Wednesday, March 20, 2013

where's all the hippie punching?

You know, I'm reading all of the Iraq mea culpas, some good, some bad. But they are all systematically ignoring one of the most obvious and salient aspects of the run up to the war: the incredible power of personal resentment against antiwar people, or what antiwar people were perceived to be. As someone who was involved in day-to-day antiwar activism at the time, the visceral hatred of those opposing the war, and particularly the activists, was impossible to miss. It wasn't opposition. It wasn't disagreement. It was pure, irrational hatred, frequently devolving into accusations of antiwar activists being effectively part of the enemy. Yet for as visible and important as this distaste was for the debate, it's missing from the postmortems. Why?

First, some might say that personality doesn't matter, that what matters is substance. But personality influences substance. A huge amount of the arguments in favor of the war were essentially genetic: look at the people opposing the war, dirty fucking hippies! How could you stand with them? From the space of 10 years, people are putting all of their arguments into the most rational, logical light. Even in the commission of apologizing, they can't stop themselves from trying to rationalize what they advocated. But I don't, actually, think that they were being rational when they advocated for war. I think they were tribal, and they were being emotional, and that it mattered. And the refusal to recognize that makes it more dangerous that they will get it wrong in the future.

Second, I think people don't want to admit that hatred of the left-wing was part of their problem in 2002 and 2003 because they still hate the left, and recognizing the irrationality of their earlier hatred would compel them to think over their current hatred. Jon Chait, to pick one of the people doling out so-so-sorrys, certainly has never stopped treating the left with open-mouthed contempt. (Far more contempt than he has for most Republicans.) Look, casting your eyes back a decade, no matter how much you couch it as a matter of self-criticism, is easy. You're operating at a remove. You get to consider a much younger you. Thinking about how you currently are animated by petty resentments is harder.

And more important. Again: this conversation is useful only so long as it provokes better outcomes in the future. Better outcomes cannot come from the same old people pulling the weight. The left opposed the war, and was correct to oppose the war, because the left is correct on the merits when it comes to foreign policy. If you want to do good, listen to them in the future. Remember the eliminationism and ugly recriminations from the past. Recognize the ways in which the terms of the debate were artificially constrained by personal disapproval and social factors. Change.

23 comments:

jcapan said...

“Recognize the ways in which the terms of the debate were artificially constrained by personal disapproval and social factors.”

As long as we can also recognize that the debate itself was repellent propaganda for warmongering profiteers not at all concerned with the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocents. Our duopoly and its centrist media courtiers are with few exceptions complicit in this bloodletting. I agree that the left had no say in the debate but that’s b/c there’s enormous consensus among democrats and republicans, among “conservatives” and “liberals.” There is no room for other voices, voices that might threaten corporations, the patron saints of politicians and journalists alike. And per your last post, thank god you don’t want a career in media, Freddie, b/c you’ve not been properly groomed for the gig—regardless of how well you write, Time or WaPo et al have no interest in truth-tellers. Joe Klein, David Patraeus and Hillary Clinton—if that Ménage à trois of support for war doesn’t cause a shudder…

Justin said...

I think rational and emotional is a false dichotomy. We rationalize our emotional impulses with language.

Charles said...

It's hard to know what to say about this. This is one area in which I'm uncharacteristically despairing. The Afghanistan war was wrong. The Iraq war was something else -- fucking absurd. I remember the feeling of complete disconnection from reality, watching the country get behind this mad policy while Hans Blix was essentially screaming There aren't any weapons here, what are you people doing. I remember marching and being mocked by people who might as well have been saying that the dirt was blue and the sky was brown. I remember being told by those people that I just didn't know how the world works. And I remember that the protests and the letters and the arguments didn't do a goddamn bit of good and that thousands of people died. It remains the most surreal experience of my life. (Dirty hippy that I was, I have plenty of LSD trips to compare. No contest.)

And now all these apologies, which really just amount to polite embarrassment, instead of Holy shit I lost my mind and now so many people are dead. I guess it makes sense -- how do you apologize for getting the color of the sky wrong and then killing a bunch of people, without retiring from public life?

Yeah. I have no hope on this one. I'm already waiting for the next war.

Sorry if this is a bit disconnected. I can't even think about that time without freaking out a little.

Andrew said...

I was only 18 at the time of the Iraq invasion, so I didn't see exactly how everything went down regarding anti-war movements and reactions to those movements. Was the dirty hippie image of the anti-war activists an actual reason that regular people supported the war, or would pro-war types have jumped onto whatever bullshit reason to insult the anti-war movement that they could find? If the dirty hippie image was a factor in the public's decision to support the war, would that change anything about how you would organize against future wars?

I'm all for blaming the people who were loudly wrong about the war as much as possible. But there were a lot of silent people convinced by the pro-war arguments. Having seen the anti-war demonstrations on the campus of the university I was attending, I have a hard time believing that anyone was convinced to oppose the war by a protest. Do the people who were right about the war being a terrible idea deserve zero blame for not being convincing enough in their advocacy for their cause? Or was all of the war support built into the structures of class and the media?

If everything is structural, is there anything we can do about it at all?

Skye said...

The Boston Herald just ran an Iraq War commemorative issue featuring a few veterans who say "I regret nothing" and "I would do it all again tomorrow." I'm actually glad they did this, for it lays bare the kind of machismo that was always at the heart of this war. It is an attitude that has no time for the real bravery of veterans who came home with doubts about what they were fighting for and who don't have enough money to run for office as Republicans.

--"If everything is structural, is there anything we can do about it at all?" Of course we can always vote third party, if we're not afraid of being called Bolshevists.

sherman said...

I can recall otherwise liberal people quoting Hitchens to me in defense of the war. Not all, but a few feminists telling me that the wars in the Middle East were liberating women oppressed under the yoke of Islam. Freedom Fries aren't an urban legend, most Americans really hated the French for opposing the war. I remember driving along the streets of the very liberal western Massachusetts town I was living in and seeing people on the side of the road with 'Honk If You Love America' signs. In retrospect I think the Afghanistan war was disappointing revenge for 9-11 to most Americans (no OBL, no big cities to pulverize, low body counts) and Iraq was the big money shot they were all waiting for. So if you opposed the war you were trying to ruin America's orgasm. No one likes a person who tries to ruin American orgasms.

sherman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brett said...

I was 16 at the time. I remember there were protests and people against the war, but there was also this not-so-subtle hint from pro-war people that opposing the invasion was un-American, and that showed up on television news. I also remember that "We can't wait for proof to arrive in the form of a mushroom cloud" sound-byte being repeated over and over again.

Unknown said...

"It wasn't opposition. It wasn't disagreement. It was pure, irrational hatred, frequently devolving into accusations of antiwar activists being effectively part of the enemy".

Yup. I remember protesting on the streets of Chicago: older men flipping me off while walking the streets, chants and shouts of "go to another country if you don't like this one". And never has there been an open acknowledgement that this mistake was truly a mistake, only a grudging acceptance that what was popular is no longer popular.

Andrew Ivers said...

I was a freshman in college in St. Louis ten years ago and very much involved in the antiwar protests. I was interviewed by local media more than once on behalf of the antiwar groups, wrote at least one op-ed in the weekly student paper, even had fruit thrown at me on the evening of March 19th while we were holding an all-night protest as the war got under way.

I have to wonder, though, if there wasn't a bit of left-wing tribalism in the way that certain Americans opposed the war. And I'm not talking about the crazy people who show up at protests spouting paranoid rants. I'm talking about the many young people (and some not so young) who got most of their news about the situation from various antiwar groups' talking points. Not that our news media were doing a very good job either, but I know I personally never really bothered to consider the scope of the war debate, never read much about the history of all the factors in play. I was mostly exercising generic left-wing pacifist beliefs without much objective concern for factors like national security, diplomacy, history, etc. I just found the bits that served my arguments and moved on. I could be alone in that but I don't think I was. I'm not sure how I'd do it today, maybe not much differently, but I'm not exactly proud of my opposition to the war, if only because I know it wasn't really an informed opinion -- just a belief I had absorbed from the society of the left.

I don't think the other side did much better, but I do think protesters are ignored now because many people think that left-wing college kids will protest just about anything. I was in a good half-dozen issue-based campus activist groups at the time, and when they pooled together to protest the war, there was certainly a sense of doing something right but also a sense of excitement as all of our issues converged in a high-profile event -- even if it didn't make much sense for, say, the environmental group or the feminist group to contribute to a discussion of a war. We found pertinent angles for every one of them, of course, but did that really help the debate? I think it was tribal more than anything else. And unfortunately the national debate about the war became a tribal thing too, with both sides trying to steal the spotlight rather than actually discuss the merits of the war.

Andrew Ivers said...

(And I would argue that, no matter who started it, the public fighting about the war sucked all the attention away from legitimate scrutiny -- which might have at least forced the administration to plan the war properly.)

Freddie said...

Andrew, you can always wish for a purely-hypothetical perfect antiwar movement which will never exist. Or you can acknowledge the fact that the actual antiwar movement we actually had were right on the merits about the issue in question.

Barry said...

Andrew's is the typical pro-war stance seeking *any* justification. If they can't find it *for* the war, they'll pick out pissant reasons to be against opposing the war.

Freddie, I have to disagree with your statement: 'You know, I'm reading all of the Iraq mea culpas, some good, some bad. '

My count is it's at least 10:1 bad:good. I've seen very few which aren't along the lines of 'I was right to be wrong; you were wrong to be right', with the exceptions being more 'I was right'.

Andrew said...

Barry, I thought the Iraq war was a bad idea which was why I thought it was important to make arguments that succeed in preventing war. I doubt that the protests I saw succeeded in any reasonably articulated objective they could have had. Thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still died despite worldwide protests. Most Americans still supported the war during its execution. It's possible that nothing people opposed to the war did would have succeeded at those preventing war, which is a depressing thought.

I don't think this is something unique to the anti-war protests. For lots of liberal and leftist causes I agree with, I think the tactics and strategy adopted by these causes are unproductive at best. Hopefully I'm wrong.

Purple library guy said...

Well, Andrew, you have a point but I'm not sure where it gets us.

And you're dead wrong about one thing. I mean, do you really think that if there hadn't been protests that there would have been attention paid to legitimate scrutiny? To the contrary, there would have been even less attention paid; legitimate scrutiny would have been completely and entirely swept under the rug. Surely that's obvious from a cursory look at how the media functions.

The tribalism certainly exists (and often limits the growth of the left in places where its fundamental values and solutions would be very useful), but really--you don't think the other side did much better?! Maybe it's just me, but I would tend to say that a tribalism which leads one to accept transparent falsehoods in the name of fear and hatred is, on average, worse than a tribalism which leads one to accept broadly true arguments without closely examining them in the name of peace and brotherhood. So yeah, rather than not much better, I'd have to claim the pro-war tribalism was considerably worse.

The more important point you make is a tactical one: The antiwar left did not come up with a tactical approach capable of succeeding in stopping the war. This is true. And, the antiwar left could have been a better antiwar left; its tactics could have been smarter, its education and organizing could have been stronger and so on. If it had been about as good as it could possibly be under the circumstances, would that have stopped the war?

Probably not. About the best outcome we could have gotten would be more seeds planted, more organization remaining to build for the future. But some of that did happen; the antiwar left was not worthless, and it did make many good arguments, and it did plant some seeds for the future, and at absolute minimum there is some value in speaking out and bearing witness, in doing the right thing even if you cannot win. I think Andrew's self-dislike on this is largely unwarranted.

andrewivers said...

You’re both probably right. I just know I’m not terribly proud of opposing the war because I know my decision was mostly informed by left-wing idealism and generic suspicion of war and the Bush administration. It didn’t have much to do with the question at hand. And I think a lot of antiwar sentiment - then and now - still doesn’t.

When Freddie mentioned tribalism on the right, I thought it was worth mentioning that the same exists on the left as well. And idealism on the left can be just as insidious when it stems, as it often does, from the belief that the world can be a good or even perfect place if everyone is simply let be. After a decade of war soured Americans on intervention and foreign meddling, the president now seems to have little interest in helping legitimate, anti-authoritarian opposition in places like Russia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, etc. Perhaps those countries should be “left to decide their fate on their own,” but how realistic is it that things will always magically turn out well just because the US isn’t involved? And what happens if other powerful countries don’t play by the same rules - Russia aiding Assad, for example, or China propping up the living hell that is the Kim regime (not to mention aiding its weapons program)? The antiwar left doesn’t exactly raise hell about issues like this - I suspect because they don’t involve ugly-American foreign policy.

I suppose one gets a certain satisfaction from being able to say, well, at least my tax dollars didn’t kill anyone, but I’m not sure how satisfying it is to think that a country has been “left to decide its own fate” when the people of that country still have few rights or freedoms that would enable such a decision. I remain very suspicious of the illusions that prop up US interventionist mentality … but I find the reality I have just described hard to ignore as well.

andrewivers said...

(Just want to be clear: that last graf was not meant to mock any point made here - I was just ventriloquising a common justification of leftist ideas in such discussions.)

Skye said...

'I suppose one gets a certain satisfaction from being able to say, well, at least my tax dollars didn’t kill anyone, but I’m not sure how satisfying it is to think that a country has been “left to decide its own fate” when the people of that country still have few rights or freedoms that would enable such a decision.'

It's not about my tax dollars killing anyone. What is really going on in Afghanistan right now has nothing to do with building up Afghan democracy and freedoms and everything to do with bailing out a thuggish uncrowned king (Karzai) because he is "Westernized." It is a gross misuse of American lives and resources, a problem of corruption as clearly as is bribery in the Chinese government.

Freddie said...

What Skye said. You keep begging questions here, Andrew, in a way that is not productive.

Phil Perspective said...

Jon Chait, to pick one of the people doling out so-so-sorrys, certainly has never stopped treating the left with open-mouthed contempt.



And MY and EK, to name a few. After all, look where both ended up. Working for war-mongering Kaplan Test Prep Post.

professorjasmith said...

I just know I’m not terribly proud of opposing the war because I know my decision was mostly informed by left-wing idealism and generic suspicion of war and the Bush administration. It didn’t have much to do with the question at hand. And I think a lot of antiwar sentiment - then and now - still doesn’t.

But, Andrew, there's nothing wrong with "generic suspicion" of things that should be treated with suspicion. Both war and the Bush Administration rank pretty high on that list.

Look, nobody does, or can, choose a position on every question or situation in the absence of any prior commitments. The left isn't just a tribe; it's people whose politics flow from certain values and postulates that necessarily come into play in judging major political events like a proposed war. And so they should. The world would be a better place if more people had the kinds of generic suspicions that you're talking about.

Ryan said...

I absolutely agree - these mea culpas, to a culpa, fail to capture the outright contempt, bleeding into hatred, that faced antiwar voices in that time. I wrote "SAY NO TO WAR" in thick black marker on some posterboard and carried it miles up and down Ventura Blvd. in L.A., and I had people flipping me off, swearing at me, asking me what "alternatives" I would propose. One person, who claimed also to be against the war, nevertheless criticized my poster for its lack of nuance. In the mailroom I worked at, a fellow temp sarcastically hummed "Give Peace a Chance" to get under my skin.

A lot of former supporters of the war, in their mea culpas, are claiming "fear" as one of the reasons. (For example, Bill Keller and David Frum, in their apologias, say they feared for their daughters.) I believe them, but I don't think it was fear of terrorists. I think it was fear of not being perceived as manly enough. Everyone's afraid of being called a hippie, with all the misogynistic negative connotations the word carries, conjuring as it does gendered images of long hair and flowers. Finding a way to support mass slaughter is a good way to avoid that.

eg said...

I opposed the war on what was likely different grounds from many of the posters here.

In terms of realpolitik it was sheer folly.

As I understand it, democracies should avoid foreign entanglements whenever possible. War should be considered only once all useful alternatives have been exhausted. Then, and only then, it should be executed as thoroughly and ruthlessly as the cultural norms of its people will tolerate. Under those rare, likely existential circumstances, tribalism is useful.

Every time America indulges itself in these foolish, petty foreign interventions, it debases the currency both of its legitimacy and its power.

/rant