Magazine article Dissent

Ends, Means, and the Politics of Dissent: Reply to Jeffrey C. Isaac

Magazine article Dissent

Ends, Means, and the Politics of Dissent: Reply to Jeffrey C. Isaac

Article excerpt

IN THE SPRING 2002 issue of Dissent, Jeffrey C. Isaac and Michael Walzer take portions of the American left to task for their moralistic, knee-jerk opposition to the war on terrorism. Wondering why there can't be a decent ("intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced") progressive camp in the world's sole remaining superpower, Walzer suggests that the left's only way out of its current theoretical and practical stagnation lies in making a "new beginning." But what is this fresh start supposed to look like? This is where Isaac's piece comes in. Adopting a tone of haughty confidence reminiscent of Niccolo Machiavelli, Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and other maestros of Realpolitik, Isaac urges the pacifist "campus left" to abandon its "debilitating moralism" and instead warm up to the levelheaded pro-war stance embraced by the vast majority of Americans. For him, the events of September 11 should have taught naive peaceniks on the left a morally tough but politically necessary lesson: learn to work with the inevitable violence and messiness of the "real world" or accept political irrelevance.

As someone who considers himself part of the pacifist antiwar crowd, I always expect to be hammered on the subject of violence by right-wing war hawks like Lynne Cheney or Charles Krauthammer. Criticism from the left is usually confined to scornful ultrarealist Marxists--a dwindling bunch of sectarians Isaac is not known to hang out with. Indeed, the great respect I hold for Jeff as a friend and political thinker requires me to respond to his arguments. In my view, he uncritically proposes that the left adopt a realist narrative that equates pacifism with moral dogmatism and political impotence--an influential myth that serves only to shore up the dominant ideology of violence. My own experience with the pacifist campus left suggests a different picture. In countless post-September 11 interactions with students, faculty, and community members critical of the war effort, I encountered pacifist arguments that were far more thoughtful and nuanced than Isaac would have us believe.

The Caricature

Who belongs to the pacifist campus left? Isaac points to "progressive faculty and student groups, often centered around labor solidarity organizations and campus Green affiliates" such as the Student Peace Action Coalition Network, the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, Global Exchange, and the Bloomington (Indiana) Peace Coalition. He doesn't provide much detail on each group, but it is clear what he dislikes about all of them: their substitution of moral rhetoric for sober political considerations, their imprudent and ineffective use of language and symbols, their vague and empty policy proposals, and their refusal to "act decisively against terrorism." Like so many mainstream journalists, Isaac does not hesitate to associate pacifism with unintentional support for terrorism: "[I]n a world of real violence and injustice, moral purity is not simply a form of powerlessness; it is often a form of complicity in injustice. This is why, from the standpoint of politics--as opposed to religion--pacifism is always a potentially immoral stand. In categorically repudiating violence, it refuses in principle to oppose certain violent injustices with any effect..."

I'm sure that a number of dogmatic moral absolutists have indeed found their way into the pacifist campus left. However, my own experience suggests that Isaac grossly overstates his case. Most people I talked to and marched with seemed to be fully aware that there exists no easy moral solution to the current political situation. I have worked closely, for example, with the Peace & Justice Coalition at Illinois State University (ISU), a small but representative group, probably similar to Isaac's Bloomington Peace Coalition. From the beginning, we attracted a wide variety of individuals, including ex-Marines-turned-pacifists, antisweatshop student activists, aging New Left faculty members, and anti-domestic violence activists. …

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