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Monday, July 25, 2005

Running On Empty

Will Marshall of the DLC has written a critique of us Michael Moore Democrats who are ruining the party with our anti-Americanism and lack of real patriotism. Don't even bother to read it if this kind of thing pisses you off because this one's a doozy.

There are many problems with his thesis, but this is perhaps the central thing he gets wrong:

The left's unease with patriotism is rooted in a 1960s narrative of American arrogance and abuse of power. For many liberals who came of age during the protests against the Vietnam War, writes leftish commentator Todd Gitlin, "the most powerful public emotion of our lives was rejecting patriotism." As he and other honest liberals have acknowledged, the excesses of protest politics still haunt liberalism today and complicate Democratic efforts to develop a coherent stance toward American power and the use of force.

When Americans ponder such questions today, their frame of reference is not the Vietnam War, but Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks evoked the most powerful upsurge in patriotic feeling since Pearl Harbor, and thrust national security back into the center of American politics. Democrats have yet to come to grips with this new reality. More than anything else, they need to show the country a party unified behind a new patriotism -- a progressive patriotism determined to succeed in Iraq and win the war on terror, to close a yawning cultural gap between Democrats and the military, and to summon a new spirit of national service and shared sacrifice to counter the politics of polarization.

Well, I don't know about you, but I happen to be an American who went through 9/11 just like the conservatives and the hawkish centrists did. I don't know who he's talking about. We all have the same frame of reference as everyone else who has lived in our time. We live in the new reality too and we've come to grips with it --- we simply don't agree with their prescription for dealing with terrorism and it has nothing to do with Vietnam or patriotism.

How petty and lacking in imagination this discussion is. Apparently, all honest liberals are ex-campus radicals who went to school with Todd Gitlin and who feel "uncomfortable" with this new patriotism because their formative experience was with protest politics. Whatever. Perhaps Marshall ought to check with his boss Al From, who Rick Perlstein quotes in "The Stockticker and the Superjumbo" as saying that that his formative experience was McGovern's loss in 1972. I think that might just be a bit more to the point.

I'm a baby boomer but I'm 48 and my formative political experience was probably Watergate, in which patriotism was shown to be a willingness to put the country above politics when the chips were down. Republicans Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater ranked as major patriots for me. Indeed, Watergate was one of those moments when I think the entire country was impressed (and surprised) by the incredible resiliency of its system of government and the integrity of men and women who rose to the occasion. To me patriotism isn't about fighting wars, it's about love of country.

People born in 1970 are now in their mid-30's. Are they scarred by their parents' youthful beliefs in "anti-patriotism?" Their formative political years were during the Reagan era, hardly a period of anti-americanism. Flag waving was a fetish.

My friends' mother is 80 years old. She's a child of the depression and she's a Democrat who was adamantly against the Iraq war. It had nothing to do with Vietnam; it was because she didn't believe in "wars of aggression." That was the reflexive foreign policy belief of cold war liberals who learned their lessons from the two world wars. I have another friend who is 22 and was against the war in Iraq because he believes it distracts from the War on terrorism. I was against it because I gravely mistrust the neocon vision of American global hegemony and I wanted them to do the minumum possible until we could get sane people in office to assess the threat properly. We are not all singing kumbaya from the 60's campus radical manual.

He talks about liberals (or maybe just the unbearable bi-coastal elites he describes in such loving detail) as if we are from Mars. I have no doubt that there are quite a few who really disdain the military and would be shocked to see one of their friends' children from the elite private school choosing to join the marines instead of going to an Ivy League College as expected. But really, can we call this a particularly Democratic or liberal response? Considering the remarkable problem the military is having with recruitment, I'd have to say it's a pretty common American response, rather than any comment on Democrats. It's not as if Republicans are all rushing out to join up either. If it's a lack of patriotism that's causing that reaction I think you would have to say that most Americans are unpatriotic.

He worries that the military itself is too Republican and laments that the Democrats are not better represented. His evidence is two polls which show that the majority of officers are Republicans. Can everyone see what might be wrong with that picture?

The salient point in all this is that there are no national Democrats who are anti- military and very, very few rank and file Democrats who are anti-military. Even the hated Michael Moore shows a tremendous affinity for the grunts in his movies in which he focuses on the sacrifices of working and middle class families who are being treated terribly by the government in thanks for their sacrifice. This thing that Marshall and his DLCers see is not anti-military; it's anti-Washington and that's not the same thing at all.

He builds a straw man out of poll results that purport to show that most Democrats don't want to fight the war on terrorism with the same sort of dizzying fervor he thinks is required, and calls them unpatriotic for their views. He refers to a list of foreign policy issues in which more Democrats consider outsourcing to be a bigger worry than dismantling al Qaeda.

Why is that a measure of patriotism? It's actually surprisingly rational. The statistics would certainly show that any individual stands a greater chance of being personally affected by outsourcing than an al Qaeda terrorist attack. It's actually kind of dumb to put al Qaeda at the top of your list of national security worries when really, it isn't the biggest one we face --- loose nukes are, and nobody gives a fuck about that.

Furthermore, it's entirely possible that at least some Democrats realize that al Qaeda isn't something you can just "dismantle" with a ripping good show of military might because it's morphed into a constantly changing, moving concept, rather than a single entity you can "end." And while terrorism is scary and we need to do all we can to protect people from it, it is not any more threatening than Leonid Bresznev potentially getting into a pissing match or losing control of his military or any other thing that could have resulted in an accidental nuclear exchange during the cold war. We lived for many years under an unimaginable threat (still do, actually) and we managed to keep our heads for the most part and not turn ourselves inside out over it. This threat of terrorism is real and it's important, but we simply have to stop overreacting like we did with Iraq or we really are going to turn it into the existential threat these people seem to desire so fervently.

Finally, Marshall suggests that we not make such a big deal out torture.

"...the revelation that some U.S. troops aren't saints should not come as too great a shock, at least to grownups. By dwelling obsessively on U.S. misdeeds while ignoring the far more heinous crimes of what is quite possibly the most barbaric insurgency in modern times, anti-war critics betray an anti-American bias that undercuts their credibility."

(Yeah, it's the liberals who are ignoring the barbaric insurgency in Iraq. And here the last I heard they were in their last throes.)

Let's just say I'm a big believer in supporting the troops --- troops like Spc. Joseph Darby, for instance, who had the courage and patriotism to stand up and say something when his fellow troopers were committing reprehensible acts --- or the FBI agents who complained on the record about what they saw at Guantanamo. I will never excuse the United States using torture or abuse or holding prisoners indefinitely without due process. Never. No matter what the "barbaric insurgency" does in Iraq. And I am more than willing to throw down the gauntlet on this and say that anyone who soft peddles those things is the worst kind of anti-American there is. We're not going to find common ground on this subject. If that kicks me out of the big tent so be it. I'm not signing on to that shit, ever.

I recognise that saying all this means that I couldn't get elected. And for that reason there are almost no elected Democrats who do say what I'm saying. They all wave flags and shriek like old ladies every time something happens --- and they back ridiculous wars, because if they don't the chattering classes will go nuts and label them unpatriotic. But saying it doesn't make it true. That's inside the beltway Republican kabuki which nobody who calls himself a Democrat should ever allow himself to perform. There are legitimate reasons why we might disagree on this stuff and still take national security seriously.

Being lectured all the time by effete DC Democrats on "patriotism" because I don't back their reflexively hawkish foreign policy is not only insulting it's dumb. It plays into stereotypes that only serve the Republicans by turning this into a dick measuring contest when we should be turning the conversation into who can get the job done. I would submit that if anyone's been traumatized by the Vietnam experience it's the tired Democratic national security hawks who are always rushing to support military action, no matter how insanely counterproductive, because some Republican somewhere might call him a pussy. They've been around since the 60's too. Hell, they've been around forever.