Co-opting the Antiwar Movement

Perhaps it betrays my essentially reformist rather than revolutionary disposition to think that there is something wrong with what Eliot has Abp. Becket say in Murder in the Cathedral

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

However much that may be a guide for oneself, Christians at least (and Eliot thought of himself as one) are cautioned against judging the motives of others. We’re reduced to trying to descry the good action and leaving alone the heart’s reasons that the reason does not know (in others at least).

But there can be as we might say operational differences in opposing the war (a) because it’s wrong, or (b) because it’s done wrong.

They’re obvious as soon as an appropriate remedy is proposed: the alternative is (a) stop doing it, or (b) do it better.

It may be that this distinction — indeed antithesis — has been exploited to neutralize the anti-war movement in the five years since the largest anti-war demonstrations in human history. In any case, that movement does seem to have been successfully neutralized, and it wasn’t an accident.

I’m frightened, for example, by the disappearance of the word “co-option.” A coinage of the 1960s (the word meant something else before that), the word in the midst of the Vietnam war came to mean to absorb a political group or idea into a larger (and probably inimical) one. Here are some examples from the OED:

1969 Atlantic Monthly: “A Republican Party based in the ‘heartland’ (Midwest), West, and South can and should co-opt the Wallace vote.”
1970 New Yorker: “All too often, mere approval of their social and political concern has, in the jargon, co-opted their causes and deadened them.”
1982 N.Y. Times: “The argument has been, co-opt the left before it’s too late.”

That seems to me to be what has happened to the contemporary anti-war movement — and we’ve even lost the language to describe what has happened.

Of course that’s not an accident. The forces of ideological control in this society are vigorous and powerful. They were profoundly frightened by “the sixties,” and they fought back with a generation-long campaign. The general term for the counter-attack, from Thatcher and Reagan to Clinton and Blair, was neoliberalism, but not just as an economic doctrine. Bush and Obama are both heirs of it.

As far as the anti-war movement is concerned, the principal agent of co-option in the US has been the Democratic party, culminating in the recent electoral campaign. Given control of Congress to end the war in 2006, the Democrats instead ended the sentiment that had given them control by adopting it in word and undermining it in deed.

No one understood that task better than BHO (which is why he was the nominee). Here’s what he wrote in The Audacity of Hope about the Vietnam war:

The disastrous consequences of that conflict — for our credibility and prestige abroad, for our armed forces (which would take a generation to recover), and most of all for those who fought — have been amply documented. But perhaps the biggest casualty of that war was the bond of trust between the American people and their government [SIC: NOT MILLIONS OF ASIANS] — and between Americans themselves. As a consequence of a more aggressive press corps and the images of body bags flooding into the living rooms, Americans began to realize that the best and the brightest in Washington didn’t always know what they were doing — and didn’t always tell the truth [NOTE THE NATURE OF THE OBJECTION TO THE WAR]. Increasingly, many on the left voiced opposition not only to the Vietnam War but also to the broader aims of American foreign policy [CAN YOU IMAGINE THAT?!]. In their view, President Johnson, General Westmoreland, the CIA, the ‘military industrial complex,’ and international institutions like the World Bank were all manifestations of American arrogance, jingoism, racism, capitalism and imperialism [NOTE: ‘THEIR’ VIEW, NOT BHO’S]. Those on the right responded in kind [SIC], laying responsibility for the loss of Vietnam [‘LOSS’?] but also for the decline America’s standing in the world squarely on the ‘blame America first’ crowd — the protestors, the hippies, Jane Fonda, the Ivy League intellectuals and liberal media.

That seems to me a pretty good summary of opposition to the US war in SE Asia “not because it’s wrong but because it’s not done right.” And there’s no break in BHO’s opinion when it’s extended to the war in SW Asia. The passage is from a book published just two years ago. And the anti-war movement disappeared into his campaign. –CGE

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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.” –Noam Chomsky