Friday, September 22, 2006

Just Because They Were Wrong Doesn't Make Us Right

Not to be painfully duplicative as I know I've written about this before ("A Story of Political Disgust"), but one of the moments I keep coming back to in my life, which I suppose constitutes a formative experience, is something that happened to me on April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine massacre. I was living in Ashland, Oregon, and attending Southern Oregon University, and the shooting for some reason struck me hard. I think the reason had to do with being young and recently out of high school and having recently been subjected to the similar events committed by Kip Kinkel in Springfield, Oregon, and having been thoroughly fed up with how out of touch the entire grown up world seemed to be about it, blaming video games and Marilyn Manson and all for teen violence rather than more obvious and prosaic (and true) causes.

So I took a ride from the University into downtown Ashland to get coffee and wander through a bookshop, which was what I like doing and tends to make me happy. And along the way I saw a group of protesters, standing in the greenway median, decrying the US bombing of Serbia.

Now, I can't say I supported the bombings, per se, but what struck me at that moment was the fact that I'd never seen them out there with posters protesting the ethnic cleansing. I suppose it seemed to me in that moment as if what they were doing was tantamount to protesting the police for storming Columbine to kill Dylan Klebold and his little buddy. (I know that's not what happened, but you see the point.) And what this experience has given me, I suppose, is a deep skepticism regarding anti-war protesters. It seems that what they oppose is not so much the rightness or wrongness of a given set of circumstances but rather the wrongness of war. Honestly, I can't say I've thought any of the military actions carried out in my life by the US were "right", but I also can't bring myself to have a knee-jerk opposition to war; it doesn't jive with my cynicism regarding the world, which I see as inhabited by a great many ignorant, cruel and violent people, in comparison to which pacifism seems rather idealistic.

So why bring this up? Tonight I was reading an essay by Tony Judt, who I normally find quite insightful, in the London Review of Books ("Bush's Useful Idiots," Sept. 17). The essay is an attempt to explain:

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? Why, in short, has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?

A fine undertaking as far as I'm concerned, and certainly something that I feel needs be addressed. But once again, I found myself disagreeing with an anti-war liberal. Judt's main purpose is to criticize liberal "intellectuals" who supported American military action to combat what's now apparently known as "Islamo-fascism." Personally, I wouldn't call the likes of Peter Beinart, Paul Berman and Thomas Friedman "intellectuals" so much as polemicists and talking heads, and to compare them to the likes of Arthur Schlessinger and John Kenneth Galbraith was, I think, a little hyperbolic. Beinart used to write the weekly editorial for The New Republic. That achievement sort of pales in comparison to Galbraith's The Affluent Society.

But that said, I found more troubling this attempt at an explanation:

The collapse of liberal self-confidence in the contemporary US can be variously explained. In part it is a backwash from the lost illusions of the 1960s generation, a retreat from the radical nostrums of youth into the all-consuming business of material accumulation and personal security. The signatories of the New York Times advertisement [here he is referring to an annoucement from 1988 signed by Schlessinger, Galbraith and others in deferse of liberalism] were born in most cases many years earlier, their political opinions shaped by the 1930s above all. Their commitments were the product of experience and adversity and made of sterner stuff.

Personally–and I think given the opening anecdote you can see where I'm going here–I think the opposite is true; it's the fact the Sixties are still with us which hurts us so much. The fact that vapid idealism animates many liberals is why Judt can go around chastising us for not opposing the war. He utterly ignores anti-war liberal institutions like The Nation (which is much more popular and wider read than The New Republic) and the massive protests before the war even started, and really, that's okay. Those people were never invited to the table and frankly never wanted the invitation. The exercise of power and defense policy is anathema to their ideology, and so they're not interested in the difficult decisions we have to make as a society and prefer to take the moral highground which simultaneously absolves them of culpability for the results of whatever policy–pacifist or militarist–the government takes.

So when Judt writes somewhat condescendingly of pro-war liberals, "Such insouciance in spite of – indeed because of – your past misjudgments recalls a remark by the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade to Edgar Morin, a dissenting Communist vindicated by events: ‘You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong.'"

Honestly, I'm an anti-war liberal, but that's true. The opposition to the Iraq war was vapid, and the posters in the street reading "Bush = Voldemort" or "Frodo Failed" undermined the very legitimate criticisms of the Iraq war. Then, anti-war leftists brutalized John Kerry in 2004 for his vote in favor of authorizing the use of force in Iraq. While it's fine to question the intelligence of that vote on the grounds that Bush's already poor performance in Afghanistan augured poorly for Iraq such that he should not be trusted with the task, mostly the criticism was directed at him and other Democrats for not having been sufficiently pacifist. That point overlooks the reality that Senate Democrats hoped that by voting to authorize force, Bush would have to receive the support of the UN Security Council to proceed with war, and that the delay with the very real threat of conflict would force Saddam to change course. Arguably it did, and Hans Blix, the UN's chief weapons inspector, was reporting little of note on the WMD front until the looming invasion forced out he and his team. But right there you have American liberals letting their own blood, demanding stricter adherence to an ideology of opposition to war which supersedes any argument as to whether or not the war should be fought, and thus undermining the critics of armed conflict and feeding the political ammunition of the pro-war side.

So shame on you Prof. Judt: it's time we all grew up about American liberals. The wishy-washy New Left ethos hangs overhead like a stench-cloud of marijuana smoke and patchouli, and as long as that's the case, polemicists attached to the D.C. crowd like Beinart and Berman will continue to cast a long shadow over the American liberal intellectual crowd.

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