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Reactionary rhetoric on the left

People on the left are as likely as anyone else to fall for reactionary rhetoric
I wrote this as a comment to another article which is soon to scroll off the newswire, but I thought it is a very important subject that deserves a lot more attention:

People on the left are as likely as anyone else to fall for reactionary rhetoric.

What is "reactionary rhetoric"? I think it has various hallmarks.
But the most important and notable aspect of it is the overall function that it serves: Reactionary rhetoric depoliticizes people.

Depoliticizing people means distracting them from real analysis, debate, organizing, and effective action in the political realm. Distracting them from the crux of political issues onto tangential irrelevancies. The whole meaning of "radicalism" means getting to **roots** of a problem (RADIX=root). So it perfectly stands to reason that the OPPOSITE of radicalism would be anything that refuses such a disciplined discussion, and instead attempts to distract the participants and wear them away with anything else, however trivial or ridiculous or beside-the-point.

So, one hallmark of reactionary rhetoric is to focus on the supposed "moral failings" of individuals. To reduce a political discussion into a series of petty moralizing recriminations. "Bill Clinton was a lecherous womanizer!" etc. "Homeless people are lazy!" or "The unemployed just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps!" etc etc.

Of course, left-leaning people fall for this kind of trap all the time themselves. Rather than do the crucial work of analyzing the actual workings of the capitalist system, and developing reasoned responses to it, they content themselves too often with formulaic rants against the evils of "big business," for example. Or rather than developing a strong analysis of imperialism, they content themselves with just denouncing "Bush's war crimes," or some other political personality, or even this or that particular soldier's war crimes.

It wouldn't be so bad if they were actually spending most of their time doing other things, like actual political education, actual organizing, etc, and being effective at them. But all too often, their political immaturity torpedoes and impedes their effectiveness at these things, which are the crux of real politics.

At the risk of being accused of engaging in mudslinging myself, I think it is appropriate to point to a real-life example: It doesn't take a political genius to figure out that, if you want to stop a war, and most of the guns are in the hands of American soldiers, and the only way to stop the killing is to convince those soldiers to courageously put their guns down, then you're not going to make much headway by attacking them and their families personally as "murderers." ( http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2005/11/329030.shtml). Talk about dumb politics.

While such a blatant and extreme example is not the rule, I believe it nonetheless illustrates a real phenomenon. Leftists are bad at politics, partly because they fall for the same reactionary rhetoric that is used by the rightwing. But the rightwing use it skillfully, in a very disciplined and deliberate way. Whereas left-leaning folk do it unconsciously, because they have been just as brainwashed and damaged by the hegemony of reactionary ideology as everyone else.

Related discussion and links:
Thanks for posting 18.Nov.2005 17:00

g.d. dem

The thing about reaction is that it saves people from all the trouble of formulating, stating and actually bringing into existence a positive alternative to what they object to!

Of course, we all indulge in reaction, but it's a good idea to be aware of the tendency and not give in to it.

developmental retardation 18.Nov.2005 17:22


I want to repeat here, because I think it's a crucial point, the idea that "Working Class Mama" initially alluded to, in http://portland.indymedia.org/en/2005/11/328956.shtml, that what we are dealing with is a type of societal developmental retardation. At the risk of belaboring this, I will copy and paste my comment below:
This is a symptom of the overall depoliticizing of the population in this country. People in this society have a hard time engaging in principled political analysis. Even people who consider themselves progressives are often as likely as reactionaries to be unable to develop a political debate based on principled differences of opinion. They tend to personalize their disagreements, or get wrapped up in judgmental moral recriminations. You summed it up very well: "socially retarded behavior." Such behavior is the product of a politically retarded society.

Who hasn't heard the platitude that "Two things you shouldn't talk about in public with strangers are politics and religion." This is perhaps unique to this country. And since people are unable to discuss these things, their views and skills in these areas don't mature and grow. Growth and maturity require the challenge of learning to relate to others and rise to challenges gracefully. When our very "conventional wisdom" tells us this is forbidden, how can that growth ever happen?

So it should come as no surprise to us how those very two areas are among the most developmentally retarded and adolescent in American society. Gross superstition and fundamentalisms are rampant in American society as no other modern industrialized society. Even most left-leaning folk in our society are impaired in their ability to discuss and reason about politics and political ideas, or such basic issues as the role of leadership in organizations, or so many other areas that are basic to human existence, as so much of politics is. When you cut off the ability of people to discuss and mature in such basic and important areas of human existence, much else in our society inevitably suffers.

Think of the word "political science" and the metaphor it suggests. In real science, you devise theories about the world, and you get progressively more accurate models of the actual workings of the universe by subjecting your theories to rigorous experimentation and a process of peer review.

But now, imagine what would happen if we applied the motto above to science: "Don't talk about science with strangers!" Once upon a time, that was no joke! Galileo and Giordano Bruno could tell you all about the dangers! You could get literally burnt at the stake by the Church for propounding controversial and unpopular scientific theories.

Of course, today we recognize that that kind of self-censorship and fundamentalism was a barbarous obstacle to human progress.

But why should it surprise us that a similar oppressive retardation of social progress would ensue when we apply the same kind of repressive strictures on our ability to discuss politics and religion, two such very important and basic areas of human experience??!

Whether you are on the left or the right, as a human being, your political knowledge and understanding of the world has to put to the test of experience and experimentation, of "peer review" by your fellows. Non-"peer-reviewed" opinions, whether they are right or left or center or any other "wing" are equally liable to be screwy and inadequate in real life, without the benefit of such rigors. But people exacerbate the problem by hanging out in their own little "amen" corners and avoiding such rigors. Understandably enough, too, because the general political retardation of American society ensures that more often than not such a political discussion will degenerate into childish tantrums.

Political Science, Indymedia and Organizing the Left 19.Nov.2005 00:03

Marik marik@aracnet.com

Excellent article, gb. Think you did an excellent job of portraying many of the problems that plague the left opposition.

I think the direct result of this political retardation as you put it, is because there is no sort of left counter this depoliticization (is that a word?). There is no left political organization that really works to help arm activists with political weaponry. Individual activists are left to 'figure it out for themselves' amid the steady stream of media saturation coming from the ruling class.

There are however, some tools out there, like Indymedia. The counter and exchange of ideas and understandings that takes place on these forums is how we are currently opposing the 'reactionary rhetoric' or superflous arguments. However, I don't think indymedia has the right direction for such a task. Problems like this: "I wrote this as a comment to another article which is soon to scroll off the newswire" make it difficult to carry out debates or develop 'political science'.

It is a similiar problem with antiwar leadership. The liberal organizers that dominate the movement spout nothing but reactionary rhetoric aimed at rallying votes for the democratic party. It is as you said above "...rather than developing a strong analysis of imperialism, they content themselves with just denouncing "Bush's war crimes," or some other political personality, or even this or that particular soldier's war crimes.

This certainly doesn't get to the 'root' of the problem.

I do feel there is hope though. Everytime I read a good article with solid discussion on it. This is what it will take to counter all the dribble coming from the media machine. I also think this points directly to the need for an anti-imperialist organization, one that works to counter the 'reactionary rhetoric' and develop the political skills of the, dare I say it, working class!

Bullshit Marik 19.Nov.2005 19:35

Lloyd Hart dadapop@dadapop.com

What makes the left the left is figuring it out our your own and debating and confronting and especially confronting the full grown adults who go to war and follow orders without question that are blatant human rights violations.

Its liberals who want everyone on the left to adhear to the talking points from central command just as the right wing does. What if the talking points are wrong like last year during the election when the liberals should have been sounding the alarm bells about the theft of the election they were toning down the anti war movement and its rhetoric as well as beating up Nader. Total garbage politics.

The democratic party hasn't made a smart move in decades why on earth should we trust monolithic campaigns run by progressives that suffer from tunnel vision that allows them to not deal with their failures.

The troops deserve to be critisized for the simple fact that they keep on taking orders that murder people they have no right to murder. Coddling these full grown men and women is doing them a great disservice. Allowing the myth that they are not really fighting for god and country but "for the soldier beside them so that they can survive" to continue is like allowing a child to beat a kitten to death and then saying to the child did the kitten scratch you, oh my poor baby.

The liberals and progressives that are applying old, tired and failed tactics to counter a mutated and lock stepped right wing have lost all their credibility. And now attacking the activists who have an opinion of their own. Garbage politics and whats worse the original poster doesn't have the jam to use their true identity when making a broad slam of individual well founded opinions. Garbage politics.

To all liberal progressives in America the Vietnamese won the war. The peace movement did not stop it. The next democratic president set in motion and caused tens years of none stop slaughter in Afghanistan and would have kept the Vietnam War going if the Veitnamese had not yet succeeded.

If we can not shame the U.S. soldiers in Iraq how will they ever come to terms with their crimes against humanity as enablers of the Bush regime. How will they ever truly understand personal responsibility for the crimes they personally committed in Iraq. Are we simply supposed to absolve ourselves and the U.S. soldeirs in Iraq of personal responsibility. How are we to shape a policy that prevents the level of lawlessness that American foreign is and has been its entire history.

Focusing on the soldiers that are dying and being wounded in Iraq at the expence of deaths of innocent civilians not to mention the systematic starving to death of 1.5 million civilians in Iraq during the Clinton years is criminally narrow campaign. Where were the progressives while these people died in Iraq in during the Clinton years, investing in the tech boom.

Truth is not reactionary. Taking personal resposibility is not reationary. Grow the fuck up liberals and so to maybe might the soldiers murdering the people of Iraq.

Oh and by the way the Baathist insurgency is in the right to rise up and kill any Americans illegally occupying their land. Its international law check it out.

Dead Iraqi Baby Murdered By American Soldiers
Dead Iraqi Baby Murdered By American Soldiers

The debate was callouse, but you're disrespecting the debate. 19.Nov.2005 20:01


I think the problems are there. I think you're managing the context oppurtunisticly. I think the liberals needed a sacred cow. They needed a reason to say "We're better than bush." Cindy Sheenan is that justification. Her struggle is real, her pain is real.
I honestly don't respect the assumption that she didn't try to stop her son. I don't respect some of the name calling that's going on, on these threads. I too am frustrated that folks are so quick to disrespect the commons that is this debate.
That said, I agree with the basic underlying truth that Cindy Sheenan's suffering was placed above the suffering of Iraqi mothers. It was even placed above the suffering of other american's mothers. It was taken out of any context within our movement and made a symbol to describe the rightousness of a peace movement that had done more to ease the suffering of "our troops," and "unify" this country than to stop the suffering of the primary victims of this war. Was it any wonder bush could publicly declair that we are "ignorable" without some fear of reprisal? Or that the democrats as the oppositional party could almost the the one support it without fear of similar reprisal from YOU?

I think the motivations for this politic were largely unexamined, and promoted by your leadersip cadre without regard to our common context. What did Iraqi civilians want from america's peace movement? What will it take to end imperialism as a POLICY embraced by BOTH parties of this government? Was that EVER a concern? EVER?!!! It did't feel like it. When Todd Gitlin described described Sheenan as the perfect white bread soccer mom for the cause, you all mumered "amen.."
It was clear then where you're allegance was, what you stood for. When Oregon's governor started spouting this filth about the need for a DRAFT! A DRAFT!!! "to bring home the reality of the war" and ease the suffering of VOLUNTEERS, most of you fell lock step behind it. Only the threat that "radicals" would come to his door and fight him with nothing less than shac like tactics stoped that shit.
Acting like whatevers good for the democrats is good for the movement seems to be the primary failing here. Insisting that the issue be "anyone but bush" or "not my war, not my presedent" pushed me and others like me out of the peace movement. I stand against imperialism. I stand against bush the same as I stand against kissinger, or columbus, or lewis and clarke for that matter. I strapped on a shield and defended you at the day of bombing only to be called an extremist, and I've had enough. What's the point of wading into a line of riot cops to rescue a peppersprayed, developmentally disabled man if I've got to hear "shame, shame, shame" or "You're not good enough for us?" Am I in common struggle with you, is that what this thread says?

The fact that you created a seperate thread apart from the real, however callouse, DEBATE that was happening on the other threads further drives home the point that the symbol of cheenans suffering was more important than:

a) The debate about the morality of placing one persons suffering above millions.

b) The fact that the debate was exactly that a debate. Which seems to many the foundation of the democratic ideal.

c) Or the importance of accepting that the ideas that drive our movement should come from the ground up, and not the top down. Not from a seperate thread.

I don't know, the idea that you would start a seperate thread to talk shit about the debate that was going on somewhere else seems underhanded. It's enough to say that "the name calling isn't helping." But the place for that was there, among your peers.
Kristen did't say it how I would have said it, but that doesn't mean that many of the feelings we share about this don't have a place. You seem to think they don't. I think think you're wrong.

Thanks for listening to my greivances,

Where'd the discussion go? 19.Nov.2005 21:00

Marik marik@aracnet.com

When I did my updating of articles on PIMC, I was very excited to see this thread had garnered 36 posts! I was very disappointed to find most of it was just a bunch of flaming.

Ironically, this is exactly what the above article was about. The left cannot speak to each other without screaming and vicious personal attacks. Some call this sectarian. We can't argue politically. I see very little principled debate here. Sure, there are some interesting things being brought up, if your patient enough to read through 25 posts of personal bullshit. I think this points directly to what I brought up in my previous comment - the left needs some sort of outlet to develop polemics, views and understanding _with eachother_. It needs to be principled, so that it can be constructive (and NOT become a distracting flame war).

It would also be nice if the person who had the comment titled "Bullshit Marik" would actually say why they thought my post was bullshit...I'm not sure I understand what you were trying to get at. Perhaps it is because I said individuals are left to figure it out for themselves, which I believe Llord Hart took to mean everyone needs to be told what to do by some elitist group. This was certainly not my intention! However, those on the left, who are genuinely anti-imperialist and seek the overthrow of bourgeois rule, SHOULD be trying to get into contact with individual activists. There is nothing wrong with trying to reach people and to talk politics with them. Furthermore, we have to understand that we DO live in an imperialist society, and that there is a constant and steady stream of 'reactionary rhetoric' as g.b. put it. This conditioning begins the day of your birth.

That doesn't mean everyones some bourgeoisified clone, but it IS occuring and it DOES happen. That is simply beacuse there is NO organization of anti-imperialists dedicated to combating this steady stream of bullshit from the ruling elites. The best way we can fight it, is by arming people with the truth - that we live in an imperialist society. We will convince them by principled and well thought out debates and criticisms. This however, will not develop until their is some sort of group that sees this as a primary task.

Yes 19.Nov.2005 22:15

Frank mail@communistvoice.org

Marik already said it, but doesn't hurt to say it again: excellent article.
With this outlook much vital political work can be done in Portland. From another Northwest city I encourage you all to unite in order to do it. Build a really scientific and conscious movement against imperialism!

my point in writing this 20.Nov.2005 01:45


My reason for writing this was to talk about a broader subject than someone flamebaiting Cindy Sheehan, or even whether we should start to make a point of loudly calling some individual or group names to prove how much we don't like them. Etc. This kind of stuff is really a bunch of adolescent crap, which exemplifies what I'm talking about. But, as Marik says, while it might exemplify something that I'm criticizing, it still doesn't actually engage these criticisms in any way. It's just off-topic ranting and raving, frankly. It's all in the discussion area, for now, but it doesn't even deserve space within this article page altogether, honestly.

No matter how loudly you yell you hate George Bush's guts cause he's a Murderer!, it won't change him or the world or move us a step closer to an effective anti-imperialist or non-capitalist alternative. No matter how loudly you yell that you HATE! anyone who is taking orders from George Bush and his henchmen, it probably won't convince them to stop taking those orders. Maybe you will find it therapeutic for yourself though. By all means, go for it if it helps you vent your inner tensions and get on with your life.

However, when you're done with your therapy session, you might want to give some thought to an actual strategy for organizing anti-imperialist struggles. And who knows, maybe the most effective way at the moment of organizing anti-imperialist struggles would actually turn out to be making common cause with people from a wide variety of ideological tendencies that you bear nothing else in common with. Libertarians, say. Even Pat Buchanan, God forbid. (Oy vey, now I'm really going to get it!)

The point is, a mature and self-confident leftist politics would be able to think strategically, and would not be so obsessed with totemic purity that it would shreik in horror at such suggestions. So what, for example, that Americans are selfish and insular and relate more to the sufferings of a Soccer Mom from Vacaville than an Iraqi woman from Fallujah? Get over it for the time being, and let's see what we can do, given the current state of affairs, to move things forward. Are we going to be so churlish as to cry "No!" if Americans insist on stopping the torture of Iraq for the sake of the soccer moms of Vacaville, instead of doing it for the sake of the orphans of Fallujah? "No! Their motives aren't pure enough! I want no part of this!" This is fucking crazy, childish nonsense!

I really almost regret even raising this particular example, because really I DONT FUCKING CARE that much about it! If people all decided for some reason in their infinite wisdom that Cindy Sheehan in particular is somehow lacking and not to their taste and don't want to support her, fine. Whatever.

The real problem, though, is much bigger. Leftists are utterly ineffectual and politically inconsequential in this country for the same set of reasons that the country as a whole is so fucked up. Leftists have almost as little clue about effective political education and organization as the rest of the general population. The rightwing DOES know about effective political organization, and knows how to use appropriate and pragmatic tactics to achieve their goals. THAT is why they are successful. Naturally leftists can't use the exact SAME tactics and strategy, it should go without saying (for one thing, we don't have money). But we could at least think and act in calculated and intelligent (and pragmatic) ways. As if we were serious about success. And as if we had serious aspirations of our values being in the forefront of society someday, as opposed to just being a tiny marginal subculture, or a series of group therapy sessions, or whatever the hell we are.

Building a social movement requires getting outside of your comfort zone debating and preaching to the relative handful of people who read indymedia and mostly already agree with you. Here we are in our little "amen corner." What are we doing to try and propagate our values out to the larger society, to make a positive impact in the here-and-now?

I get very upset when I read people who write pseudo-Leninist crap that suggests, "Hey, just wait. Things are getting worse and worse. Eventually, when they get bad enough, people will wise up." It doesn't necessarily work that way. The outcomes in the world can be affected by our actions in the here-and-now. We won't be better off if more and more people are killed by US imperialism because we preserved our ideological purity and avoided "contamination" by refusing to combine our efforts to stop it with those of people with whom we disagree on a lot of other issues, for example.

Social movements also require tangible victories. On the one hand, we shouldn't ever be satisfied and go home because, "Oh, they stopped the war!" or "Oh! They backed down and won't take away the forty hour week afterall!" or even (if we lived in some more civilized countries now) the 35 hour week. No.

On the other hand, we shouldn't go around disparaging such tangible victories, either. Or (an even more loathesome sort of historical revisionism) denying their existence altogether. Like those who would argue that the antiwar movement had nothing to do with forcing an end to the Vietnam War. Huh?? Appalling, yes, but evidently there are people who purport to be progressive who DO peddle such ahistorical crap! Jeezus, talk about defeatism! Just whose side are they ON, anyway? Of course, it is always the stock-in-trade of any reactionary politician to pretend to lofty ignorance of any social movement. They want to disempower us. But make no mistake, they care a great deal about hostile public sentiment. If not, why would they devote so much resources to propaganda and lies? Way to go, helping them reinforce their efforts at psychologically disempowering people!

Forcing an end to this war would be one example of a very important tangible victory for social justice movements. Counterrecruitment is a very powerful tool for doing that. It scares the establishment. Why else were they so insistent on forcing all the schools to open to recruiters?

We have a golden opportunity. The military is in a state of crisis. We should be exploiting it, as was done very effectively in Vietnam, by reaching out to enlisted men and women and veterans, and kids thinking of joining the military. In your bathroom at home, you can go and have yourself a screaming session deploring all those people who were foolish and selfish enough to join the army hoping for that college scholarship, if that helps you as a coping mechanism. In the daytime, though, we could use all the help we can get picketing recruiting offices, counselling soldiers like Emiliano Santiago here in Portland trying to resist grotesque "stop-loss" orders that effectively constitute an undeclared draft, talking to kids in the highschools who might be thinking about the military, etc.

Stan Goff has a lot of choice words on this subject. Ultimately, I think he would agree, the most critical players in any class struggle are those at the point of production. That's still true whether we are talking about the production of goods, or the production of violence. You could think of soldiers as "war workers." What would happen if they went on strike?

Workers don't organize for "the good of humanity," or even, in most cases for "the good of the working class." They organize for the good of themselves, their families, and maybe their immediate comrades. Eventually, the more advanced ones among them may develop actual class consciousness. But a revolution cannot be fought and won primarily by the most advanced sectors of the working class. It has to be broad-based.

Listen to Eugene Debs, the great American socialist freedom fighter: "Solidarity is not a matter of sentiment but a fact, cold and impassive as the granite foundations of a skyscraper. If the basic elements, identity of interest, clarity of vision, honesty of intent, and oneness of purpose, or any of these is lacking, all sentimental pleas for solidarity, and all other efforts to achieve it will be barren of results."

some groundrules 20.Nov.2005 02:59


By the way, I'm delighted if people want to have a debate. But at least you've got to stick to some groundrules to make that debate in any way meaningful.

For example, one contention that I made was that it is necessary to build any strong social movement on a basis of commonality of interests among a diverse assortment of people. Many of those people may not share similar ideologies, and may only agree on a few points in common. But all of them have to combine forces in order to win tangible victories.

You might disagree with me, and contend that this is not the most effective approach to take. Maybe you have something different in mind, and could share it. And we could debate and critique the merits of your alternative approach.

If instead, however, you spend all your time denouncing "the Democrats" as "sellouts," and suggesting that what I'm saying implies that I must be one them, a "liberal," and insisting that I spend the next half hour proving my radical bona fides to you, and denouncing the endless catalog of "liberal betrayals," etc, etc, then you're just venting your spleen here in front of the choir. Off-topic, nonresponsive self-indulgence. A good EXAMPLE of reactionary rhetoric, but not a good argument.

Or, for another example, one contention that I made was that chanting "murderer!" in the face of a soldier is just a form of self-indulgence. Or even chanting something in an indymedia article, where you are basically preaching to the choir (in the sense that we all agree that the actions in Iraq, for example, are murderous, even if we differ on who should be assigned primary blame, the rank-and-file soldiers or those who lied and manipulated them).

In fact, it's especially self-indulgent to do this on indymedia. It's probably a great way to get out your aggressions and stir up and release something that must be cathartic for you. But, I argue, the one thing that it DOES NOT qualify as is serious or sensible politics.

Now, if you want to respond to me and participate in this debate on this subject, you have to respond to my contentions. Not by producing more chants of "murderer!", or calling more names, or further bemoaning the cruelties and iniquities of America, or the world, or God, or the universe, etc, etc. As if we all didn't mostly agree on these things already anyway. No, that won't do.

Whereas, if you respond that, "No, I disagree. I think that by using that rhetoric we can shame people into acting differently," great. Now we have a debate! And I will disagree and argue why I think that is bunk. Civilly, but forcefully. And hopefully, you will muster arguments that defend your position. Now, we might stand a chance of making progress! Maybe.

This is of course but one small example of what I'm talking about, and not even really central. That is why I started a separate thread from KA's. Because the subject that I'm interested in is not the ravings of one particular activist who envies or for some other reason doesn't like some other particular activist. Even if those were what helped spark my thinking on the subject. So just as an exercise, let us give yet another example:

I might say, "You know, Pat Buchanan is really kind of a racist pig. However, it still might be useful to participate in a rally at which Pat Buchanan was speaking. We could still do that in a principled way, if we are careful. But the important thing is we must build a united front to defeat imperialism."

Now, if you wanted to debate me on that subject, you would need to do more than produce a screed denouncing Pat Buchanan as a racist, and anyone who suggested what I just did as being racists as well. You would need to explain why doing so would not serve the goal I had in mind. Or why doing so might serve that goal, but at a cost that was too high in other tangible ways.

See what I mean?

I make no apologies for making leftists uncomfortable 20.Nov.2005 03:52

kirsten anderberg kirstena@resist.ca

I hate to be so freakin' blunt, but to be honest, I think it is time we put some pressure and responsibility upon the FAMILIES of these murder squads we are sending out to Iraq. Quit trying to squelch this by calling the messenger names!! I don't give one crap if you are a fundamentalist Christian or a fundamentalist leftist, reality is reality and I am not going to shut up due to some stupid and devisive pacifist rhetoric. The military families and soldiers are not innocent victims if you really look at it. First of all, they enlisted. Second of all, they and their families are direct benefactors of this war. And we need to stop this nonsense. FAMILIES OF AMERICA need to be held accountable for the soldiers they are providing for Bush's war, to kill Iraqi families! And individual soldiers, themselves, also MUST be held accountable for what they are supporting and doing daily in this illegal occupation of Iraq. No more of this touchy feely bullshit. It is time to up this thing. I am calling for us to start making the FAMILIES accountable for their soldier kids, in the name of Cindy Sheehan! Let Cindy Sheehan's legacy be that we finally begin to place the responsibility upon the individual soldiers themselves, upon the families who spawn them, and to call out, publicly, those who continue to fight this war for the powers that be.

People say what I am saying here is Vietnam War rhetoric. No, the fact is that we are turning the SAME corner we turned in the Vietnam War... public opinion is turning so fast against this war finally, that it is spreading like wildfire, and yes, people are not buying the company line anymore. And the fear factor Bush is feeding us with this Patriot Act bullshit is not enough to hold back the tide of rage now... It is time the SOLDIERS were also brought into this debate... the soldiers and their families. We CANNOT continue to paint these soldiers as sheepish followers who must just obey insane leaders and who are free from all responsibility for their actions. Let's bring it home, people, and call murderers murderers. Let's bring the soldiers and their own families into the accountability process now... and let's let the controversy flood gates open... NOW!

no apologies asked for, only careful reasoning 20.Nov.2005 05:40


Ok. Let us all just agree to agree now, that killing people in Iraq is wrong. That way, we can dispense with most of the rhetoric in your first paragraph. (For example, we don't need strawmen here; nothing I said advocated "pacifism" or "touch-feelyism" or what have you. Also, I think it is safe to say that we are all repulsed by US militarism here, and horrified that there are so many people who are still swayed by it.)

So now that we've gotten that out of the way, we can start to focus on your particular strategy for stopping the killing. You are saying that by condemning Cindy and her son, we will advance that goal. Let us pursue this line of reasoning.

It sounds like you are saying that the tide is turning so dramatically now in the public's mind that the element of shame can be brought to bear against people who might otherwise choose to join the military, or who are already in the military.

It's not necessarily an outlandish proposition. However, I disagree with your estimation of the likelihood of that strategy's success right now. Here's why:

Shame can be used effectively to exert pressure on people, under the right conditions. A good example is within the labor movement, where workers can be shamed out of scabbing on their fellow workers. Shame can work in that context through the mechanism of peer pressure. Workers can be made to understand that their actions hurt their fellow workers. They can even experience the beginnings of class consciousness, by realizing that it could just as easily be them and their jobs being lost, because someone else chose to scab on them. So they might even have the beginnings of empathy, because they are hurting people who are much like themselves. So that makes it easier for them to understand and relate to such an appeal.

Shame doesn't work as well in a situation where you're trying to apply it to a group of people who are not your peers. Arguably, it doesn't work at all in those circumstances.

Another problem with the approach you propose: It is very challenging to excite empathy in selfish people to begin with. If one of your criticisms of a category of people (whether they are enlisted soldiers, or even the American public as a whole) is that their actions are selfish, how much harder is it going to be to excite their empathy when the people with whom you want them to empathize appear to be very different from them, at least in their eyes?

If we want to be effective, as opposed to being self-righteous, we would be better advised to start our appeals to the empathy of people by asking them initially to empathize with people whom they perceive as being like them, people they might know personally or can easily relate to. For example, you could start working on veterans by asking them to fight for the rights of people who are subjected to "stop-loss" orders. You could start on selfish Americans by appealing to their empathy for their friends and neighbors like Cindy Sheehan, who have lost their own family in the hellish maw of this war.

Certainly, as people progress in their political and ethical consciousness, it becomes possible for them to broaden their vision, their empathy, and their solidarity with others. This, of course, is what we want. It can only come, however, one step at a time.

Now, perhaps you think that we've already maxed out our returns on this strategy, and we are ready to start moving to the next level. I really don't think so. But in any case, once again, strategically I think peer pressure is the most effective at this, so even if we start to reach the point you are talking about, it would be far more effective to start exerting the kind of pressure you are talking about through peers of the people you want to target -- for example, fellow soldiers or veterans.

Now, getting back directly to Cindy Sheehan, this points clearly to why it would be a big political error to shun her, perhaps out of some misplaced ideological purity. Cindy Sheehan should be appreciated by anti-imperialists as a valuable political element in any strategy for stopping this slaughter. Sheehan plays just this role of a peer. And you need peers to exert peer pressure. We would really be getting ahead of ourselves to dispense with them at this point.

This would be true, even if those peers were still only developed to a very primitive level in their own political and ethical consciousness, as you have claimed is the case with Cindy Sheehan. But, very fortuitously, you are factually mistaken on this specific point, because by a stroke of remarkable luck for which we should really be grateful, Sheehan is not merely the "whitebread antiwar posterchild" that the corporate media has accidentally decided to fixate on. She also just so happens to have a level of developed, progressive political consciousness that is quite unusual among the population of this country.

The arguments I've made so far are immediate, practical, tactical and strategic ones. Notice I've said nothing about the actions of individual soldiers or their morality or immorality. But, I also think there are ideological reasons for rejecting your strategy. Here's why:

Ideologically, it is the habit of the rightwing to criticize people for their individual moral failings. It is the habit of the rightwing to reduce political, social, and economic questions to questions of "moral fiber." It is not a good leftwing habit to develop. The left, for good reason, tries to make systemic arguments, and usually insists that social problems arise precisely out of society, not merely the spontaneous behavior of individuals in majestic isolation from their society.

I argue that it is not helpful, and it is in fact harmful, ideologically, if we decide to embrace the rightwing ideology of locating social problems with individual moral actors, instead of within the larger social context that they arise out of.

There are always people who act selfishly, people who will even commit crimes against others for their own personal advantage. We can say that all of this is just "human nature." In fact, rightwingers never tire of saying this, as a way of condoning complacency about it, and thereby promoting apathy towards demands for social change.

But this is meaningless cant, really, and we must never tire of debunking it. Because people are just as capable of acting selflessly, of cooperating, and of working for the welfare and happiness of others and not just themselves. So THAT is human nature too. "Human nature" is everything and nothing: it is the sum total of everything that humans do or are capable of.

So we must not propagate or accept arguments based on "human nature," or arguments that dwell on supposedly "innate" characteristics of individuals or groups of people ("so-and-so is lazy! that's why she's poor!", "so-and-so was selfish and stupid, that's why he's dead from a sniper's bullet in Iraq!", etc, etc), but instead we must insist that those supposedly innate characteristics actually arise out of a social context, and that a society of people can consciously decide to organize itself to favor the development of certain aspects of human nature (caring and compassion, for example) instead of others (greed and selfishness, for example). To do otherwise is a profound ideological error with profound consequences for the future. It is to cede strategic ground to reactionary politics, even if we perceive it to be for the short-term sake of a progressive cause, like ending this war.

We who hate the war out of our anti-imperialist and humanist instincts and analysis are not currently, unfortunately, "the society" as a whole, but only a small fragment of it. Otherwise, this war could not even have been started. We have to work at creating the society that we want, in which the values we favor are the ones that are favored by the society at large and thereby flourish. Careful thought, careful words, and careful deeds are needed towards that end. That is why I differ with you on this subject.