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Letter to an Ex-Contrarian | The Nation

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Letter to an Ex-Contrarian

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Dear Christopher,

About the Author

Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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I was very sad when you left the magazine, but I was puzzled too. What kind of contrarian leaves a column--called "Minority Report," no less--because too many of the readers disagree with him? Quite apart from the fact that some readers share your views on Iraq, the precipitating subject, aren't contrarians supposed to relish the combat? To enjoy stomping about the lonely platform and hectoring the resistant multitudes? Let's say you wanted to persuade those opposed to invading Iraq that the cause of Iraqi democracy and Kurdish self-determination require it. What better pulpit than here?

But of course there was more to it than that. On the radio, on Hardball, in a long interview in Salon, in a Washington Post essay redolently titled "So Long, Fellow Travelers," you've offered a view of those who oppose Bush's military plans that is seriously at odds with reality: The antiwar movement equals the left and the left equals the followers of Ramsey Clark, defender of Slobodan Milosevic and assorted Hutu genocidaires and other thugs, who is the founder of the International Action Center, which is closely linked to ANSWER, a front for the Workers World Party. Your picture of the big antiwar demo in October could have come straight out of David Horowitz's column: "100,000 Communists March on Washington to Give Aid and Comfort to Saddam Hussein."

Now, it is a fact that ANSWER called the big demonstration in Washington, it arranged for the permits, organized many buses and brought on all those speakers no one listens to. That's not the same as controlling the movement--99 percent of the people who go to those demonstrations don't even know ANSWER exists--but of course it's galling that this tiny group of sectarian throwbacks play any kind of leadership role. That's why numerous lefties you know well--David Corn, Marc Cooper, Todd Gitlin--have written polemics calling for their ouster, and various efforts are afoot to out-organize them. I think those writers exaggerate ANSWER's influence--I can't tell you how many people I've spoken with who do not recognize in Corn's LA Weekly description the DC event they attended. But the important point is, those writers and those organizers oppose ANSWER because they know it doesn't represent either the left or the antiwar movement. You seem to think it does.

What I don't understand is how you can believe that. You've spent decades on the left you now despise. You know that Edward Said, Ann Snitow, Doug Henwood, Laura Flanders and Adolph Reed care as much about human rights as you do, don't regard Saddam Hussein as a people's hero, don't secretly gloat over 9/11 (you, weirdly, told Salon that the event filled you with "exhilaration"--the battle between fundamentalism and secularism had been joined). Why do you write as if these antiwar voices--or Vietnam Veterans Against the War, or the National Organization for Women, or your presidential candidate of choice, Ralph Nader--did not exist? You are doing to the American left exactly what Martin Amis did to you when he laid the crimes of Stalin at your Trotskyist feet. Sure, there are plenty of people (not all of whom are leftists) who oppose this war because they oppose all US military intervention on principle, and maybe there is even some graduate student out there, mind addled by an all-Ramen diet, who believes that Osama bin Laden is merely a "misguided anti-imperialist." But surely you know that lots of people oppose invading Iraq who supported the war in Afghanistan and intervention in Kosovo--why aren't Mark Danner, Aryeh Neier and Ronald Dworkin on your radar screen? Who died and made Ramsey Clark commissar?

As the polls, which show declining support for war, should suggest, many people oppose military action in Iraq who are not leftists. They are the troops at those big demonstrations--ordinary people from unions and high schools and churches, piling into buses with their handmade signs. Why? They're afraid of big casualties, American and Iraqi; they fear it will turn the whole region into a bloodbath; they fear Saddam Hussein will attack Israel, and Israel will strike back; they believe it will mean long-term occupation of Iraq, with terrible consequences for our own society; they fear it will backfire, increasing terrorism against the United States and fueling Islamic fundamentalism. They think it's a substitute for, and diversion from, the more difficult task of going after Al Qaeda. They oppose the whole concept of pre-emptive war, and see it as a violation of international law that will license other countries to do the same. They don't like the bellicose tone of the Bush Administration, distrust its constantly shifting rationales and apparent willingness to go it alone. They do not believe, as you apparently do, that the Administration cares about Iraqi democracy or the Kurds--who, by the way, are hardly united in welcoming the prospect of war.

These people are mostly not pacifists, whom this year you say you respect but last year jeered at in the Guardian (in a piece titled "Ha Ha Ha to the Pacifists"). But they see a world that bristles with arms and is run by men of limited vision on behalf of narrow economic and ideological interests--probably not many would agree with your statement in the London Observer last January that, Ashcroft excepted, Bush's early appointments were "statesmanlike." They see a world in which invading other countries often doesn't work out too well and has unintended consequences. You ought to understand all that--after all, you opposed the Gulf War, which had much more justification than the current proposal.

Well, I'm sorry you're not here to discuss all this further--although your current style of debate relies perhaps too heavily on words like "idiot" and "moron" to shed much light. Next time you put on your Orwell costume for the TV cameras, I hope you'll put on his fairness and modesty too. You may have spent years as a man of the left in America, but I don't think you really knew the American left.

Your ex-colleague,
         Katha

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