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

From: Ted Morgan (
Date: Thu Nov 15 2001 - 10:19:15 EST

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    I appreciate Marty's lengthy comments about Gitlin, the flag, PC in the
    60s, etc. As my earlier comments about dismissing people's whose
    arguments we feel are wrong indicate, I am right with Marty when he
    criticizes the Marxist study group that 'read him out,' turned to
    Marxist-Leninism, and now are mostly Democrats. I think that bizarre
    history, in addition to perhaps reflecting some personal histories of
    the people involved, is a sad commentary on left politics in the United
    States. I come again and again up against the reality that we have
    lived for a long time in the shadow cast in the aftermath of our various
    Red Scares. The left has been a pathetically fragmented, sectarian and
    marginalized 'presence' in American politics for most of the past
    century, at least since the Palmer raids & Red Scares of the 20s
    (excepting, of course, its relative strength in the 30s and, in a
    different way, the 60s). It seems to me that in the American tradition,
    a natural course for the left to follow is to bridge the gaps between
    Marxian analysis of capitalism and indigenous American traditions of
    populism, grass-roots democracy, etc. (with the identity transformations
    of the 60s and beyond added to this). How tragic it is that it is so
    incredibly difficult for this to happen, at least for this kind of force
    to enter into public (as opposed to private, repressed, marginalized)
    discourse. It simply can't happen in the mainstream mass media, for

    But I do want to comment on Marty's point about the flag, since he
    asserts that the flag stands for the US as a country, not a government,
    and it was the government that waged the Vietnam war, not the country. I
    appreciate that this is Marty's MEANING of the flag --I would like to
    see the same thing in the flag, and I sometimes try to. And there is
    clearly something to be said for not letting the Right and the
    militarists 'capture' the flag.

    However, apart from my personal feelings about the flag, there is
    something lurking in here that is problematic, and I think it may go to
    the heart of what was wrong, or short-sighted, or counter-productive
    (pick the best word) about the Abbie Hoffman/Yippie approach which
    sought public, symbolic expression as a primary vehicle for ridiculing,
    opposing, and criticizing the system. Namely this: people who "show
    the flag" at a time like the present (at least after S 11) do so for a
    variety of personal reasons. Thus the flag's 'meaning' varies from
    person to person. Many have shown the flag out of a need to express
    their personal solidarity with and compassion for those who were killed
    on S11. So far so good. Yet, if you look at the mainstream media
    culture, the flag rapidly (well, immediately) got associated with the
    military and the US "War" response to the S11 attack. And this is
    always the case; like it or not, it's the prevailing historical meaning
    (through use) of the flag. In other words, our private meanings when we
    show the flag --our private meanings for our public expressions-- get
    transformed in fairly pervasive ways into public meanings as interpreted
    through the lenses of mainstream media culture. Flag means support for
    the war (which is also supposed to be equated with support for "our
    boys" --whereas opposition to the war gets equated with disregard for
    'our boys.'). The question is, in the prevailing atmosphere and amidst
    all the propaganda spewed by government officials of both parties and
    all major mass media, how will other people, strangers, etc. see my
    showing of the flag? They won't see MY meaning, they'll see the
    prevailing meaning. So, in effect, I'm not in fact communicating what I
    would like to communicate to them through this symbolic act. My message
    has been co-opted.

    I realize then that there are contradictions in this (and I realize that
    Abbie's message wasn't co-opted in a direct sense; I might argue that it
    was, however, over the longer haul, amidst all the commodification &
    sanitization of, and attacks on the 60s). If "we on the left" don't
    claim the flag, that can feed the also pervasive perception of us as
    'traitors' etc. In part, this dilemma is built into the shortcomings of
    symbolic action, at least in our culture where symbols tend to take on
    pervasively hegemonic public meanings. But, perhaps there are ways in
    which we can use or claim symbols like these and then in the same
    "message" or action connect them with our critique of the warmakers,
    etc. At least that is, I think, what those of us who want to express
    ourselves through symbolic action need to try to do.

    My own reflexive response to S11 was that I wanted to wear a black
    armband and perhaps show a black-bordered US flag (or one with a peace
    sign) --though I ended up doing neither. I found words, explanations,
    analysis, conversations a much better vehicle for conveying my meanings.

    Ted Morgan

    PS. Re. the Gitlin LA Times piece, I'd ask Marty what exactly about the
    piece's "tone" makes it "effective for a mainstream audience," because
    therein may lie the problem of getting one's arguments into the
    mainstream media, vs. remaining largely on the outside (a la Arundhati
    Roy). Maybe he can help those of us drawn to Roy's writing understand
    better how to be 'heard' by the mainstream (assuming, of course, that
    what we write will get printed).

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