The Left’s Silver Lining

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair


It had seemed to us that one absolutely certain fact, beyond all dispute or question, is that the terror attacks of September 11 had no silver lining, no unexpectedly beneficial fall-out. September 11 was, is and will be a terrible business with endlessly terrible consequences. It killed thousands, impelled a punitive expedition which will almost certainly procreate further martial forays. The war party is agitating for an onslaught on Iraq. Here in America the backwash of September 11 has shriveled civil liberties and political dissent and we will spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture lost ground.

But no. The editor of the Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, (whose periodical has promoted the notion of a “just war” in Afghanistan) has now coauthored a column with Joel Rogers of the University of Wisconsin, published in the Los Angeles Times on November 25, proposing the following:

“If anything, the war on terrorism creates an opening for progressives, not closure-indeed, it presents the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It is a truism of modern politics that war generally mobilizes and helps the democratic left. It does so in part because of the short-term repression wartime often brings, but also because war raises the stakes in politics and invites consideration of wider goals, including justice. War’s mobilization of the populace against a shared threat also heightens social solidarity, while underscoring the need for government and other social institutions that transcend or replace the market. And war’s horrors daily press the question of how military action can be avoided in the future without abandoning core principles of domestic order

“All this shifts the playing field of political debate away from those who counsel “let’s leave it to the market or the military” as the answer to all human concerns. Far from seeming hard-nosed and realistic, they suddenly appear beside the point, if not immoral. Those who believe in social justice and shared democratic effort in problem solving, by contrast, seem onto something important and even admirable.

“And the hot Christmas dolls this year are firefighters, emergency medical personnel and municipal police.

“In brief, Sept. 11 has made the idea of a public sector, and the society that it serves, attractive again. It enlarged the public’s view that unilateral military action is a bad recipe for international peace. This doesn’t describe a political space from which the left is forever excluded, but one in which it is virtually invited to reenter mainstream politics.”

So here’s the supposed silver lining, comrades: the return to favor of Big Government. You want to be reminded of what Big Government has been up to in the past few weeks? The Antiterrorism Act passed by Congress at the President’s request in late October guts the Constitution’s guarantees of habeas corpus, presumption of innocence, and due process.

It allows the the federal government in the form of the Justice Department, CIA, FBI, and INS to detain non-citizens on nonexistent or secret evidence, conduct wiretaps and surveillance without evidence of wrong-doing, conduct searches and seizures without warrant, eavesdrop on private conversations between defendants and their lawyers in violation of attorney-client privilege, and investigate private citizens without ‘probable cause’. The bill also allows the government to wield the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 as a weapon to harass dissident organizations under the guise of fighting terrorism, subjecting them to unconstitutional search and seizure. Add to this trashing of the Bill of Rights the president’s order for military tribunals. All this, and the liberal Democrats see this as a time of opportunity to invoke the benefits of big government! On this form, these people would hail concentration camps as encouraging pointers towards a “new sense of collectivity”. This is crackpot realism on an epic scale, and we have by no means exhausted the malign idiocy of the vanden Heuvel/Rogers manifesto. For example: “Americans also got a crash course in the unsavory aspects of US foreign policy.” Does this mean that because the amiable national discussion of the benefits of torture elicited we should hail September 11 as the instigator of a useful history lesson?

More from vanden Heuvel and Rogers: “[September 11] enlarged the public’s view that unilateral military action is a bad recipe for international peace. This doesn’t describe a political space from which the left is forever excluded, but one in which it is virtually invited to reenter mainstream politics.” We can imagine that just such nonsense was written by Europe’s social democrats when, in 1914, they abandoned collective, internationalist opposition to the madness that was about to kill millions, and separately made haste to vote war credits to their various governments. What “mainstream politics” is the left (at least as represented by vanden Heuvel and by Rogers) excitedly joining? The political mainstream has given easy passage to the Patriot Act and in Congress, with just one dissenting vote from Rep Barbara Lee of Berkeley, it handed Bush all the war-making powers he craved.

Years ago we learned that most mainstream liberals don’t give a hoot about the Bill of Rights, or about the paramount importance of independent, 12-member, unanimous juries, whose central role pervades the Bill of Rights. The liberals’ vision of big government is coercive to its core. Eric Hobsbawm showed that the model for the organization of their desired society used by many social democrats in the interwar period was the German War Plan of 1914. FDR’s New Deal was basically cribbed from Mussolini’s New Order.

So who are our allies then? Who’s raising a ruckus amid these devastations of the Constitution? The mainstream isn’t raising a ruckus, even against the notion of torture. For voices of conscience and sanity we have to turn to a thin red line of anti-imperial leftists, to the radical bar whose overworked members toil for the immigrants and the poor. We can turn to the libertarians, such as Rep Ron Paul of Texas who has delivered powerful speeches in Congress denouncing Ashcroft’s jihad against the Constitution. Ron Paul alone spilled the beans on how a cabal of House Republicans and Democrats rammed through the final version of the Patriot Act without it even being read by House members.

The strongest journalistic voice against the military tribunals has been William Safire, even more forceful than Nat Hentoff whose own denunciations of the rape of the Constitution have been appearing in the Washington Times. From Italy, Gore Vidal has been equally robust, and the only question for us is when Vidal will recant on his announcement last year that Christopher is his “anointed” heir, his “Dauphin”. Hitchens of course has been gung-ho for bombing, while simultaneously libeling Noam Chomsky and others, with the assertion that it “no longer matters” what Chomsky thinks.

Ralph Nader delivered a powerful speech against the war and the various green parties have all issued decent statements. The ACLU has shown understanding of the necessity for broad coalitions of left and right to defend the Constitution. It has brought together left civil libertarians with such icons of the far right as Paul Weyrich, Grover Norquist, Phyllis Schlafly, Bob Barr and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recruiting all these names to the terms of its opposition to the Patriot Act.

That said, we would add that the work of such bodies as the ACLU has so far been reactive. Yet we are confronted with a situation where FBI agents have been sent to “interview” a projected total of 5,000 immigrants who have entered the country in the last two years. We have been told that the FBI agents are under instructions to immediately arrest anyone disclosuing evidence of any violation of law, on the spot. So these interviews are fraught with peril for the uninformed, who may make an innocent misstatement and end up facing perjury charges. So why haven’t groups like the ACLU distributed “know your rights” cards for those who have been profiled and are now in the FBI’s sights.

Only one US senator, Feingold of Wisconsin, voted against the USA Patriot bill. Though Rep Dennis Kucinich voted for war-making, he has since tried to get the “left” in Congress to pull the plug on Bush’s military tribunals, but as of November 28, could only find 37 colleagues to agree with him, one of whom is Bob Barr, the conservative former prosecutor who also was among those attacking from the earliest days the provisions of the USA Patriot Act. And guess who wrote this: “Today, America is being stampeded into a new undeclared war, against Iraq. This is a time for truth ? a time for Congress to do its duty, and debate and decide on war or peace. We do not need to have our politics poisoned for yet another generation by the mutual recriminations of a War Party and a Peace Party in the aftermath of yet another undeclared war No more undeclared wars. No more presidential wars.” It was Patrick Buchanan who, like Safire, wrote speeches for Richard Nixon.

We’ve always said that the true contours of American politics are in no way reflected by the conventional political maps. The post-Sept. 11 events have confirmed that analysis with acid clarity. CP

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch. Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

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