The Anti-War Movement and Its Critics:
Merle Haggard Locates Osama;
General Hitchens, Hie Thee to Fort Bragg;
Whose Left Is It Anyway?
by Alexander Cockburn
November 16, 2002
Do we have an antiwar movement? We're getting there. We must be, because we're catching flak from the anti-anti war movement, Light Infantry division, staffed by Marc Cooper, Todd Gitlin, David Corn, and Christopher Hitchens.
Marc Cooper, like Gitlin, has carved out a pleasant niche for himself, belaboring various left causes from a position purporting to represent robust common sense. It's a posture endearing to op-ed editors, particularly if there's an insinuation that somewhere, way back, the author had left credentials. It's fair to raise the issue of credentials, since the prime line of attack by the Light Infantry is to belabor the credentials of the antiwar left, as dumbos, catspaws, dictator-lovers, cultists, practitioners of unmentionable vices.
Back of the start of 2000 Cooper publicly prayed to God to make that same year "free of Mumia". How precisely the year would be liberated from this man on Death Row he tastefully left unstated. In the jibes at the Mumia cult that followed Cooper hiccupped bashfully that Mumia "probably" didn't get a fair trial, then suppressed important facts about the fatal encounter between and the police officer, or even that the Mumia "cult" probably saved his life by drawing attention to Mumia's situation in the mid-80s when no one cared a whit.
In a recent Los Angeles Times column Copper prays once more, this time for "an effective, attractive and moral opposition". And how can the antiwar opposition become effective, attractive and moral? Cooper's recipe: condone the US rationale for continuing sanctions; accept as framework for discussion of the war and military action the rationales offered by George Bush and his associates.
Cooper derides Ramsey Clark for calling the sanctions "genocidal". Would you march with Clark or Cooper? If you are hesitating read Joy Gordon's chilling description in the November Harper's of how the US has been applying sanctions designed to kill children in Iraq, then make up your mind.
Todd Gitlin has made a career out of issuing advisories about the "hard left", the "Old Left" and other. Though Gitlin usually pretends that he's trying to counsel the left towards improved conduct under the Gitlin Seal of Approval, I don't think he has much interest in the left, as anything other than raw material for his unctuous punditry.
In a recent Mother Jones Gitlin reports that at a rally outside the UN he spotted placards saying "No Sanctions, No Bombing". Snappy, you say. Exactly the message a peace movement might want to get across. Gitlin disagrees. His preferred placard would be the most heavily footnoted text since Lynn White Jr's history of the stirrup. Like Cooper, Gitlin craves for respectability which means that he wants the placard to make it clear that (a) Saddam bears responsibility for his country's plight, (b), the bombings of Iraq since 1991 by the US (tactfully described by Gitlin, echoing the DoD, as "no fly zone sorties") are okay. Tough placard to design, and pretty heavy, if you factor in the square footage required for Gitlin's text.
David Corn's most substantial piece of work to date is The Blonde Ghost, which could be described as a not unsympathetic account of Ted Shackley, a CIA supervisor of one bloodbath after another, most notably the Phoenix program. Corn has now taken to issuing cop-style intelligence reports reminiscent of FBI field advisories to Hoover, on the Workers World Party. stigmatizing the Workers World Party for its nefarious role in the DC and Bay Area antiwar demonstrations.
No need to dwell any longer on Hitchens, at least as a "left" commentator, speaking in good activist faith. When Hitchens libels the left (in modes excellently pilloried by Katha Pollitt) he now does so as one who has foresworn any left credential, and who is new born as a neocon, dispensing to the Washington Post anti-left prose whose frothing crudity eerily echoes that of his erstwhile butt, Norman Podhoretz.
A recent Hitchens piece in Slate attacks the term "chicken hawks", while carefully avoiding the main point of its use now, which is to indicate that many of the current civilian war-whoopers like Bush or Cheney shirked the call to duty back in the Vietnam period but are mustard keen on deploying others to the front lines. It now seems that G. Bush was an actual deserter from the National Guard. It's well documented on www.awolbush.com: that George W. Bush never showed up for National Guard duty for a period of approximately one year, possibly more, in 1972-1973. Some definitions: AWOL, absent for 30 days or less. Desertion, absent for more than 30 days with evidence of no intent to return to duty.
General Hitchens invokes the "fairly good pay" of the Armed Forces, a view he should impart personally on his next tour of inspection at Fort Bragg, where members of the Special Forces get $25,000 a year, which is probably less than Hitchens' annual bar bill. As with Poddy, Hitchens' mind appears to have become clouded by the fog of warwhooping. He reviles his old chum Bob Kerrey, seemingly unaware that this particular war criminal favors attacking Iraq, then states flatly that "Lincoln became the first and last president to hear shots fired in anger." While president? What about Madison, fleeing the advancing troops commanded by Admiral Sir George Cockburn? TR too if you count the angers and joys of the chase. Hitchens invokes the "glorious Douglas McArthur". Is this written with a straight face? Hard to know these days with General Hitchens. He's offended that chickenhawk's original meaning was that of preyer on young people. Reading the above-mentioned article on sanctions, this seems appropriate.
So, having scouted out the anti-anti-war movement, now we can ask, what sort of an antiwar movement do we have?
Look back to the early 1960s. In 1962, a full eight years after President Eisenhower had decreed secretly that Ho Chi Minh could not be permitted to triumph in open elections, the left was just beginning to educate itself about Vietnam.
When President Kennedy was sending the first detachments of US troops to South Vietnam and setting the stage for the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem there was scarcely the semblance of an antiwar movement. In Oxford in 1962 I remember being incredulous when one of my radical mentors, the historian Thomas Hodgkin, remarked to me that the next big anti-imperial battleground would be Vietnam.
It wasn't until 1966 and 1967, that the left, particularly the Socialist Workers Party, managed to stage the big anti war rallies that that broke forever the pro-war consensus, and set the stage for more radical actions. And by then there was that potent fuel for an antiwar movement, the draft, which prompted Stop the Draft Week.
By 1968 we had a worldwide anti-imperial movement; we had the May-June upheavals in Paris; we very definitely thought history was on our side. Not any more.
Today? We have the premonition of a big antiwar movement. Like the SWP forty years ago, the Workers World Party did much of the organizing of the recent demonstrations, which doesn't mean the 150,000 or so who marched in the Bay Area and in Washington DC are dupes of Karl Marx, Ramsey Clark and Saddam Hussein, but merely that organizing big demonstrations takes a lot of dedication, energy and experience. I have a dream, said Martin Luther King, and so he did, but the Communists in the south helped him put flesh on that dream as they did the dreams of Rosa Parks.
Will there be a war with Iraq? To judge by the amended US resolution rubber stamped by the UN Security Council we can have one any time the commander in chief decrees it, with February/March 2003 as probably the earliest practical slot. A draft? No time soon. A calling up of the National Guard? More likely, and already there are tens of thousands of reservists on duty, many of them no doubt chafing at their condition.
And if George Bush lets loose the dogs of war on the grounds that Saddam wouldn't submit to a full personal cavity search, will we see a new age of protest? Certainly, if the war goes on long enough and Americans get killed in large numbers. There's a slab of the right that's denouncing America's imperial wars. That wasn't happening in the early Sixties. If the left could ever reach out to this right, which it's almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we'll have something.
The night after the Democrats nose-dived I drove fifty miles through the first storm of the fall to my local town of Eureka, for a concert by Merle Haggard. Merle has a rap sheet for no-shows and there'd been worrying talk about him canceling on this tour because of a herniated disk. But at 9 pm there he was on the stage with his band, The Strangers, walking a bit stiffly but looking and sounding good.
When it comes to the big themes of love and war and history nothing concentrates the mind like a few songs by Merle, whose 1969 pro-war country anthem Okie from Muskogee lambasted the dope-smoking hippie peaceniks and earned the former resident of San Quentin a full pardon from Governor Ronald Reagan.
Sitting there in a white, mostly working class audience even a tad older than the equally white crowd listening to Bob Dylan in the Greek amphitheater in Berkeley a few weeks ago, an obvious question bulked as large as the Stars and Stripes hanging above Merle: had Merle changed since the time when he riposted to the antiwar movement of the Sixties with Muskogee and The Fighting Side of Me? Back to Merle.
Yes he has, as we already knew. Cheryl Burns reported to CounterPunch this a few weeks ago from Kansas City: "I saw Merle Haggard tonight in KC--great show. He said something about 'so now we're in another war' and went on to say he was still proud to be an American and all that, so I was wondering just where he was headed. But then he said there was nothing good about any war except the soldiers, sailors, etc.
"Then he says, 'I think we should give John Ashcroft a big
hand...(pause)...right in the mouth!' Went on to say, 'the
way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail
tomorrow for saying that, so I hope ya'll will bail me out.'
Merle wasn't in this ripe form in Eureka, but he dropped some hints. "Friends and conservatives", he began, then he made a joke about George Bush's colonoscopy, and the search for Osama bin Laden. "He's up there somewhere," Merle said somewhat cryptically, and the crowd wasn't quite sure how to take it. Then he said off-handedly, without enthusiasm, "Looks like we're in another war," and sang The Fighting Side of Me.
At another concert, June a year ago, he was quoted by John Derbyshire in National Review online as saying, "Look at the past 25 years we went downhill, and if people don't realize it, they don't have their fucking eyes on ... In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there's available to an average citizen in America right now... God almighty, what have we done to each other?"
Whose Left Is It Anyway?
Coming from inside the Beltway in Washington DC is Sam Smith's on-line Progressive Review. In the wake of Hitchens' departure from the Nation and his foolish denunciations of the left, Sam had some interesting reflections on what exactly "the left" consists of, contrasting the "elite" or old Marxist left with the colloquial, informal, spontaneous left:
"I have always been far closer to the idiomatic, colloquial left than to the more elite varieties I have never gotten on that well with Hitchens' former pals in the elite left because I never could find the time to straighten out my paradigm. It turns out it wasn't all that important anyway, because the people who made the difference were not the famous talkers but the little known doers, ordinary people, who in Conrad's phrase, for one brief moment did something out of the ordinary.
"They were people who had not studied Marx and Hegel and couldn't tell a Trotskyite from a troll. But they knew, in Pogo's words, when to 'stand on the piano and demand outrage action.' These are the people of whom Carl Sandburg wrote: 'I am the people--the mob--the crowd--the mass. Do you know that all the great work of this world is done through me? I am the workingman, the inventor, the maker of the world's food and clothes. I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons come from me and the Lincolns. They die. and then I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns. . . Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red drops for history to remember. Then--I forget. When I, the people, learn to remember, when I, the People use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool--then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: "The People", with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far off smile of derision. The mob--The crowd--The mass--will arrive then.'
"Consistently, the East Coast shuttle left from which Hitchens has departed has been indifferent about, ignorant of, or even in opposition to the issues of the idiomatic, colloquial left. The people who are changing the way other people think about things are found scattered around the nation. And when some of them came together in the most effective progressive political organization of modern times--the Green Party--they were not only not welcomed into the club, they were frequently excoriated. And as for the critics of an Iraqi invasion, they are typically just ordinary citizens who have learned without the help of Ramsey Clark to be scared to death of what their leaders are about to do to them.
"Hitchens and his ilk will continue to have their little debates, all carefully framed in a manner that excludes most of the people they claim to care about and most of the people who actually produce change. It worked at university and it works now. But it has little to do with either America or the left as it really is."
I liked some of what Smith said about the left and non-left, but I think his contrasting of the doctrinaire sterility of failed old "left" with creative, non doctrinaire spirited "real left" left a lot of the story untold.
In my years of going around the country doing anti-intervention talks, fund-raisers, book tours etc, etc, the first thing to notice is that there's a truly vast left that is invisible to almost all east coast commentators. Church people, labor people, public defenders, Lawyers Guild, faculty people, farm people, radical greens, World Federalist types, red diapered middle-agers, in almost every town. (And in every town the left will tell you with gloomy pride how conservative their town is. )
And in meeting after meeting you can look at the audience and see older folk who were labor commies in the 50s and who have certainly had their share of doctrinal struggle and who have read Marx etc, and sixties vintage people who might have fought their way through the RCP and out the other side, and then younger people still who might have come aboard in WTO wars and who read CounterPunch.
It's a rich geology that varies from place to place. For example in one town in Wisconsin the two most bustling left activists and organizers were both kind of ex Revolutionary Communist Party. In the Deep South I've met radical lawyers who are still the organizing backbone of their communities who came down as Maoists in the 70s. In for the long haul and lively and not deserving of Smith's misprision. A lot of good organizers are still in left groups mainstreamers might instinctively deride as fossilized Trots or Maoists or whatever. Red-baiters like Corn may write long articles on the Nation site about how the Workers World Party stage-managed the DC demo, but so what? Corn's ideological forebears were redbaiting the Commies for being behind the Civil Rights movement, which often they were. Sectarians know how to organize. Someone has to do it.
Sam was right in one thing: many of these, especially the younger lot, couldn't give a toss about Hitchens. I was reminded of this when I gave a speech in SF a few months ago and derided Hitchens' positions and a lively young woman in a left group asked me impatiently what was all the talk about this "Clifford Hutchins". As for Hitchens, he parted ways with anything decently radical long, long ago, as I occasionally point out. My hope of course, which Jeffrey St. Clair and I try to push along in CounterPunch, is that the left should understand that common cause can be made with many in the populist right who take the Bill of Rights seriously. Ashcroft is doing his best to help.
Alexander Cockburn is the author The Golden Age is In Us (Verso, 1995) and 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (Verso, 2000) with Jeffrey St. Clair. Cockburn and St. Clair are the editors of CounterPunch, the nationís best political newsletter, where this article first appeared.