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Chomsky, Letters to the Writer and the Peace Movement

by Mike Leon

Madison, Wisconsin. Last year the online magazine Slate ran a piece by Jacob Weisberg abusing the American peace movement (“Left Behind,” December 4, 2001) that rather pissed me off.

In what seemed a mocking hit piece, Weisberg derided the anti-war movement as “insignificant…(and)…irrelevant,” comprised of some “5 percent” of the populace including artists and intellectuals and one Noam Chomsky, in whom past liberal allies “now recognize clinical symptoms that have been obvious to everyone else for years.”

Weisberg, an excellent and entertaining writer (see, for example, his “The Football Caucus…,” Slate May 2, 1998), concludes that those liberal journals policing the peace/war debate such as it was, “are dropping the rhetorical equivalent of daisy cutters (massive BLU-82 bombs) on a few malnourished left-wing stragglers.”

Indignant, I contacted Chomsky and asked him to write a reply letter for publication in Slate. I contended that the liberal line, Slate/New Republic/Atlantic/New Yorker, merited a written response if only because the reader letters section presents an opening for punching through a “peace / stop the killing of innocent civilians” view into war-mongering liberal journals that otherwise refuse to address peace arguments in print beyond mere ridicule.

Write a letter to this guy, Noam. Fire back.

Chomsky declined, (I thought he would). He wrote back to me, “I’d seen Weisberg’s piece. Your suspicion is right. These (liberal publications) are cesspools I don’t want to climb into. He (Weisberg) doesn’t even make an attempt to present an argument, because he knows perfectly well that he can’t, and that if he says anything substantive–anything–that will open the door to a response. He’s no fool, and he knows that there is no way to respond to a tantrum….(L)iberal intellectuals have lined up in support of the war machine in the familiar style — discussed, for example, by Randolph Bourne in classic essays–and since they know they do not have the intellectual competence to deal with those who refuse to go along, resort to what comes natural to the educated classes: hysterical tantrums, lies, and abuse. Why become involved? There are more important things to do–such as continue to falsify their increasingly desperate claim that everyone is following them in their depraved subordination to power.”

One can understand Chomsky’s preference for spending his time in political organizing and writing pursuits over responding to hits with letters to liberal magazines–especially after the liberal journals’ lifetime’s worth of tantrums and lies smearing Chomsky and almost uniformly refusing to engage the man’s arguments.

For most of the rest of us, the letters section of a journal is worth the effort to advocate a reasoned view in response to a published article. Use it.

CounterPunch’s editors make available contact information for the specific writer of a published piece.

I have received many letters from readers in response to the “200,000 Protest the ‘War Without End,’ – ‘We Are All Palestinians Today'” (CounterPunch, April 21, 2002) filed from Washington D.C.. Most were positive. However, hysterical tantrums and abuse well describe the words of those few readers objecting to the report that Americans can possibly be identifying with the victims of American-Israeli aggression.

Unlike Chomsky, I feel compelled to dive into these cesspools of written hate and abuse, even if they lack the well-crafted prose and elegant style of the writers in liberal journals, and (as opposed to liberal writers) are hateful and distasteful.

Typical of this tantrum-abuse ilk is a reader identifying himself as Nick Lewis.

“You filthy traitor, just spoiling for a fight. Hate everything…,” (April 24) wrote Mr. Lewis before falling into greater depths of inanity.

Another response (reprinted below without editing) comes from a reader identifying himself as Bill Moore of Rohnert Park, California. “You must be paid to lie ! but your ripping off whoever is paying you! i have 6 family members in d c and Baltimore if 20000o people demonstrated against like you claim ill kiss your ass ! in public pops bad expression your kind go in for that sort of thing just move to Iran or do the world a favor and kill yourself rid the human gene pool of scum,” (April 21) wrote Mr. Moore.

In response to Mr. Lewis and Mr. Moore, I note that I find their apparent vision of American democracy to be as troubling and distasteful as their inane and sick politics. Yes, by analyzing and writing about the policies of my country, I remain “spoiling for a fight,” but this is my civic obligation and my constitutional right, the exercising of which does not make me a “traitor.” I do write for a LGBT civil rights periodical in Wisconsin (IN Step), also I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I find Mr. Moore’s bigotry revealing, bringing to mind an image of the “gaping primates” described in H.L. Mencken’s reporting from the bible belt on the fundamentalist evolution opponents in the 1925 Scopes trial. Finally, with respect to the size of the April 20 crowd in D.C., I agree that the published 200,000 estimate merits a full-blooded explanation.

April 20, DC Crowd Size

The “200,000 Protest the ‘War Without End,’ ‘We Are All Palestinians Today'” piece generated many letters contending that the reporting of the crowd size estimate was incorrect.

A precise rendering of the number attending a protest rally of this size is not ascertainable, both because of the impossibility of a single count during an instant in time and the constant changing of the number of people involved. Invariably, estimates of the crowd size in this type of march wildly diverge.

The Washington Post cited DC park police putting the number at 75,000, although earlier filings from the Post in the afternoon and evening of April 20 put the count at 35,000 and 50,000.

DC Police Chief Ramsey, in a conversation with me at approximately 3:30, put the number in excess of 100,000.

Several Palestinians I spoke to put the number over 250,000. Three gentlemen on an elevated white truck with an excellent long view over the crowd — with people streaming in and out and others lining Pennsylvania Avenue–guessed 200,000, “easily,” one agreed.

I cited all of these numbers in the piece (with the exception of the Post’s earlier estimates), identifying them as the opinion of different sources.

All a journalist covering a march of this size can do is offer multiple sources’ estimates, state that different sources have different estimates, and make a reasonable guess (identifying it as an approximation). I believed the 200,000 figure reflected in the headline met this reasonable standard, although if I were to convey this 200,000 figure to the Palestinians I spoke with, they would certainly quarrel with the figure.

Now, I am not so sure. I believe that a more accurate headline should have read “Tens of Thousands…” instead of “200,000.” After reading other published accounts of the march and after conversations and e-mail dialogues with other people attending the march, the attendance figure seems more likely to be somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000.

Peace Movement

That noted, I maintain that the high attendance of the April 20 event would seem suggestive of a peace movement with potentially historic power to influence the war without end. In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist assault on our country, Americans will not stomach the images of other victims of terrorism.

“All War Is Terrorism” read a sign at the April 20 peace march. This is the truth and strength of the movement that the march represents.

Despite the continued deflated assessments of the peace movement by the liberal pro-war crowd in the tradition of World War I liberals described by Randolph Bourne and carried on by writers like Jacob Weisberg, All War Is Terrorism is a truism that more and more Americans will apply to the war without end, the Bush/Sharon doctrine — providing the margin of life for those in the sight of American/Israeli guns.

Mike Leon is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. His stories have appeared nationally in The Progressive, In These Times and CounterPunch. He can be reached at: maleon@terracom.net

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