Skip to comments.9/11 and the “Anti-War” Left
Posted on 09/11/2003 12:40:12 AM PDT by kattracks
While the attacks of September 11, 2001 were a wake up call for all Americans, they were a particular reckoning for Americans on the political left, and within that group for Americans belonging to the Sixties generation who launched the original anti-war movement over Vietnam. It is members of this generation who led the protests against Americas response to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan and then against the war in Iraq. It is members of this generation who refused to wave the flag on September 12th or any time thereafter, when it was the bracing symbol of a wounded country struggling to defend itself.
Members of this generation went even further, and blamed America itself for the attacks of September 11. They rejected the call to patriotism and to the defense of their country. Patriotism threatens free speech with death, spat novelist Barbara Kingsolver. It is infuriated by thoughtful hesitation, constructive criticism of our leaders and pleas for peace. It despises people of foreign birth whove spent years learning our culture and contributing their talents to our economy .The American flag stands for intimidation, censorship, violence, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, and shoving the Constitution through a paper shredder.
Katha Pollitt, an editor of The Nation, agreed, and denied her high school daughters request to hang the flag out their apartment window with these words: Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war.
But not everyone in the left was on board for this assault on their country. Christopher Hitchens wrote a moving tribute to America in Vanity Fair and for the first time in his life came to the conclusion that the country he had lived in for more than twenty years was worth defending, and ultimately adopting. Todd Gitlin, a former president of SDS, which was the largest student organization of the New Left, and is also a sometime contributor to The Nation, toured the ruins, searched his conscience, observed his fellow citizens binding their wounds, and concurred:
I loved these strangers, and others I met in those days, and didnt feel mawkish about it these new, less aggressive New Yorkers, speaking in hushed voices, or so it seemed, lining up to give blood at the local hospitals on day one, disappointed that no one was collecting it; the cabbies driving in unaccustomed silence, New Yorkers without their carapaces, stripped down to their unaccustomed cores; no longer islands unto themselves. I took inspiration from the patriotic activists who seem to have brought down Flight 93 over Pennsylvania and probably saved the White House . It dawned on me that patriotism was the sum of such acts.
And so Todd Gitlin did what for him until that moment would have been unthinkable: he draped a flag from his window.
In an article titled, Varieties of Patriotism, Gitlin attempts to explain the defection of his comrades by referring to the shaping experience of their generation in the fires of the Vietnam War. For a large bloc of Americans, my age and younger, too young to remember World War II the generation for whom the war meant Vietnam and possibly always would, to the end of our days the case against patriotism was not an abstraction. There was a powerful experience underlying it: as powerful an eruption of our feelings as the experience of patriotism is supposed to be for patriots. Indeed, it could be said that in the course of our political history we experienced a very odd turn about: The most powerful public emotion in our lives was rejecting patriotism.
For activists like Gitlin, who was brought up in a liberal household and at a still impressionable age was sucked into the anti-American radicalism of the Vietnam years, this testimony may have an element of authenticity. But Vietnam was a long time ago and apart from such personal circumstances it can have little bearing on the allegiances of a whole generation. The Nation and other institutions of the left were anti-American and rejected patriotism a long time before Todd Gitlin came of age. They supported Stalin and then Mao and finally the Hanoi-based Communists as Vietnam patriots and bearers of rice roots democracy to a people oppressed. Moreover, there was nothing inherent in the Vietnam War that should have made any American turn against his own country. Every year that has passed and disclosed the realities of what happened then attests to this fact.
It is interesting and illuminating in probing the mind of the anti-American left how once the United States was defeated in this war (in no small part through their efforts) the Vietnamese whom they had claimed to love with all the passion they denied their own country disappeared entirely from their consciousness. When America withdrew, thousands of innocent Vietnamese were murdered by the Communists and hundreds of thousands fled. The conquered nation was reduced by the victors to an impoverished gulag. But this Vietnam simply disappeared from the consciousness and the conscience of the anti-war left. Now that the Great Satan was gone.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, memoir after memoir has appeared from the pens of the victorious Communists, among them Col. Bui Tin, a pioneer of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and leader of the Hanoi regime, and Truong Nhu Tang, a founder of the National Liberation Front, to name but two. The testimonies of these disillusioned victors confirm what the post-war slaughter had already revealed that the conflict was not about the liberation of South Vietnam as the left maintained. Nor was it about an American oppressor and Vietnamese nationalists aspiring to self-determination. It was about the conquest of the South by a ruthless and oppressive Communist regime whose ambitions America had tried in vain to stop. Far from being an indefensible war, as Todd Gitlin still ensnared by false memories and false consciousnessnow describes it, the war reflected Americas honorable intentions and commitments. Americans can be proud that they tried to save Vietnam from the Communist horrors that befell its people after America was forced to leave.
A faithful comrade of Ho Chi Minh, Colonel Bui Tin became disillusioned only when he saw what the Communist victory he had worked so hard to achieve actually meant for his people. In 1995, he wrote: Nowadays the aspiration of the vast majority of the Vietnamese people, both at home and abroad, is to see an early end to the politically conservative, despotic and authoritarian regime in Hanoi so that we can truly have a democratic government of the people, by the people, for the people. (Bui Tin, Following Ho Chi Minh, p. 192) But the aspirations of the Vietnamese people are as invisible and lacking in concern to American radicals today as are the testimonies of the Iraqis freshly liberated from the prisons and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein.
I half believe Todd Gitlin when he says he has accepted and embraced his country, even though he took down his flag a few weeks after 9/11, and felt again the old estrangement, the old shame and anger at being attached to a nation after Bush declared war on the Axis of Evil. I half believe him even though he opposed the war in Iraq and appeared on a platform at Columbia with a fellow protester who wished America would suffer a million Mogadishus and be brought to its knees. I half believe him even though he has written that the very essence of American policy in the war on terror is monumental arrogance and that this not only is the hallmark of Bushs foreign policy, it is his foreign policy. Learning the truth especially when it requires admitting that you were so profoundly and destructively wrong -- can be an arduous and painfully slow task.
Todd Gitlin and others like him will have their new patriotism tested over time, as they will their compassion for ordinary people like the Iraqis whom Americas runaway bullies have, in fact, liberated from one of the most oppressive regimes in the modern world and with no support from progressives like them. But there are many more anti-war activists on the left who will not have their patriotism tested at all, because it simply does not exist. This is what Richard Rorty called (and whom Todd quotes) the spectatorial, disgusted, mocking left that does not dream of achieving our country. This left would do well to reflect on what Todd Gitlin came to realize in the terrible beauty of those days after 9/11:
Patriotism, is not only a gift to others, it is a self-declaration: It affirms that who you are extends beyond far beyond yourself, or the limited being that you thought was yourself. You are not an isolate. Just as you have a given name and a family name, you also have a national name. One deep truth about September 11 was that a community was attacked, not an assortment of individuals. Just so. Those individuals in their identity beyond themselves is what America is about.
The attack on this community is what brought Todd Gitlin and Christopher Hitchens face to face with their feelings for ordinary Americans in the days after 9/11. Gone in these moments was their elitist identification with a mythical international community and their snobbish depreciation of the simple, concrete and authentic loyalties that ordinary, non-intellectual, Americans feel for each other and for a country, where as Gitlin tersely puts it diversity is not a feel-good slogan and debate is lifeblood.
Ill buy that, Todd. Thats my country too. Im glad to join hands with you to defend it.
 The article is included in a new book, The Fight Is For Democracy: New Liberal Unorthodoxies, edited by George Packer. NY 2003
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