liberal Kennedy and Johnson Administrations waged the war, the left spearheaded the anti-war movement, initially on campuses. Later, with liberals in Congress and the media either still sitting on the fence or defending the Vietnam debacle, the left extended that movement to vast numbers--cutting across racial, economic and political lines. Anti-war sentiment ultimately brought our boys home.

History teaches us that what is "left" today is often the common wisdom of tomorrow.

If progressives were on the air speaking for themselves, instead of only being spoken about, there would be less ignorance about what the American left believes and what it has accomplished.

The left has proposals to meet today's challenges. The American public has a right to hear them.

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