Pre-Iraq War Flashback: Ron Rosenbaum’s Red Herring (October 2002)

Did anyone ever actually trust this man?

Did anyone ever actually trust this man?

I wrote the article that follows in response to a cutting dismissal of the brand new anti-war movement that sprung to life in the fall of 2002, just as it became clear what the Bush-Cheney administration was up to with its pot-stirring war preparations. It was intended as a letter to the editor for the New York Observer, where the offending article I was responding to was published,  but became too long for that purpose. I tried to place it at, but they passed on it.

In any case, reading old  pablum from George Packer  and Bill Keller in the “liberal hawk” organ of record (Judy Miller‘s New York Times), I thought of this piece which expressed my disgust with the useful idiots of the center left pundit class lending aid and comfort to the Bushist program. Truly nauseating stuff, these guys wrote, if you can stomach it.

Anyway, without further ado, my response to “all that.”

Ron Rosenbaum’s Red Herring

Ron Rosenbaum, who writes a column for the New York Observer called “The Edgy Enthusiast,” composed one of the most on-target analyses of the post-modernist de(con)struction of truth perpetrated by James Baker and staff in Florida, a politico-philosophic trope, Rosenbaum suggested, that enabled them to befog the media into accepting the suppression of the vote count during Election Theft 2000 as readily as sleep-deprived college students in the 1990s accepted the cultural equivalence of Star Trek and Shakespeare.

“On the surface,” Rosenbaum wrote in “Derrida, Dame Edna, and George W., Postmodernist,” “it might seem that [Bush, Baker, et al.] have been arguing against examining the ballots—the crucial facts in the case—and going so far as to tell the American people (as Justice Scalia did) that we are better off not seeing them ever, in effect saying to us: ‘You can’t handle the truth.’ But in fact, it’s much deeper than that: The Bush team’s argument isn’t ‘You can’t handle the truth’; it really is ‘There’s no such thing as truth.’”

Of course Rosenbaum was being satirical, but his point about the effect of the Bush team’s strategy post-election was dead-on, and those of us who had watched in horror and disbelief as the media passively absorbed and impassively spat back this assault on American democracy in Election 2000 took some comfort in Rosenbaum’s scathing review of the Republicans’ shameless performance, glad to have our disgust over their devaluation of truth and evidence validated by at least one pundit.

To provide aid and comfort to the enemies of Bush was evidently not Rosenbaum’s intention with that piece. I think it must be a badge of honor for him to deny people comfort, which is a perfectly legitimate goal for a satirist to have, as long as provoking discomfort, at the expense of saying something intelligible, doesn’t become an end in itself. His latest column in the October 14 edition of the Observer, a review of the Not in Our Name anti-war demonstration in Central Park’s North Meadow (not Sheep Meadow, as Rosenbaum consistently has it) on October 6, walks that fine line.

It’s not that Rosenbaum has nothing to say in his piece. On the contrary, as with all of Rosenbaum’s columns, words abound. The subject leaps from that October Sunday in the park to Robert Graves to Martin Heidegger to a review of The Road to Perdition in a London newspaper—and various other points besides. And it’s not as though Rosenbaum is completely off base in what he says. He’s on target when he criticizes some of the excesses on display on various demonstrators’ pickets; he singles out for particular ridicule one sign calling Bush the devil. He’s on target when he criticizes the failure of Marxists and fellow travelers to acknowledge the assorted crimes against humanity perpetrated by Marxist regimes. He’s on target when he weighs U.S. “atrocities” against the grossest totalitarian abuses of the 20th Century and finds the scale tips far more heavily to the latter.

But Rosenbaum is too busy ranting against the redness and complicit guilt of what he calls “the Left” to see that he’s railing against a straw man—“A movement of Marxist fringe groups and people who are unable to make moral distinctions,” he wrote, assessing the scene— that has no relevance to most of what was going on at the demonstration.

What I saw and heard there were people who don’t want the United States to be forced into a war blindly and on its own, assembled to count their numbers, hear underheard voices, and luxuriate in a little hope for a change instead of being cowed by their political leaders into quiescence. People, in other words, who don’t approve of the Bushist way this debate about Iraq is being framed. The New New Lefties who put the demo together were the conduit for this convergence, not because everyone in attendance agreed with everything that everyone on stage said, but because they agreed with the organizers’ theme of the day: that Bush’s unilateral rush to foist an ill-conceived regime change on Iraq will not be carried out in our name.

Rosenbaum stages his critique as a Gravesean good-bye to all that hypothetical, hysterical leftism, which he also claims virtually hounded a truth-telling critic like Chris the Snitch Hitchens from the Nation. (I thought Snitch split of his own accord, right after typing his resignation letter in the form of one last column.) “Mr. Hitchens’ loss is a loss not just for the magazine,” writes Rosenbaum, “but for the entire Left; it’s important that America have an intelligent opposition, with a critique not dependent on knee-jerk, neo-Marxist idiocy. And it’s important that potential constituents of that opposition, like Nation readers, be exposed to a brilliant dissenter like Christopher Hitchens.”

Set aside the implicit notion behind this infuriating paragraph that “the Left” ought to consider itself permanently in opposition and out of power: Okay, Ron, so it’s important for America to have an opposition to the empowered viewpoint, and for the opposition to be exposed to dissent of its own. But how can a viewpoint roughly identical to the empowered viewpoint—which in Hitchens’ case, it more or less is, especially on the issue of war with Iraq—be considered dissent?  Why do we need to be exposed to Hitchens when we could just as easily be exposed to Horowitz or Safire—or Donald Rumsfeld, for that matter?  They’re all just as difficult to swallow. And why should the empowered viewpoint be entitled to a place in an opposition magazine anyway?

Most troublesome of Rosenbaum’s aims with the essay is his desire to trash the whole anti-war movement because, in his view, it lacks the sense of proportion to see that al Qaeda and other “Islamo-fascists” really are evil and must be stopped, and that whatever the Bushists’ faults, they haven’t the audacity to commandeer hijacked airliners into buildings where thousands of innocent civilians are working. Rosenbaum has somehow come to see that “the Left” doesn’t feel enough moral revulsion over the crime of 9-11, and he cites sympathetically Hitchens’ parting shot to the Nation, that it had become “an echo chamber of those who believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.”

What Rosenbaum and Hitchens seem too overwhelmed by proportion to understand, however, is that Ashcroft and bin Laden are both menaces, though of admittedly different degrees. Just because Ashcroft is less of a menace than Osama doesn’t mean that Ashcroft’s menace—his incompetent, backwater DA’s style of management at the Department of Justice and the anti-libertarian aims he has for it—should be tolerated and left unresisted. Lord knows Hitchens didn’t think Janet Reno should have been tolerated!

The movement that began to take shape in Central Park and in several other cities across the nation on October 6 is defined by its justified resistance to Ashcroft and militant Bushism in general, to its unabashed desire to use the tools of state, which are not legitimately theirs to use, to advance a backwards, anti-democratic, pro-corporate agenda. Yes, there were Marxists in attendance at the demonstration. There were occasional calls for revolution from the guest speakers on stage. One group in the mass of attendees affiliated with the Communist Revolutionary Youth Brigade was decked out in camouflage fatigues and T-shirts incongruously emblazoned with silhouetted guerillas holding aloft rifles. And of course there were obvious Old Lefties, New Lefties, Greens, Anarchists, hippies, Ruckus Society types and pagans scattered in groups on the rocks and under the beech trees. But there were also plenty of people like me in the crowd, people who wore no politically identifying marks—no dreadlocks, no studs, no buttons of any kind.

I’m a Democrat. And I’m a democrat. I have no sympathy for Stalinists, no hope or desire for communist revolution worldwide. I believe in democratic means to democratic ends. From this simple, basic ideology comes all my rage over what occurred in Florida in November and December 2000. From this rage comes my outrage over the Bushist regime’s push for war and war powers that it does not have the legitimacy to deserve. I am outraged by Saddam. I am outraged by fundamentalist theocrats and their insane contempt for human life. I have no doubt that Saddam Hussein is an anti-democratic tyrant who has a long overdue date with justice. But not now. Not this way. Not by the will of an illegitimate, possibly theocratic regime of our own. Not in my name.

It’s a profound mistake to think, as Ron Rosenbaum evidently does, that this anti-war movement is more of the same, more of the lame. This is not the weak-willed, wishy-washy “Left” that pulled out of the Big Game at the height of the Vietnam War not wanting to be corrupted by the swamp of politics and letting the Nixonites and then the Reaganites have the ball. Those elements are still present, but they’re being joined by a force of democrats, enraged by the sick and sicker spectacle of American politics in the last 30 years. Our anger is our energy and our focal lens. And we want the ball back.

Note from “now” (March 30, 2013): My politics have moved considerably to the left of where I was in 2002. I am now in no way, shape, or form a partisan Democrat. I am no longer in agreement with Rosenbaum about Marxism and Marxist movements. I am not so certain, and doubtful even, that the US”s atrocities don’t scale a little closer to those of Marxist regimes. I’m skeptical in any case of glibly assuming the US government always or even mostly acts in good faith.

The Iraq war has played a pivotal role in these changes in my outlook.

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