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Appropriate Disillusionment


I have in front of me two documents of despair, of disillusionment with the American political system that allows this criminal war to continue. Andrew J. Bacevich in his Washington Post op-ed column and Cindy Sheehan in her statement on her blog express despair over the failure of the Democrats placed in power by an antiwar electorate to take firm measures to end the war in Iraq. Sheehan declares, as she announces her departure from the spotlight that “hundreds of thousands of people are dying for a war based on lies that is supported by Democrats and Republican alike,” adding, “It is so painful to me to know that I bought into this system for so many years”

Professor Bacevich, now sharing Sheehan’s personal grief, calls his earlier hopes that he and others might force the country to change course “an illusion,” noting that “responsibility for the war’s continuation now rests no less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president and his party.” “Money,” he notes bitterly, “maintains the Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics. It confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels It negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent. This is not some great conspiracy. It’s the way our system works.”

If there is a positive aspect to this despair, it is this very realization: the system is the problem. It has not so much “failed” us as we have failed to understand what Sheehan and Bacevich are concluding: it isn’t designed to work for us but for but for them.

For those who can’t bring themselves to say that the war is not a “mistake” but a crime. For those who can’t call for immediate withdrawal in accordance with the wishes of the American and Iraqi people but talk about “benchmarks” for a gradual withdrawal. For those who want to shift the onus of the U.S. failure in Iraq to Iraqi politicians for their delays and bickering, and the Iraqi people for their bewildering Islamic sectarianism.

It serves those who vote in bipartisan fashion to further vilify and isolate Syria and Iran—the fools who do not know the first thing about Islamic history and the divisions between Shiites and Sunnis, secularists and Islamists. It serves those lining up to embrace the fear-mongering Islamophobic neocon agenda for more confrontation with the Muslim world. It serves those who fear AIPAC more than the consequences of a strike on Iran. It serves the Democrats who want to keep an attack on Iran on the table, but assure President Bush that his impeachment is off the table because it’s just too radical a prospect for them to consider.

This is indeed the way the system works.

“I am deemed a radical,” writes Sheehan, “because I believe that partisan politics should be left to the wayside” Having seen Sheehan speak on several occasions, I think rather she’s been deemed radical because her understanding of the war is too honest for the system’s hacks and political opportunists (including some who affect a liberal antiwar posture) to endorse. They cannot.

Nancy Pelosi cannot say, “This is an imperialist war to reconfigure the Middle East, allow the U.S. to control the flow of oil from the region, dot it with huge permanent U.S. military bases, advance Israeli aims in the region, and intimidate all potential rivals for decades. It is wrong, a clear violation of international law.” Harry Reid can’t say, “The lies of these war planners are so obvious. We need hearings now about the Office of Special Plans. We need to find out who forged the Niger uranium documents and who undercut our intelligence professionals in pushing that completely false case presented by Colin Powell to the U.N. We need to move on impeachment of both Bush and Cheney.”

That sort of honest talk is not normally allowed by the system to the “loyal opposition.” Only under circumstances of extraordinary duress, when it feels its very existence threatened, does the system make some concessions to the people it doesn’t work for. In the early ’70s our outrage over the war in Vietnam, compounded by disgust about the evolving Watergate Affair, forced Congress to cut off war funding (through the Case-Church Amendment passed on June 19, 1973), produced a wave of investigations that exposed the vicious Cointelpro Program, and produced the Freedom of Information Act. We’re not yet back to that level of outrage, but the number of people questioning the system itself—the money-driven “Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics”—is growing. As the Democrats drag their feet, ignore their mandate to end the war, and collude with moves against Iran and Syria bound to produce disastrous repercussions, disillusionment will no doubt mount, as it should.

“To be radical,” wrote Marx, “is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man, the root is man himself.” In other words, radicalism means thinking clearly about how and why people in general are oppressed by the “money” to which Bacevich alludes. By those who use their unconscionable wealth (= political power) to pursue their boundless “interests”—sacrificing other people’s children to do so. But Marx in the same work notes how people oppress themselves with delusional thinking. He refers to religion but might as well be speaking of delusions about contemporary American “democracy” when he writes, “The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.”

Sheehan’s disillusionment need not lead to a dead end. It could be the premise for appropriately deeper radicalization.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at:



Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at:

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