In February 1982, Susan Sontag made a fierce challenge to a left-wing audience gathered at New York’s Town Hall:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?
Posing that question won Sontag only boos from an audience that the New York Times described as “startled.” Yet the question has only gained power over the intervening years. It contributed to the rise of a healthier, more realistic left much less tempted to make excuses for “progressive” dictatorships than the left of the last generation. If Hugo Chavez has any defenders on the contemporary American left, I haven’t heard of them.
Think of Susan Sontag as you absorb the horrifying revised estimates of the collapse of 2008 from the Commerce Department. Two years ago, Commerce estimated the decline of the US economy at -0.5% in the third quarter of 2008 and -3.8% in the fourth quarter. It now puts the damage at -3.7% and -8.9%: Great Depression territory.
Those estimates make intuitive sense as we assess the real-world effect of the crisis: the jobs lost, the homes foreclosed, the retirements shattered. When people tell me that I’ve changed my mind too much about too many things over the past four years, I can only point to the devastation wrought by this crisis and wonder: How closed must your thinking be if it isn’t affected by a disaster of such magnitude? And in fact, almost all of our thinking has been somehow affected: hence the drift of so many conservatives away from what used to be the mainstream market-oriented Washington Consensus toward Austrian economics and Ron Paul style hard-money libertarianism. The ground they and I used to occupy stands increasingly empty.
If I can’t follow where most of my friends have gone, it is because I keep hearing Susan Sontag’s question in my ears. Or rather, a revised and updated version of that question:
Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Wall Street Journal editorial page between 2000 and 2011, and someone in the same period who read only the collected columns of Paul Krugman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of the current economic crisis? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?