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Of Pete Seeger and Jean Bethke Elshtain

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Ancient socialist, peacenik, and folk legend Pete Seeger has recorded a new version of his Vietnam War-era protest song, “Bring Them Home” (seems kind of moot about now) with help from Steve Earle, Ani DiFranco, and Billy Bragg. I would expect nothing different from Seeger, who at 84 is as crusty and pissed off with the establishment as ever.

What interests me more, though, is yet another equation of the Vietnam era with now (and that equation as an underlying principle of the current anti-war ethos). The eras are different on virtually every level (see a discussion of the American public’s view of the military then and now here), a view that was reinforced by Paul Berman’s lucid review of Jean Bethke Elshtain’s new book JUST WAR AGAINST TERROR The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. After 9/11 she was struck by the reaction of many of her academic colleagues to the attacks:

    The professors, some of them, seemed in her eyes stuck in a Vietnam quagmire of their own, in which America was always a villain and never a victim, and American military response was always a catastrophe, never a measured act of self-defense or a humanitarian boon. [ital mine]

    The professors, all too many of them, insisted that ”no space exists within American society today to make contrarian arguments.” And yet Elshtain judged that, within the academy, the truly unpopular argument was one in defense of American policy. She wasn’t too happy with the leaders of American Christianity, either. Christian discussion of the war seemed to her, in too many cases, simplistic, sentimental, utopian and unrealistic — a discussion based on ”easy criticism, if not condemnation, of America and her leaders.” There was a lot of indignation against the demonizing of America’s enemies. ”But who is demonizing and dehumanizing whom?” she asks. ”No American public official on the national front has demonized Muslims. All political leaders from both parties have warned against any such tendency. The demonizing has come from the other side.”

    And so Elshtain listened, and fumed, and now she has drawn up a catalog of the precise errors of logic and language that have led so many people to respond so foolishly and glibly to the terrorist attacks. She notes an inability to make the right distinctions — between, for instance, martyrs and murderers, or between justice and revenge, or between terror and legitimate war. She notes an inability to distinguish between intended deaths (the victims of the terrorist attacks) and unintended deaths (the victims of American military errors). She notes a sloppy attitude toward facts — for instance, a willingness to assume that vast numbers of civilians were killed in Afghanistan, when the actual numbers, according to The Los Angeles Times, were a little over a thousand by midsummer 2002, large enough but not vast.

    She notes an inability to listen. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have openly expressed their hatred of Christians, Jews and Americans, and their desire for random murder. And yet, in her estimation, all too many people in the universities and in the pulpits profess to be in the dark about Al Qaeda’s true intentions, or pretend to know the real reason behind the attack — some modest, real-world complaint about American or Israeli policies.

    ….She concludes that, in too many university and church discussions, ”repeatedly the worst possible gloss is put on American motivations and the best on the motivations of those who attacked us.” And, in this manner, not afraid to make a bit of noise, Elshtain sends her arguments rolling across the lawn, everywhere encountering weedy clumps of prejudice and ill-conceived assumptions, and everywhere leaving behind a well-trimmed swath of intellectual clarity, which is pleasing to see. [NY Times]

Pleasing indeed, and an amazingly succinct summation of the rightness of the War on Terror and a refutation of the Vietnam analogy, “in which America was always a villain and never a victim, and American military response was always a catastrophe, never a measured act of self-defense or a humanitarian boon,” the latter two we have seen twice now in a little over a year, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pete Seeger will be 84 tomorrow: he is allowed to live in the past, but what is your excuse?

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About Eric Olsen

  • mike

    I used to live in the past, but now I live in the present. Soon I will be living in the future.