WRITING in the online magazine Slate on December 4, Jacob Weisberg who supports the war against terrorism chides those of us who have been aghast at the attempt of unreconstructed leftists to create and build a new antiwar movement. He takes to task both The New Republic and The Weekly Standard; the first for regularly running an "idiocy watch" column listing the weekly absurd declarations from sections of our intelligentsia; the second for running its regular "Susan Sontag awards" for those who continue to blame America first and who, like Katha Pollitt of The Nation, bragged about how she refused to fly an American flag from her balcony after September 11. There are so many candidates for entry that to this date, each magazine has featured new entries and those which they have no room to print are added to their websites.
What upsets columnist Weisberg is not that these people should be taken to task for saying foolish things, but what he calls the implication that their "comments represent a significant body of antiwar opinion." After all, one can complain about the idiocy of Barbara Kingsolver’s various recent statements, but Weisberg writes, "she only published something in a Milwaukee newspaper equating patriotism with terrorism." Actually Kingsolver also published similar pieces in both The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. She is, after all, a major American novelist, and stupid or not, various oped page editors obviously feel her views are important enough to be shared with the public, over and over again.
Weisberg does not seem to believe that the airing of such views, given the imprimatur of major newspapers that such arguments are important, does a lot to legitimize their arguments and even to convince others of their worthiness. After all, if an intelligent writer like Kingsolver can make such a case, some will say after reading her words, that then there is a lot to what she says. That, of course, is what Kingsolver hopes, and what those who publish her probably hope as well. But Weisberg is not content to dismiss Kingsolver as irrelevant, as if her words mean nothing. He chastises Christopher Hitchens for bucking his regular leftwing colleagues at The Nation and elsewhere, including Noam Chomsky, because he says that Hitchens "recognizes clinical symptoms that have been obvious to everyone else for years." In other words Jacob Weisberg believes that because he knows that people like Sontag, Oliver Stone and Chomsky display "clinical symptoms," then clearly it is not worth Hitchens’ time to criticize them. Evidently Weisberg believes that few are convinced of anything by people like Chomsky and the others he cites something that the giant cult of Chomsky in many of our nation’s campuses clearly belies. And Weisberg knocks Hitchens for falsely calling them "American liberals." Actually, Hitchens clearly writes that those whose views he criticizes have ideas that are "sadly, not uncommon on the political left." He says left, and not "liberal." And writing as a man of that very left, Hitchens is making public his disdain for them and their ideas. They have, he writes, "grossly failed to live up to their responsibility to think" and are "substituting tired slogans for thought." He may have erred when at his column’s end, he does use the term "American liberals." But if one reads the entire piece there is no mistaking whom he is criticizing; the liberalleft Establishment and its wouldbe opinion makers. Weisberg should not worry. He is not among that group.
But Weisberg goes on to claim that actually, "even many nonliberal leftists who have protested every military action since Vietnam aren’t against this war." As Rick Perlstein pointed out a few weeks ago in The New York Observer, the left is split and indeed some old stalwarts of the ‘60s, like Todd Gitlin, are flying the American flag and are supportive of the war against terrorism. Yet, even Weisberg acknowledges the very truth of Hitchens’ argument that they will not fight "against an evil if that fight forces us to go to the same corner as our own government." Weisberg writes that the people at The Nation "can’t bear to say that they support what the United States is doing in Afghanistan." True enough. So what, then, is Weisberg’s problem?
Finally, Weisberg’s venom is turned, of course, to David Horowitz, editor of these pages. Here he resorts to ad hominem personal arguments, writing that Horowitz "understands everything in terms of the Cold War and Vietnam," and that if he did not have "an antiAmerican left to do battle against, his life would be drained of all meaning." This cheap shot is reminiscent of the psychologizing he engaged in two years ago, when writing in the pages of The New York Times Magazine, he criticized Horowitz, myself, John Haynes and others for hating our parents and fighting a Cold War that is over. He cannot help but even blast Michael Kelly, whose columns of sanity he attacks with the screed that Kelly "seems to need a treasonous antiwar movement to stir his outrage and generate column inches." Perhaps, just perhaps, Jacob Weisberg needs a strong antiantiwar movement to get his goat and generate column inches. His response is, indeed, precisely that of his magazine article, in which what annoyed him was the anticommunism of those who did not accept antianticommunism.
Weisberg ends on the note that people like him know of the antiwar movement’s "virtual nonexistence." They are wrong, he says thereby having it both ways but they are "totally irrelevant." Since he cites the latest issue of The Nation as an example, it is strange that he ignored the article (Dec. 17) by Liza Featherstone, "Students Wrestle With War." Ms. Featherstone is listed as the reporter who regularly has been "covering the peace movement for The Nation." The article, as one might expect, is written from the perspective of those who want and desire the peace movement to grow, and to stop the new aggressive policy of waging war against terrorism. More to the point, Ms. Featherstone’s main point contra Weisberg is that "This new peace activism, which has already touched at least 400 campuses, builds on networks and habits of dissent established by the student anticorporate movement, which has focused largely on economic justice…many of the organizations…prominent in those campaigns are equally visible in antiwar organizing." In other words, as many of us have argued, the antiglobalization Left has shifted its direction and has tried to turn itself into a new antiwar movement.
Moreover, Ms. Featherstone writes that "this war has inspired a farflung and passionate opposition movement." She cites a November 10 meeting of "hundreds of student activists" held at scores of campuses, including Boston University, Georgia State University, George Washington University, DePaul University and the University of California, Berkeley, all convened to "plan campaigns and establish coalitions." She talks of the "peace camps" set up at the Universities of Indiana and Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania. True, the students therein are now clearly in a minority, but are most anxious to reach others and stop preaching to the choir. Ms. Featherstone’s remedies for that situation are rather comical. She notes that for a short while, the peace movement could avoid attacking a popular war at home by concentrating on what she calls "the humanitarian focus;" and like Noam Chomsky, make the argument that the bombing was going to produce starvation and prevent humanitarian aid and food from getting into Afghanistan. But now, she writes, the argument that the bombing "made the situation even worse" is falling apart, since now there are "reports that more food aid was entering Afghanistan." The poor leftwing peace movement; just when they thought they got an argument, reality interfered with it and they are left back at the beginning. Indeed, she quotes one activist who tells her "now the United States is helping, and the situation is dramatically improving." It is hard, one can see from her writing, to continue to attack the United States and to resist being in its corner this time around. No wonder their new tactic is now to "turn their attention to the ‘war’ at home;" to avoid the actual fighting and to attack the administration for "racist scapegoating and the frightening assaults on civil liberties." The Left, as usual, is not concerned with the issue of the necessity of fighting the war against terrorism; its real goal is to oppose the United States, and to use any and all arguments to create an antiwar movement that will interfere with our necessary and just war.’ If Weisberg thinks that the magazine’s other articles, accusing the Attorney General of "terrorizing the Constitution" and accusing the administration of creating a new "national security state" is meant to do anything but oppose the war effort, he is living in fantasy land.
Most importantly, Jacob Weisberg ignores the fact that we are only a few months into a war that is just beginning, and after the final collapse of the Taliban, will undoubtedly become more difficult, and lead as well to more American casualties. If we move to oust Saddam Hussein, as now seems probable, we can be sure that the burgeoning antiwar movement will escalate its propaganda, and manage to gain many new converts. We will hear new talk about the new monstrous attempts to impose American hegemony on the world in defense of oil and the American Empire. One also must recall that during the early phases of the Vietnam War way before the successful Vietnam Moratorium of 1969 the antiwar movement was as it is now, a small, vocal and "irrelevant" minority. It took the entrance of thousands of American troops, television pictures of the fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, and the arrival at home of scores of body bags of dead GIs, as well as a mass student population that sought to avoid Army service, that turned the tide. If Jacob Weisberg were writing in 1965, let us say, he would undoubtedly as a liberal mainstream journalist have supported the war and ridiculed those who were concerned with the miniscule antiwar left. Now, Weisberg is right when he says that "those opposed to the United States defending itself against terrorism are wrong." But he is incorrect when he writes that "they also happen to be totally irrelevant." To keep them irrelevant, we need to do our part to knock down their arguments, and prevent others from moving into their ranks. Weisberg should save his anger for them, rather than use it attacking the likes of Michael Kelly and David Horowitz.