Why aren't the Vietnamese more grateful to Tom Hayden? Recently, he returned for the first time in 36 years to the country that he and his then-wife Jane Fonda tried to save from American domination in the Vietnam war. The trip disappointed him. As he writes in the March 10 issue of The Nation, Vietnam has turned capitalist. Was that what he fought for? Absolutely not. He remains capitalism's enemy, still the same lefty who helped found 1960s student radicalism.
This week, another celebrated American liberal, playwright David Mamet, declared that he's abandoned the ideology he shared with Hayden. Mamet, never gentle, broke this news where it would hurt most -- in the pages of New York's Village Voice, a weekly that hasn't carried a right-wing article since it was founded in the 1950s.
Under the heading "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal,'" Mamet denounced every one of the principles that give American liberals their sense of righteousness.
He's abandoned his hatred for corporations, which he now considers merely "the flip side of my hunger for those goods and services they provide and without which we could not live." This comes as a surprise from the author of Glengarry Glen Ross, the play and movie depicting a repulsive business atmosphere. And the role of government? He once considered it fundamentally good but now he's "hard-pressed to see an instance where the intervention of the government led to much beyond sorrow."
He's decided that America is not a schoolroom teaching values but a market-place. He now puts John F. Kennedy on the same moral plane as George W. Bush. And when he listens to the standard liberalism of National Public Radio he mutters that its initials actually stand for National Palestinian Radio (he defended Israel in his last book, The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews).
Mamet has decided that free-market thinking meshes better with his experience than liberalism. He even reads conservative thinkers. He names Milton Friedman, Paul Johnson and Shelby Steele, and confers the title "our greatest contemporary philosopher" on Thomas Sowell, an economist always ignored by liberals. (Black skin makes Sowell hard to attack, particularly when he brings severe logic to racial questions, so the left prefers to pretend he doesn't exist.)
It may seem odd that a much-admired writer makes such a noise about the banal fact that he thinks the society he's always lived in is grounded in sound principles and operates reasonably well. But in his milieu, that opinion remains big news.
Successful artists favour capitalism in practice but not in theory. For this they have their own special approach to reality. They accept capitalism's money and buy its products, but prefer not to be reminded that it's essential to the richness of their lives. They pretend, in fact, that they oppose it. Readers of a typical leftist newspaper (such as Now, the Toronto giveaway weekly for the young and the cool) appear to believe they've hooked up with capitalism only until something better comes along.
An article such as Mamet's probably won't shake the faith of many liberals. Tom Hayden, for instance, stands firmly by his prejudices. Not even Vietnam can shake him. Its economy grows swiftly and so does its per capita GDP. It's a single-party state, still using the name Communist Party, and it has economic freedom without the other kinds of liberty. During his trip, a leading Vietnamese novelist told him, "Some Americans may sympathize with communism, but I lived under it and couldn't stand it." The novelist has a son making millions travelling for a high-tech corporation.
Is it possible, Hayden asks himself, that Marxism and nationalism won the war but capitalism and nationalism won the peace? Are "the supposedly scientific models of history long embraced by the left being replaced with a kind of chaos theory of unpredictability? Is this all that was ever possible?"
A few Marxist senior citizens share his unease. "We are better off materially, but not mentally, ethically," one octogenarian veteran says. But the Vietnam resident most upset by the new way of life turned out to be an American expatriate, Gerry Herman, once an anti-war activist, now a film distributor.
"Far be it from me," says Hayden. "to question the desire of the Vietnamese to share our globalized consumer culture like everyone else." But of course that's precisely what he wants to do, and does. He made his trip, he writes, because "I wanted to understand the long-term lessons." Considered in that light, his journey was a failure.