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Marc Cooper on the Peace Movement

by John Sohnn Monday, Oct. 15, 2001 at 3:46 PM

Marc Cooper criticizes the peace movement but tries to define a constructive role for the Left, Published in today's L.A. Times Opinion section.


Liberals Stuck in Scold Mode

By MARC COOPER, Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to The Nation

magazine and a columnist for L.A. Weekly

It called itself a peace rally. But if you watched the

first major post-Sept. 11 anti-war demonstration on

C-SPAN two weekends ago, it was really more a

self-caricature of an American left that has

struggled unsuccessfully since the attacks to find its

proper national voice and posture.

There were just about the same number of

protestors in the Washington, D.C., streets that day

as there were victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Watching that march and rally, it occurred to me

how powerful an image could have been created if

each demonstrator had carried an American flag

and, perhaps, a black cardboard silhouette

representing those who had perished in the attacks.

Instead, the rally unfolded as some kind of robotic

rent-a-demonstration, morally and politically detached from this crucial historic

moment. A succession of speakers mounted the podium, genuflecting only

briefly--if at all--to the dead before campaigning for the usual Top 40 list of

progressive issues, from universal health care, to drug-war reform, to freeing

death-row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Virtually nothing was said about what

America should do in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks--other than to flagellate

itself for a sordid list of foreign policy sins and transgressions. It was a great

missed opportunity. This is a time when America needs an effective and mature

political left.

Instead, the American left--or at least a broad swath of it--is more alienated

from its own national institutions than its counterparts in any other developed

nation. Even its own national symbols have become anathema (what a warning

signal when you cannot tolerate the sight of your own flag).

Some conservative critics have lambasted this left for being subversive, even

treasonous. I prefer to characterize it as traumatized and dysfunctional.

Occupying the narrow space of a progressive opposition inside the greatest

superpower in history comes, apparently, with a certain psychic cost. In the

years since World War II, the American left has had reason to be skeptical

about the deployment of U.S. military power. From the covert operations

against Iranian, Guatemalan and Nicaraguan sovereignty, to the overt

interventionism in countries from Vietnam to Santo Domingo to Panama to

hapless Grenada, American military might has often seemed little more than the

sulphuric expression of imperial hubris.

Seldom finding resonance with a domestic working class it claims to represent,

U.S. progressives have often retreated into "third worldism," fancying

themselves the righteous advocates and defenders of poorer nations that find

themselves on the receiving end of American foreign policy and military might.

At its best, this "solidarity politics" has achieved important policy objectives--as

with the widespread 1980's political resistance to the Reagan administration's

Contra war in Central America. At its worst, it breeds something akin to


The end result of this psycho-political micro-climate are two generations of

American leftists who lack the political sensibility and even the simple emotional

language that would allow them to see their own fellow citizens, even

transitorily, as victims rather than victimizers, that would allow them to

distinguish between a CIA coup abroad and the butchering of thousands of

innocent American civilians at home.

Hence, that odious whiff of "chickens coming home to roost" that has

permeated much of the left's reaction to Sept. 11. It's one thing to argue that

Americans are naive and perhaps arrogant to have believed in a historic

exceptionalism that could immunize them against pain and bloodshed on their

own soil. It's quite another to suggest, as I repeatedly heard during that peace

rally, that America somehow invited last month's massacre. Morally repugnant

and politically unviable, this sort of demagogy can only render the left irrelevant.

These difficult times require the active and effective presence of a

clearer-thinking left, one that can offer unique and salutary perspectives to

counter a war-empowered, conservative Bush administration.

It must begin with an unequivocal acknowledgement that the perpetrators of

Sept. 11 are in no way the avengers of some oppressed constituency. They

were atavistic, religious fascists whose world view is diametrically opposed to

all humanitarian and progressive morality.

And the left must recognize that these forces cannot be neutralized by

nonviolent moral suasion or international law alone. As some on the left have

argued, the WTC attacks demand a "just response" that includes limited,

targeted and effective military action aimed at lessening the threat of future

terrorist attacks and restoring a sense of domestic security. For those who are

squeamish about taking out Osama Bin Laden's network and its Taliban

defenders, let them reflect on just how much further American politics will slide

to the right if there are a half-dozen more major terror attacks here at home.

But the left must also be vigilant against any attempt by the Bush administration

and its most right-wing allies to expand this war into an undefined, indeterminate

and ultimately self-defeating global crusade. There is no military solution to

terrorism: There is only a military component. Accordingly, the left must

demand that the humanitarian component of the U.S. response go beyond what

has been an embarrassingly meager air drop of a few thousand army rations to

millions of starving Afghans. Any post-Taliban Afghanistan must receive

massive economic support and not be abandoned the morning after military

victory is declared, as the U.S. did after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan a

dozen years ago.

Likewise, only the left can push for an authentic internationalism that would

include strengthening the United Nations, as well as new venues of global

justice like the International Criminal Court. Regional conflicts, first among them

the Israeli-Palestinian war, must be solved quickly and justly. Progressives can

and must exert pressure for a sea change in a U.S. policy that has propped up

the most anti-democratic forces in the region.

Domestically, progressives have a gaping vacuum to fill, as the Democratic

Party seems blown adrift by the winds of war. Excessive federal police power

must be blocked (in this regard a promising left-right coalition has already

emerged, uniting the American Civil Liberties Union and National Rifle

Association board members in defense of the 4th Amendment).

The left must be vigilant in protecting all dissent and in safeguarding against the

kind of domestic witch hunts that some conservative ideologues have already

tried--unsuccessfully--to foment.

Finally, the left must counter what some have called 'policy profiteering'--the

cynical wrapping of the American flag around an expedited and partisan

Republican policy agenda.

We on the left must walk and chew gum at the same time. Supporting limited

military action and increasing domestic security does not mean surrendering on

civil liberties or grotesque handouts of corporate welfare (as seen in the

bipartisan rubber stamping of the airlines bailout) or new tax cuts for the

wealthy. If sacrifices are to be made to restore any sense of security, then they

must be equally shouldered.

These policy points should be more than a political wish list. A democratic and

mature American left must assume them as our moral imperatives. If we don't,

who will?

For information about reprinting this article, go to http://www.lats.com/rights/register.htm

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