In contemplating how and why we got where we are today stuck in the quagmire of Iraq and faced with a relentless assault on our civil liberties at home three major failures come to mind, three institutions that imploded under enormous pressure. Like the steel girders that held up the World Trade Center towers, these cultural-political pillars melted under the tremendous emotional heat generated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and their collapse paved the way for all that came after.
The first pillar to fall the "mainstream" media crumbled almost immediately. Hours after the World Trade Center came crashing down, reporters had already pinned on their flag lapels and started parroting the government line. Bill Moyers, in his comprehensive look at how and why the "major" media melted down in the heat of the moment, chronicles the sorry story but doesn’t really come to any firm conclusions about why that moment of utter capitulation lasted for years and has only worn off just recently (which accounts for the fact that the Moyers documentary was made at all). In any case, Moyers details the pathetic story of how professional journalists abdicated their responsibilities to their readers and themselves but doesn’t readily explain why.
After all, these guys have tremendous resources and real power: that’s why they call them the "Fourth Estate." The ability to shape public opinion and set the terms of the debate is a powerful weapon in any hands, and the extreme concentration of media ownership is a real factor in enforcing an informal "party line" in what is laughingly referred to as the "mainstream" media, or the MSM, as the right wing of the blogosphere likes to put it. Yet the line between the "mainstream" and its tributaries on the margins is increasingly blurred by the emergence of the Internet as the main artery through which information is distributed and consumed. When Matt Drudge rivals the New York Times as the trend-setting arbiter of what’s news and what isn’t, you know we have entered an entirely new era in news-gathering.
Skepticism about the administration’s case for war and the ramping-up of the surveillance state cropped up here and there in the world of print media, yet it is the Internet that stepped into the traditional fact-checking and speaking-truth-to-power role once assumed by the dead-tree and broadcast media. In blogging the Moyers documentary, Jim Bovard says: "Unfortunately, the program did not include any reference to Antiwar.com’s truth-telling long before ‘Shock and Awe’ hit Baghdad," but we’re not at all miffed well, not really. We know, and our readers know, what we were saying in the run-up to war: that we debunked the War Party’s methodology, exposed their dubious sources and motives, and predicted the consequences that are now destroying a nation and snuffing out lives.
What’s more, Google knows: if, on the Internet, your crimes live forever, so, too, do your achievements. Those searching for early warnings against going to war and skeptical analyses of the administration’s case are more than likely to be directed to this Web site. Researchers are bound to discover what our regular readers have long known: the writers and reporters represented on Antiwar.com simply cited the known facts to get to a position that was considered "radical" yesterday but is today’s conventional wisdom that there were no Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction," no links to al-Qaeda or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and no threats to legitimate American interests emanating from Baghdad.
We swam against the tide and lived to see our prognostications confirmed. All through that time, however, we struggled to keep our heads above water. The War Party not only had the major media and public opinion on its side, they also had tremendous financial resources that dwarfed our own. The neoconservative network pumped out propaganda at an alarming rate, and their pro-war memes proliferated like viruses on the Internet. The "warbloggers" arose to act as what one CNN executive characterized as the "patriotism police." Shills such as Glenn Reynolds and Andrew Sullivan come immediately to mind, although, as these two early debunkings demonstrate, the entire phenomenon was overblown from the beginning, and a thin excuse indeed for the sheer cowardice of the Fourth Estate.
Which brings us to the second failure, and that is the lack of public intellectuals who stood up to the war hysteria and raised their voices against the din. Legislation that took away our civil liberties was passed unread, and where were the intellectuals? Cowering under their desks, or worse, joining in the chorus of demands for war abroad and an inquisition at home. Andrew Sullivan is emblematic of the Vichy intellectual. Subjecting even poetry to an ideological litmus test, the Republican monarch of the warbloggers accused war opponents of acting like a "fifth column" on behalf of Osama bin Laden. With Sullivan leading the pack, the "warbloggers" demonized any public figure who spoke out against the madness, smearing Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and Robert Fisk, among others, who had the courage to question Bush’s response to 9/11.
How easily yesterday’s "treason" becomes today’s conventional wisdom. When war opponents pointed out that there were no "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq and no links to al-Qaeda or 9/11, they were smeared as agents of Saddam Hussein.
When antiwar conservatives objected that we could not export our system to the Middle East with any real hope of success, their patriotism was questioned although the antiwar movement on the right can take some satisfaction in noting that the founder of National Review, where the original smear by David Frum was published, is now echoing the arguments made by Pat Buchanan, Lew Rockwell, and myself, among others attacked in Frum’s infamous piece. Is Buckley an "unpatriotic conservative," as Frum described us in the title of his article? I can guarantee that we won’t be hearing the answer to that question very soon at least, not in public. One can only imagine what the neocons who have taken over National Review from its founder say in private.
The third pillar of civil society that gave way in the wake of 9/11 was the antiwar movement, which disintegrated back into its core of "far" (i.e., real) leftists, "right-wing" (i.e., libertarian) "isolationists" such as yours truly, and random freethinkers and ideological independents who were somehow rendered immune to the Bizarro Effect.
The inability of the antiwar movement to get its act together, at least initially, was intimately related to the silence or outright complicity of the public intellectuals. The intellectuals in America have traditionally acted as a brake on the worst excesses of demagogues and hysterical crowds: in this case, the brakes were missing. There was nothing to restrain the administration or its media amen corner from riding roughshod over both our civil liberties and the facts about the alleged "threat" represented by Iraq. Nor was there anything to inspire or enable any kind of viable opposition. The intellectual and political checks and balances that restrain society from giving in to its worst impulses had broken down.
This general breakdown had unfortunate side-effects. Early on, the antiwar movement was captured by a rather unsavory "coalition" whose "moderate" wing was the Communist Party, USA. With the liberal interventionists allied with the neocon Right thank you, Peter Beinart, and good luck "repositioning" both yourself and your rotten magazine! there was an absence of liberal voices in the antiwar coalition, and such beginnings made any outreach to the great majority of Americans practically out of the question. "Antiwar" rallies became sounding boards for every left-wing cause and special interest under the sun: the idea of reaching out to antiwar moderates and even conservatives around a single-issue perspective was dismissed out of hand by the organizers. The very idea of inviting, say, Ron Paul, one of the very few Republican congressmen who opposed the war and he is now running for president as the antiwar Republican to speak on the antiwar platform was entirely out of the question. The antiwar movement has since undergone a bit of a metamorphosis, yet the prospect of having Rep. Paul (or anyone to the right of Jesse Jackson) speak at an antiwar rally is still just as unlikely.
Which brings us to the second great failure of the antiwar movement: its partisan ties. In spite of the rhetorical and stylistic "radicalism" of the "far"-left-led antiwar organizations, most of them led by one or another Marxist "vanguard party" (Workers World, Revolutionary Communist Party, etc.), the prosaic reality is that they are, nearly all of them, shameless shills for the Democratic Party. Take, for example, Win Without War, headed by Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine. "There are not enough votes to end the war," claimed Andrews, explaining why the antiwar movement had to get in line behind the now-defanged Pelosi bill that coupled war funding with a timeline for withdrawal. Shorn of its timelines, however, the Pelosi bill amounts to a Democratic imprimatur on the continuation of the war and Andrews has a lot of explaining to do to his followers in the antiwar movement.
The current phase of the antiwar movement’s evolution, its complete subordination to the Democratic Party, has proved to be worse than the isolation it suffered under the hegemony of the "far"-left. A recent New York Times piece on the growing anger in the antiwar movement at the Democrats’ capitulation to the administration on the war-funding issue underscores the problem:
"Every morning, representatives from a cluster of antiwar groups gather for a conference call with Democratic leadership staff members in the House and the Senate. Shortly after, in a cramped meeting room here, they convene for a call with organizers across the country. They hash out plans for rallies. They sketch out talking points for ‘rapid response’ news conferences. They discuss polls they have conducted in several dozen crucial congressional districts and states across the country."
The order of battle is pretty clear in this instance: the commander in chief is the Democratic leadership, and orders are passed down the chain of command from the very top to the liberal activists and labor leaders behind such groups as MoveOn.org and Americans Against Escalation, a labor-funded Democratic Party front group organized to push the Pelosi "timelines" bill. With the Pelosi bill reduced to just more money for a war the activists don’t support, there is anger and real bitterness in the ranks. Here’s MoveOn.org’s statement on the matter:
"In the past few days, we have seen what appear to be trial balloons signaling a significant weakening of the Democratic position. On this, we want to be perfectly clear: if Democrats appear to capitulate to Bush passing a bill without measures to end the war the unity Democrats have enjoyed and Democratic leadership has so expertly built, will immediately disappear."
The Pelosi bill, in its present form, amounts to endorsing a "war without end," says MoveOn, and this means that the organization "will move to a position of opposition."
Opposition to whom, or to what? Why, to the Democratic Party. To which one can only add: it’s about time!
Don’t these people realize that they’ve always been "in opposition"? Well, uh, no apparently not. It’s too much to expect them to acknowledge that this war, and the larger "war on terrorism," is the child of both parties, the Democrats as much as the Republicans. Bill Clinton, after all, was carpet-bombing Iraq and pointing to an imaginary "threat" from Saddam Hussein long before George W. Bush entered the Oval Office. It was the Democratic leadership, under Bill Clinton’s tutelage, that supported and passed the Iraq Liberation Act, which set the wheels of American-sponsored "regime change" in motion. The Democrats caved on the war, along with the media and the intellectuals. The antiwar movement, having been isolated and browbeaten, went along for the ride as long as they could until, finally, they woke up one day and found themselves supporting a bill that guarantees the continuation of a "war without end."
Our political culture, like our constitutional system, is a system of checks and balances. This concatenation of social, intellectual, and political forces normally prevents an out-of-control government from pursuing policies that do too much damage to the body politic. These intermediary institutions function like a body’s immune system: when they break down, all kinds of viruses and infections set in.
That’s what happened after 9/11. There was a general breakdown that enabled the growth and development of the neoconservative virus which multiplied in the favorable atmosphere of hysteria and took over key power centers in Washington, neutralizing potential critics both in Congress and the media and launching a war that we are all paying for every day, in every way.
Throughout these difficult years, Antiwar.com has done its small part in rebuilding our devastated sociopolitical immune system by helping to reestablish some semblance of journalistic checks and balances on the war propaganda that has gone mostly unchallenged, up until very recently, in the "mainstream" media. Our chosen task is to debunk the lies, and, believe you me, it’s a full-time job, one that we do with relatively few resources and, I might add, a bit immodestly, with some degree of competence. At least our 100,000-plus daily readership would seem to indicate that.
Yet we don’t get half the financial support, even with so many readers, that we need in order to give you the kind of coverage that you deserve. It’s so important to give the American people the proper context for the complex issues we face, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. The failure of the "mainstream" in journalism, in politics, and among the intellectual elites has meant there’s a tremendous gap that has to be filled, and our task is Sisyphean. We don’t have the staff, there’s never enough time, and we most certainly don’t have the money it takes to run the kind of operation required to counteract the endless flow of war propaganda. Especially since the conventional media outlets have signed on as government shills.
Four times a year we turn to our readers for the support we need in order to survive. We don’t have any big corporate backers or rich liberal donors to make sure the bills are paid on time. We depend on you, our readers and supporters, to come through and, so far, you have come through, every time. Yet I can’t help biting my fingernails through each and every fundraising week, and worrying that, this time, we might not make it.
Antiwar.com, I’m sure you’ll agree, is needed now more than ever yet my big fear is that you’ll assume that we’ll make it through, somehow, without your support. That’s why, this time around, I’m making a special effort to impress upon you the importance of preserving Antiwar.com one of the very few journalistic institutions that didn’t fail to do its job at the height of the post-9/11 hysteria. We stood by our posts, we took our blows and took our chances, we reported the news as we saw it as it turns out, correctly and in contradistinction to the narrative the "mainstream" was feeding us, which amounted to little more than lies made in Washington.
What I’m trying to say is that we have earned your support and want to continue earning it to the best of our ability. We can’t do that, however, unless you come through with your financial support.
The media failed, the intellectuals failed, and the politicians failed, in the end, to rein in the War Party: the last thing we need now is for Antiwar.com to fail. That’s why it’s vitally important to contribute as much as you can, as soon as you can.
In my April 23 column, "Showdown at the Congressional Corral," I mistakenly labeled Win Without War "a front group for the wacked-out Revolutionary Communist Party." This is inaccurate. I inadvertently mixed up Win Without War with Not In Our Name which is a front group for the wacked-out Revolutionary Communist Party. My apologies for the error.