[sixties-l] Todd Gitlin on the war (fwd)

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Date: Thu Nov 01 2001 - 16:13:05 EST

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    Date: Thu, 01 Nov 2001 12:46:21 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: Todd Gitlin on the war

    Liberal Activists Finding Themselves Caught Between a Flag and a Hard Place


    by Todd Gitlin
    Published on Sunday, October 28, 2001 in the San Jose Mercury News

    Generals, it is said, are always fighting the last war. Facing a war that
    is neither World War II nor Vietnam, against an enemy neither Nazi nor
    Communist, Washington has sometimes sounded blustery and lost since Sept. 11.
    The same is true of America's anti-war movement. The movement is a child of
    the Vietnam era and has viewed every subsequent conflict through that
    prism. To many liberals, meddling in the world's business was taboo because
    when America put its own interests first, other nations suffered.
    Now, the left is summoned to show not just foreboding, or which the war in
    Afghanistan is certainly ripe, but originality. Just as the Bush
    administration has scrapped its reluctance to intervene abroad and declared
    its readiness for "nation building," American liberals need to re-examine
    their doctrines if they hope to influence events.
    Peace activists need to grapple with the difficult questions of whether any
    war can be justified, or just, and what the practical alternatives are.
    Then they can decide whether they agree with U.S. military actions or not.
    Whether the left will rise to the occasion is questionable.
    Consider, first, the fights over the American flag, evident in the days
    after Sept. 11.
    Splits quickly developed between those on the left who felt the unfamiliar
    passion of patriotism and those who didn't. Feminist Katha Pollitt, a
    columnist for the Nation and a veteran of the movement against the Vietnam
    War, wrote that her teenage daughter wanted to fly the flag, but Pollitt
    said no.
    A veteran of the same movement, I felt otherwise. A few days after the
    World Trade Center massacre, my wife and I hung out a flag on our balcony
    in Greenwich Village. Our desire was visceral, to express solidarity with
    the dead, membership in a wounded nation, and affection for the community
    of rescue that affirmed life in the midst of death, springing up to dig
    through the nearby ashes and ruins.
            'True patriotism'
    In this spirit, I liked the sentiments of the New Jersey flag-factory owner
    who told ABC that he sold 27,000 flags in one day, but added this about the
    mood of his customers: "It's not like the gulf war. That was, 'Get 'em, get
    'em.' This is more solidarity. I'm very happy to see true patriotism. This
    is so much warmth."
    In the 1960s I, like most radicals, felt the furious fire of national sins
    and crimes burn away love of country. Even then, I thought the flag-burners
    stupid and self-defeating, but I watched, paralyzed, as the war supporters
    ran away with the flag, and thus with the aftermath of the '60s. Many
    Americans were willing to hear our case against the war, but not to forfeit
    love of their America.
    The terrible paradox of the late '60s and early '70s was that as the war
    became less popular, so did the anti-war movement. Partly because of the
    movement's cavalier anti-Americanism, pro-war Republicans emerged
    triumphant. Ronald Reagan took over in 1981, and conservatives have wielded
    enormous power ever since.
    Last month, then, I refused to surrender the flag.
    On the left, division over the flag has now translated into division over
    the Afghanistan war.
    Anti-war demonstrations rally numbers in the low thousands, or smaller. A
    few hundred people marching in traditionally anti-war Madison, Wis., cannot
    convincingly claim that they march in the name of democracy when they
    represent a tiny minority.
    Even in the Bay Area, the American left's base and home of the sole
    Congress member to vote against war authorization, division is evident. The
    Berkeley City Council voted 5-4 to call for a halt in the war, but paper
    flags are pasted on the windows of many homes there. And even some
    left-wing journalists have criticized today's anti-war activists; Marc
    Cooper, in a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, called the
    first major peace rally "a self-caricature of an American left that has
    struggled unsuccessfully since the attacks to find its proper national
    voice and posture."
    So why does much of the left look, in Cooper's words, "traumatized and
    dysfunctional"? Because anti-war absolutists cannot leave behind the
    melodramatic imagination of noble white hats in the "Third World" at war
    with imperial black hats. They have a hard time seeing America as a wounded
    party and seeing totalitarian Islamist groups like Al-Qaida as world-class
    These liberals are still stamped by the awfulness of the Vietnam War, along
    with ill-conceived American covert and semi-covert interventions in Iran,
    Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Angola, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
    If American policy is, in their minds, forever motivated by nothing but
    imperial overreach, forever guilty of napalm and death squads, then all
    American wars must be opposed with an absolute "No."
                    Justifying slaughter
    One version of liberal dogma, at least a consistent one, is the pacifist's
    view that force must never be used. But the fundamentalist left does not
    oppose the use of force absolutely. Some go so far as to treat the
    slaughter of thousands at the World Trade Center as an event in the history
    of revolt by the oppressed against their oppressors. These hard-left
    supporters act as if Saudi Arabian and Egyptian fundamentalists were
    entitled, as victims of imperialism, to a touch of vengefulness. (But if
    injuries at American hands were the causes of revenge attacks on the United
    States, then Vietnamese or Guatemalan suicide bombers might have
    For others on the left, American interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, on
    behalf of oppressed Muslims, and against "ethnic cleansing," concentration
    camps and massacres -- marked a definitive end to the idea that all wars
    merited an absolute "No."
    Many of these liberals were sufficiently ambivalent about war and American
    power that they were reluctant to feel patriotic after Sept. 11. But they
    do. The nation that was grievously wounded is theirs.
    In the main, they consider a regime that denies schooling for girls and
    harbors mass murderers repulsive. They are convinced that patriotism,
    sanctioned by international law, imparts a right of self-defense. They do
    not believe that love of country binds them to hot pursuit of the White
    House's strategies or tactics. But in the fight at hand, they share the
    goal of a president whom they did not, to put it mildly, support.
                    Impractical alternative
    Thus, many on the left, myself included, feel varying degrees of queasiness
    with this war, but still forswear anti-war rallies. When our friends argue
    that war is unnecessary, and that, instead, Osama bin Laden should be tried
    by a world court, we have trouble seeing this as a practical alternative.
    The principle of legal recourse in justice's name is attractive, but we
    can't imagine who is going to find, serve legal papers on, capture, bring
    to trial, and punish well-armed criminal conspirators who dwell in caves.
    No one on the left thinks U.S. foreign policy is close to faultless. Many
    doubt the sanctions against Iraq are effective, let alone just. We worry
    that the war will turn more Muslims, ultimately, to terrorism; that bin
    Laden has laid a trap and the United States is marching into it. Many
    liberals fervently oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestinian
    territories, and hope the United States will impose a just peace in the
    Middle East. But such opinions do not entail the conclusion that if
    millions of people hate America, they must automatically have good reason.
    Like it or not, we live in a new world that we did not choose. Whatever
    flimsy new world order materialized at the end of the Cold War vaporized
    with the World Trade Center. We live now in a new world chaos, lacking maps
    or certitudes. To claim moral authority and political trustworthiness now,
    we liberals must break up our frozen, encrusted dogmas.
    When civil liberties concerns confront security concerns, both have to be
    taken seriously. On a world scale we need to be, to paraphrase a slogan of
    British Prime Minister Tony Blair's, tough on terrorism, and tough on the
    causes of terrorism. This means we need to do more than destroy Al-Qaida.
    It means we need to pursue a long-term foreign policy that doesn't create
    more ready recruits for murderous terrorists.
    To break habits is desperately hard. If the left is able to face reality,
    all the mess and danger of it, it will gain standing for the conflicts
    ahead. To argue effectively for people who need health insurance but have
    been abandoned by our leaders in Washington, we have to stand with the
    nation that those same people love.
    In the mid-1960s, one of the few orators of renown willing to oppose the
    Vietnam War was the longtime socialist Norman Thomas. Worried that the
    anti-war movement would squander its moral credit with self-destructive
    tactics, he said: "Don't burn the flag. Wash it." That is a mission worth
    fighting for.
    TODD GITLIN is a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New
    York University. He is also the author of "The Sixties, The Twilight of
    Common Dreams" and "Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds
    Overwhelms Our Lives," to be published in March. Gitlin wrote this article
    for Perspective.

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