Saturday, February 28, 2009

Populism and the Peace Movement

Dana at Common Sense Political Thought has responded with a thoughtful essay to my earlier post, "Long Beach ANSWER Cell Mobilizes for March 21st Protest."

In "
American Power Versus Populism," Dana notes that, " Dr. Douglas tends to post a lot about the behavior of our enemies in the Islamic world ... [but in his comments on the antiwar movement] it seems to me that he may have overthought the problem ..."

I may have, depending how we look at it. But let's review a bit more of
Dana's essay, where he responds to my suggestion that the hardline leftist rallies and demonstrations against the "occupation" can't really be all about ending the wars abroad:

Why can’t it be all about “bringing the troops home now?” That President Obama has set a combat troops withdrawal date eighteen months into the future doesn’t mean that our friends on the left will somehow be satisfied with that; they want the troops home now!

Nor do I think that the anti-war movement has taken what he has called it’s “latest direction.” Rather, the anti-war movement, even in the 1960s, was very much a movement against the notions of power, very opposed to the idea that some people have more mower — and money — than others. From this came the simplistic notion that, in any conflict, the side perceived to have the most power is invariably the “bad guy” ....

Domestically, our friends on the left, and, unfortunately, too many people in the middle as well, see the wealthy and “corporations” as the enemy, as people and institutions which have to be brought to heel and made to pay more and more, this even though most Americans who have jobs are employed by, you guessed it, corporations!

It’s really as simple as the notions of populism, a discourse which supports “the people” versus “the elites.” Scholars have attempted all sorts of explanations concerning the origins, philosophy and strength of populism, but it seems to me to be less a philosophy than a catchall for simply envy and resentment; “He has more money than we do, so he must have cheated us somehow.”

The populist notion, which we can date back at least as far as the legends of Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, has not always led to the best of results. Due to a constant e-mail group dispute with a lady whom I considered to be an out-and-out anti-Semite — Art and Yorkshire know to whom I refer — I decided to read Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf last year. People expect the book to be filled with anti-Semitism and racism, and it is, but through much of the book der F├╝hrer uses a populist methodology: not only are the Germans the greatest people and greatest culture in the world, but they have been unfairly cheated of their birthright and oppressed by the undeserving elites, the democratic powers of England and France, and, of course, by the Jews. Even the supposedly Jewish notion of the equality of man is but a lie by people temporarily in advantage to keep down those who really ought to be the leaders of mankind.

The problem with populism is that it is a know-nothing philosophy, assuming it could be dignified with the name philosophy. It is an us-against-them demagoguery, and the kinds or rational and realistic arguments Dr Douglas brings to the table concerning the attitudes and behavior of, say, the Palestinians really mean little or nothing: the populist both supports and identifies with the oppressed little guy, the side with less power, because he is the little guy, the guy with less power, and that is a feeling which occurs on a simplistic and emotional level.

This is an excellent discussion, and the truth is Dana and I don't really disagree all that much about the ultimate agenda of today's hardline leftist coalition.

I'd only add a couple of points, especially on populism as it relates to ideology.

Populism in the United States has never really been revolutionary. Some of the greatest outbursts of populism have resulted from a breakdown of effective governmental performance and popular disgust at the absence of clear choices between the parties. Teddy Roosevelt's probably the most important populist in the sense of rousing enough voters to nearly shatter the two-party consensus in 1912. More recently, Ross Perot very well could have won the White House had he not badly miscalculated by withdrawing prematurely from the presidential race in 1992. Other populists, of course, have tapped into some of the more irrationalist or racist strains of American politics (
Ron Paul).

I'm pushing fifty, so I was still a kid during the Vietnam-era protest movement. But my understanding of it has primarily been one of antiwar activism within a period of social-cultural revolutionary change, for example, with the civil rights and women's liberation movements. To the extent that some groups at the time were genuinely radical, in the politics of the New Left and campus radicalism, much of this stuff literally died out by the time I was in high school. In the 1990s there was very little going for traditional "antiwar" groups, and in fact there was hardly any anti-government agitation during the Clinton years.

I was at UCSB throughout the period, and the idea of protests against things like the airwar over Kosovo was practically unheard of. People on the left were generally pleased with the Democrats in power, and to the extent that there were demands for a more "progressive" agenda, it was more of nuisance multiculturalism and political correctness. Indeed, today's radical left is pretty much a direct response to the Bush adminstration's policies and the ascent of conservative power in Washington. International ANSWER, the neo-Stalinist protest organization, formed just
three days after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

So, from my own perspective, while it's true that there's certainly much "anti-establishment" politics to the radicalism of the Vietnam generation, the changes in culture, environmentalism, academics, and "free-and-easy" lifestyles are a largely a function of the activism of the 1960s protest generation.

I've been on a college campus, as a student or a professor, continuously since 1986. With the exception of some anti-nuclear activity in the late-1980s (some of my friends were going to the nuclear ranges in New Mexico to protest, as well as the Gulf War demonstrations), my sense is that this past few years has seen the emergence of a critical mass of anarchist-revolutionary activity on the scale of world-historical importance. Perhaps the "Battle of Seattle" anti-globalization protest in 1999 was the harbinger, but today's protest generation is more than just "bring the troops home." This is
an anti-Semitic kill-the-Jews culture that seems unprecedented, and even unreal to me.

So, I'm not so much disagreeing with Dana than elaborating a bit more as to where I'm coming from and why I see a qualitative change to the type of radical-left activism at home and around the world today.

By the way, be sure to read John Tierney's essay along these lines, making the case for a new stage of the "peace" movement, "
The Politics of Peace: What’s Behind the Anti-War Movement?"

The irony of the modern “peace” movement is that it has very little to do with peace— either as a moral concept or as a political ideal. Peace is a tactical ideal for movement organizers: it serves as political leverage against U.S. policymakers, and it is an ideological response to the perceived failures of American society. The leaders of anti-war groups are modern-day Leninists.
This last notion of today's activists as neo-Lenists (or neo-Stalinists, as I refer to them, given their totalitarianism), is particularly troubling to me, since as a professor on a campus that boasts a local cell of the ANSWER network, I see the world communist movement up close and personal. Rather than educating students into the dominant traditions of Anglo-Protestantism and the American political culture of egalitarianism and individualism, today's leftist academics glorify tyrants and murderers while privileging an ideology of anti-Americanism. Students are shortchanged, and the political, cultural, and economic destruction of this nation continues apace.

Democratic-leftists love it, although they don't always admit what their real agenda is. Indeed, they often align themselves with the extremist anti-Israel factions of today's antiwar right.

If in that sense these folks are "populists," perhaps Dana's approach to all of this is pretty close to mine after all.


AmPowerBlog said...

Well, are you coming for a visit in the U.S., Philippe?

"I have a law degree, I worked five years for the Stockholm police in the 80's, and during the 90's, until I moved to Belgium, I worked for the media."

You're quite accomplished...

Tapline said...

DD, As usual with your post well thought out and honest. I wish I had your command of the English Language! You have a way with words. What you have expressed here I lived through and as a very much indoctrinated Military man. I lived under an authoritarian system for years. I saw the destruction of this country coming in increments. I first noticed it in 1967 or there abouts.....Why weren't these people being tried for treason against the United States????? I couldn't understand what was happening and why it was being allowed......Today.......I just shake my head and wonder where it will all end???? The Courts no longer use common sense. If someone does something many people scream about a law is passed There that's taken care of....The constitution is not being followed as most in elected office are sworn to uphold. They don't....The judicial branch is not being heard on any of these breaches......It's utterly crazy....I ramble....stay well...

Norm said...

The folks on the far left are not happy with Obama's plan for withdrawal. They wish to withdraw all troops immediately. The local leader of SANE recently published letters in my two local newspapers asking everyone to write Obama and our Congressperson to demand immediate withdrawal. Also, I recently listened to a representative of the Iraq Veterans Against The War speak and he demanded total immediate withdrawal. They realize that Obama is simply following Bush's strategy of as the Iraqi's stand up, we will stand down. This must irritate them greatly and their demonstrations will continue.

The protests against the Vietnam War brought to the forefront the Marxist anti-corporate activists. DOW Chemical was constantly blasted for their production of napalm. We looked upon the Marxists as radicals and they were
a small, but vocal minority of the protesters.

However, for the vast majority of protesters it was not political philosophy that was the deciding factor. It was the the fact that LBJ ran in 1964 on a platform of not sending American boys to Vietnam when their boys should do the job. And if JFK would not send our troops into Cuba, 90 miles from Florida, in 1961, to aid the CIA supported Cuban boys, then what the hell were we doing sending them 5000 miles away to Vietnam? Sending troops to Cuba made a lot more sense than Vietnam.
On the other hand, there were many people who believed that it was important to be giving the Communists a bloody nose in Vietnam; knowing that the Chinese and Russians were pouring everything they had into the war. That no matter what the cost taking a stand was more important.
And we certainly did bleed the North Vietnamese dry...they lost huge numbers of men.

Today I wore a shirt and it's label said "Made in Vietnam". Ain't life strange.

Dave said...


"Sending troops to Cuba made a lot more sense than Vietnam."

As long as I will live, I will never understand why this, the most powerful nation in recorded history, could never bring itself to liberate the unfortunate people trapped on a communist hell-hole of an island located just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

That, to me, has been nothing short of embarrassing.

It is even more puzzling when you consider what this nation was able to accomplish in WW II.


Norm said...

I consider the Bay of Pigs one of the most shameful foreign policy disasters in American history. We armed and trained 5000 Cuban boys, some of who were Cuban-Americans. We supply the ships that sent them into combat. We had a huge naval fleet off Cuba's shore, and most of our air force was within striking distance from Florida or the carriers. All those 5000 men needed was naval and air support and victory would have been a walk-over. We let them down, we let the entire Cuban nation down, and we let the American Revolution down. One of the most shameful failures of American foreign policy in our entire history. The Cuban people still are paying the consequences today.

Anonymous said...

The Bay of Pigs disaster was one created by changing administrations. It was planned under President Eisenhower, the liberators recruited and trained then, and the plans for the invasion finalized.

But it wasn't going to be launched until after the change of administrations, and President Kennedy wasn't wholly on board. There were aspects, primarily the air support, that he didn't like, and so he cancelled them. The problem was that he emasculated the invasion, killing any chance of it being successful, but didn't call it off completely.

To quote Charleton Heston, in The Ten Commandments, "May the Lord forgive my weak use of his power!"

That, of course, gave Premier Khrushchev and President Castro the idea that President Kennedy could be trifled with, and that there was s serious danger of invasion from the United States, two ideas which seem contradictory, but are not: Mr Kennedy himself would not be president forever. That led, pretty directly, to the emplacement of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. Fortunately, President Kennedy handled that crisis much better.

Norm said...

Thanks Dana, a lesson I hope our new President heeds.

AmPowerBlog said...

Sorry to hear about your parents, Philippe.

shoprat said...

One description that the liberals and conservatives share is this. Both the liberal and conservative segments of our society have a populist wing and an elitist wing within their ranks. You will find ordinary people and powerful people associated with both groups.

(failed to proofread and made an unforgivable typo.)

Anonymous said...

Norm wrote:

Thanks Dana, a lesson I hope our new President heeds.

'Twould be better were it a lesson we hope our new President reads!

President Kennedy wasn't fully on board with the Bay of Pigs invasion, but he was completely committed to the idea that Communism is a very bad thing, and we should challenge it where we can, and liberate people from it where possible.

Yet Barack Hussein Obama would not have, had he been in the Senate at the time, voted to authorize the war in Iraq, or at least that's what he says now. (He might have voted "present.") yet Iraq was a country ruled by a brutal dictatorship, one which had killed somewhere between half a million and a million and a half of its own people to maintain the dictatorial control of the Ba'ath Party regime. How can it be a bad thing to want to free people from that?