Friday, June 23, 2006

Some brief thoughts on Liberals and the antiwar movement

Last week, Richard at American Leftist wrote about the anti-war movement and its fixation on Bush. It's a typically good post. In the context of discussing periodic protests in Sacramento, where he lives, he says this:

The protests, at least the times that I attended, focused exclusively upon Bush and the Republicans, with an understandably strong emphasis upon their "lies", implicitly supporting the intellectually dishonest position that the Democratic Party leadership in the House and Senate only voted for the Iraq war because they had been mislead. It is a "lie" that is as equally brazen, and as equally offensive, as the lies that Bush told to frighten much of the public into supporting the war.


I don't recall ever seeing any signs condemning people like Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, Joseph Lieberman and Dianne Feinstein for their votes for the war and their continued support for the occupation. Nor I have I recently heard that this event has begun to emphasize the prospect of a war against Iran, a war that, if launched, will have the same strong bipartisan support (Clinton is especially hawkish in this regard) that the war and occupation in Iraq does.
Of course, this is a widespread problem. We attended the last day of CODEPINK's Mother's Day weekend anti-war vigil outside the White House. It was an interesting day. When we got there, the group was in the process of being organized into concentric circles, each person holding a flower, the circles moving in opposite directions. There was chanting or singing. It was a little corny. I have some difficulty letting myself go, so I was not fully involved in this mini-event (it's true that the three semi-stoned teenagers directly in front of me did not help). But plenty of others were and I was actually moved, observing the group, predominantly women, largely middle-aged, fully swept up in the moment. I thought of some ass like Christopher Hitchens sneering at these women, and I wondered, not for the first or last time, what the hell is wrong with people.

And yet, the event was sparsely attended, and fell prey to various problems common to demonstrations and the anti-war movement generally. First of all, there is little call for "Give Peace a Chance", a tired song if there ever was one. But more to the point, as usual there were numerous speakers throughout the day, including various well-known people, such as Colman McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Medea Benjamin, etc, but also some of the ordinary mothers who had lost children to the war. Many of the women in attendance had also lost their sons in the war; one women was especially moving as she talked about her 18-year-old, who'd asked for a video game in his last letter before he died, bringing home with great effect how young most of the soldiers are. There were some inspiring speakers in the mix; I remember especially an Iraqi women who spoke with great eloquence. But, far too many of them, Sarandon included, seemed fixated on Bush, kept referring to the actions of "that man". Well, yes, "that man" is odious and deserves all the scorn you can heap on him. But the culture of war is inherent to the American political class. If Al Gore had been president, the US may not have invaded Iraq, it's possible, but it's unlikely that he would have put a stop to the abhorrent sanctions regime that had so debilitated Iraq throughout the Clinton presidency, and it's unlikely that the US would not have attacked Afghanistan. (I should say that CODEPINK in general knows the score and does a lot of work targeting clueless leaders of the Democratic Party, such as Hillary Clinton; for example, see Medea Benjamin's recent piece in CounterPunch.)

Indeed, Liberals' adoration of Bill Clinton is depressing. Two weeks ago, some friends and I saw An Inconvenient Truth, Gore's documentary about global warming. The movie is pretty good, when it's actually about global warming; when it focuses on Gore and his political life, it's more than a little insufferable. Anyway, it's worth seeing. But, returning to the matter at hand, one of the previews we saw was for the crossword-documentary, Wordplay, which features a bunch of celebrities, including some politicians. When the image of Bill Clinton appeared on the screen, the theater audience cheered. Seriously. I don't get it. I mean, ok, Bush is superficially much harder to stomach. I've never been able to listen to the man speak for more than 5 minutes without turning off the tv or radio. Three years ago, packing to move, I looked at some VHS tapes I'd used to record tv shows to see if anything was worth keeping, and I came across one of Clinton's State of the Union addresses. And, yes, it was something of a revelation to listen to a president who could apparently speak extemporaneously without sounding like an idiot. I get that, I do. But, people, Clinton was always full of shit, his speeches were always performance (as, indeed, are all presidential speeches; let's not kid ourselves). And he passed NAFTA. And cynically ended "welfare as we know it". And illegally bombed Kosovo. And presided over the almost daily bombings of Iraq. And continued the murderous sanctions regime there. And any number of other shitty acts I don't have time to remind you of here today.

Liberals, and too many on the left, so love Clinton and Gore, are so fixated on personality, that they are incapable of seeing any larger picture. I long ago stopped reading with any regularity the big political bloggers such as Atrios and DailyKos because, while they do some excellent work on various political stories, they seem on the whole more interested in getting Democrats elected than anything else, or seem to believe that getting Democrats elected will do much of anything. Earlier this week, Alexander Cockburn wrote about the fixation on Karl Rove and Dick Cheney as evil masterminds, and the general bent of the main political websites:
Rove has swollen in the left’s imagination like a descendant of Pere Ubu, Jarry’s surreal monster. There was no scheme so deviously diabolical but that the hand of Rove could not be detected at work. Actually the man has always been of middling competence. He makes Dickie Morris look like Cardinal Richelieu.

Since 9/11 where has been the good news for the Administration? It’s been a sequence of catastrophe of unexampled protraction. Under Rove’s deft hand George Bush has been maneuvered into one catastrophe after another. Count the tombstones: “Bring it on”, “Mission Accomplished”, the sale of US port management to Arabs. It was Rove who single-handedly rescued the antiwar movement last July by advising Bush not to give Cindy Sheehan fifteen minutes of face time at his ranch in Crawford.

And when Rove’s disastrous hand is wrenched from the steering wheel it passes to another bugaboo of the left, in the form of Dick Cheney. It was the imbecilic vice president who gave Jack Murtha traction last October when the Democrats were trying cold shoulder him for calling for instant withdrawal from Iraq. In his wisdom the draft-dodging Cheney insulted the bemedaled former drill instructor as a clone of Michael Moore, and had to apologize three days later.

Rove and Cheney, the White House’s answer to Bouvard and Pecuchet, are counselors who have driven George Bush into the lowest ratings of any American president. Yet the left remains obsessed with their evil powers. Is there any better testimony to the vacuity and impotence of the endlessly touted “blogosphere” which in mid June had twin deb balls in the form of the Yearly Kos convention in Las Vegas and the above-mentioned “Take America Back” folkmoot of “progressive” MoveOn Democrats in Washington DC.

In political terms the blogosphere is like white noise, insistent and meaningless, like the wash of Pacific surf I can hear most days. But MoveOn.Org and Daily Kos have been hailed as the emergent form of modern politics, the target of excited articles in the New York Review of Books.

Beyond raising money swiftly handed over to the gratified veterans of the election industry both MoveOn and Daily Kos have had zero political effect, except as a demobilizing force.
The inability of the Democratic Party to truly take advantage of the massive unpopularity of the Bush Administration is striking. That so few Democrats are willing to take a stance against the wildly unpopular war in Iraq should tell us all we need to know about the viability of the Party as a progressive force in American life. Certain things are not irrelevant. For example, that the Republicans stole both the 2000 and 2004 elections is important. But the left should not pretend that either Gore or Kerry were going to be agents for any kind of real progressive change. In fact, they and their partners in the Democratic Party are actively part of the problem.


Scraps said...

It's news that another member of the pundit class disdains the blog writers? If MoveOn and Kos have "zero political effect" -- a typical Cockburnian obvious excess that any writer with a decent internal editor would excise -- how much does the Nation have?

I'm glad that some part of the left is willing to point out the cravenness of Democratic Party Leadership -- and I hear a lot more Democrats complaining about the Democratic Party, the Clintons, etc, than you appear to -- but the nature of the system we are stuck with is compromise. Say what you will about the Democratic party -- even if you have to resort to silly implications like saying we only might not have fought the war in Iraq if Gore were president -- it is clear that this administration is monstrous and incompetent on a historical scale. Yes, they are without question much worse than Clinton. It is not a loss of perspective to recognize this, nor to focus most of our anger on Bush and his thugs.

Furthermore, this is politics. We are forever hearing from disgruntled leftists that the right plays the game better, that we need to toughen up, that we need to persuade the public as they do, etc. Then when we focus our political efforts on directing people's anger toward the Republican Party, we get told that we're forgetting to properly blame the Democrats. Well, which do you want? A good fighting machine, or a painfully self-examining, self-eating left? This is the kind of nonsense that led to Nader, and the self-satsified abandonment of the adult policial arena by those who preferred feeling good about their vote, and to hell with the consequences.

If all the people I hear complaining about the deficiencies of the Democratic Party actually worked to change the Democratic Party, we'd see real change in my lifetime. It seems that a lot of folks would rather not sully themselves with political compromise, preferring to decry everything as equally noxious ("equally brazen," "equally offensive") -- the high road to perdition.

But the left should not pretend that either Gore or Kerry were going to be agents for any kind of real progressive change. In fact, they and their partners in the Democratic Party are actively part of the problem.

As opposed to a passive part of the problem, griping. So long as we're falling short of "real progressive change," we must not "pretend" that there's any real difference at all.

Of course, some of us can afford to pretned more than others can.

In my goddamned opinion.

If I am unwarrantedly crany, I apologize. I am sick of political cannibalism, sick of the cult of perfection, and sick to death of Alexander Cockburn and his ilk. If people on the left cannot see that things are worsening much faster under Bush, if they still think we ought to make a hig priority of never forgetting to deplore the Democrats, I despair. If there is a plausible alternative to electing Democrats right now, at least as a goddamned stopgap measure, I would like to know what it is.

Richard said...

Yes, politics is compromise. It's very complicated. And, actually, I agree that Cockburn's disdain of the political blogosphere is excessive. And, of course, the Bush Administration is particularly monstrous. I don't deny that. I winced a little when I re-read my line about Bush being "superficially harder to stomach": I am not unable to see that Bush is actually objectively worse. But, domestically, things got worse under Clinton; that they're getting worse still even faster under Bush doesn't automatically make Clinton a hero. And, foreign-policy-wise, the parties, as a class, share the same basic worldview (that an invasion of Iraq was a lot less likely under Gore does not change this essential fact). In any event, yes, the Bush Administration is who we have in front of us and who has to be fought. And I want the Democrats to be able to defeat them. The thing is, I look at what's happening and I despair myself. Maybe I'm too pessimistic, but I don't see the Democrats getting their heads out of their asses. It's no doubt a waste of time (I mean, because it's old news, not because you're not interested or don't already know) noting the ways in which the Democrats have been active partners in producing the current conditions. You're right, people need to see that the Republicans are the bigger enemy. And we do need a political fighting machine capable of doing that. But the Democrats need to differentiate themselves from the Republicans. That means not pussy-footing around on certain basic issues.

I won't apologize for having voted for Nader. And I won't vote for anyone who does not oppose this war and actions like it. I'm not looking for perfection, I'm looking for anything, any candidate, any movement prepared to seriously challenge the status quo. I don't quite have my ear to the ground to know exactly what the Democrats are up to, though. Are there some interesting people out there you think I should know about? Here in Baltimore we're watching Mayor O'Malley's run for governor, and it looks like he actually should be able to unseat Ehrlich, who has been a disaster. We were interested in the more leftwing Doug Duncan, who appeared to be making some headway, but who had to drop out this week because of his recent diagnosis of clinical depression. We kind of expect O'Malley to abandon the City's needs once he's Governor, because the City doesn't have the tax base, etc, and that's what happens, and he wants to position himself, a la Clinton, to make a run for the presidency. Politics as career rather than as public service, you know?

Anyway, thanks for the comment. No need to apologize for crankiness.

Scraps said...

Okay. Thanks for your polite and thoughtful response. If I were near enough I'd buy you a beer, and then I'd bitch a lot more about Nader. (My wife had to pull me away from a confrontation with a Nader canvasser who told me to "vote your hopes, not your fears"; "I'm not just voting for my own damned feelings," I snapped, and . . . we did not have a mutually enlghtening exchange.

I remember -- ruefully -- how smug (honestly) I felt a decade ago when it looked like the factions of the Republican party were tearing it apart. These days, it seems like the best hope the Democrats have is for the Republicans to do it again, now that they're on top and srguing over the division of the spoils of power. Unfortunately, the Democrats aren't just fighting the Republicans, not just themselves, but the media as well; even with the public as critical of the Bush administration as they are now, the Democrats can't get an even break in coverage. If there were a Democrat who could somehow sidestep the media and appeal directly to the people.... well, I don't know how that would be done.

jwer said...

I don't have time for quite such a thoughtful response, but I think that as long as the options are "hatez the Repuglicans" (which construction I find utterly puerile and gratuitous) or "cannibalization of the Democrats" we have a very serious problem.

The reason we have "nonsense that leads to Nader" is that in the above formulation, our only options are to vote against any Republican while ignoring the idiocy of the Democratic establishment or to abandon the "two-party" system and "strategic voting" altogether and find a candidate we can cast a ballot for without feeling nauseated.

There is a third option, and it's well past time the Democrats accept it: they could actually take progressive action on ANYTHING.