John Armitage on Fri, 2 Nov 2001 00:56:20 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Todd Gitlin: Liberal Activists Finding Themselves Caught Between a Flag and a Hard Place

[Both enjoyed and bristled with unease while reading this piece on theUSLeft/anti-war movement from an older 1960s and well known media studies
theorist, Todd Gitlin. John.]
Liberal Activists Finding Themselves Caught Between a Flag and a Hard Place
by Todd Gitlin

October 28, San Jose Mercury News

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.

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.

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 -- for 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

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.

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