July 6, 2004

Critiquing the critique

Pandering to the lies the Left tells itself about the Democrats

By Stephen Gowans

Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas,  has written a penetrating and mostly cogent critique of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, in which he argues the filmaker's documentary panders to the lies Americans tell themselves about the US military protecting Americans' freedom, rather than projecting US power abroad.
 
Calling the film conservative, and not the far-Left critique it's believed to be,  Jensen takes issue with Moore's attributing the US drive to war to the business dealings of the Bush family, rather than recognizing empire-building as a regular feature of US foreign policy, as ardently pursued by Democrat as Republican presidents.

Isn't Clinton responsible for more Iraqi deaths than both Bush presidents combined? And didn't regime change become official US foreign policy when Clinton was president, before Bush?

But with Moore working furiously to atone for what he now regards as the sin of punishing the Democrats by backing Nader in 2000, the country's long history of aggressive foreign policy, and the Democrat's central role  in shaping it, is swept under the rug.

The problem, we're told, is the moron in the White House. And that means the solution is Kerry.

Moore isn't alone. A bevy of US Leftists, including Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Michael Parenti and Pete Seeger, have called on "peace and social justice activists" to dump Bush in November in a "Letter to the Left", citing the need to stop Bush's drive to war, as if somehow, the drive to war belongs to Bush alone, and isn't indelibly etched on the country's foreign policy.

The group pussyfooted around the question of whether dumping Bush means voting for the Democrat candidate, as if recognizing it's an anathema for a self-respecting radical to actually utter the words vote Democrat, but the message, delivered obliquely, was clear. Today, Left-wing voters are urged to feel free to vote for a third party where it makes no difference, but to vote for Kerry where it does.

Elsewhere, the Communist Party is going all out for the Democrats. And so too is Joel Wendland, a "Marxist for Kerry", who is editor of the party's Political Affairs magazine. It seems all sorts of Leftists have come to the same conclusion as Moore on electoral choices.

Jensen says Moore's analysis is dangerous, misleading and superficial for failing to recognize empire-building as a recurrent and systemic pattern of US policy. But doesn't it follow that an analysis that concludes that Bush must be defeated and Kerry installed to stop "Bush's" drive to war, is similarly dangerous, misleading and superficial?

Jensen doesn't think so, which is why I've only taken my gushing over his critique so far. Here's Jensen on strategic voting.
 

"I agree that Bush should be kicked out of the White House, and if I lived in a swing state I would consider voting Democratic. But I don't believe that will be meaningful unless there emerges in the United States a significant anti-empire movement. In other words, if we beat Bush and go back to "normal," we're all in trouble. Normal is empire building. Normal is U.S. domination, economic and military, and the suffering that vulnerable people around the world experience as a result. This doesn't mean voters can't judge one particular empire-building politician more dangerous than another. It doesn't mean we shouldn't sometimes make strategic choices to vote for one over the other. It simply means we should make such choices with eyes open and no illusions. This seems particularly important when the likely Democratic presidential candidate tries to out-hawk Bush on support for Israel, pledges to continue the occupation of Iraq, and says nothing about reversing the basic trends in foreign policy."


Otherwise sharp, crisp, concrete and to the point, Jensen's argument suddenly succumbs to a flabalanche -- it's loses its muscle tone and sags under the weight of its avoir dupois. What's he saying?

He says strategic voting can be an option, but does he mean it's the right option today?

He says there's nothing wrong with voting for the less dangerous empire-building politician, but who is the less dangerous option --  Kerry or Bush?

He says Kerry is trying to out-hawk Bush, pledges to continue the occupation of Iraq, and says nothing about reversing the basic trends in foreign policy, which makes it seem Bush is the lesser evil (he's less hawkish on Israel.) So, should we vote for Bush?

On the other hand, Jensen says he would consider voting for Kerry if he lived in a swing state, which makes you think he believes Kerry is the less dangerous empire-building politician, but how can a politician who tries to out-hawk his opponent be less dangerous?

What are we to make of this? Jensen seems to be saying that Kerry plus a movement against empire building has a chance of succeeding where Bush plus a movement against empire building doesn't. So do what you can to secure a Kerry victory.

That's also Howard Zinn's view. Politicians, says the historian, respond to their constituencies, so if Kerry is pressured he just might back away from pro-war policies.

Convincing? I don't think so. Why should Kerry be any more susceptible to pressure from the Left than Bush? Because Kerry needs the Left to win, and Bush doesn't?

That might be so were it not for the reality that there's a far more powerful constituency the Democrats, as much as the Republicans, are inextricably and powerfully bound up with: the business community. And the business community has a vital interest in US empire building.

The Left, greatly impoverished, is no match. The Iraqi insurgency, however, might be, as a North Korean nuclear weapons program might be against US designs on the Korean peninsula. Which is to say, what's going to stop US empire building is the only thing that's ever stopped it: the recalcitrance of the natives and the rivalry of competing powers.

What's more, most Left voters are going to vote for Kerry anyway, so Kerry doesn't need to do anything to accommodate them.

He doesn't even need to pander to the Left during an election, even if he intends to ignore it afterward, what established parties usually do when they need to appeal to left-leaning voters. Thank the dump-Bush-equals-vote-for-Kerry movement for that.

Indeed, Kerry hasn't pandered to the Left. On the contrary, as Jensen puts it, Kerry's trying to out-hawk Bush, which hardly seems to be the hallmark of either a less dangerous empire-building politician or one that's likely to be responsive to the Left.

To be fair, Jensen tries to play-down the election, and for good reason. It commands far more attention than it deserves, having diverted the energies of the Left from fruitful pursuits. What, for example, has happened to the once promising anti-capitalist movement that staged mass demonstrations against the World Bank, WTO and IMF has it morphed into a dump-Bush, which is to say, get-out-the-vote-for-the-Democrats movement?

I agree with Jensen that organizing outside of elections is far more important, but I'd go further. I'd dismiss strategic voting as a mug's game and the election as an essentially meaningless affair, in which it's impossible to predict whether the infinitesimal differences to be achieved by a Kerry victory will be for the better or worse. Who's to say Kerry will be a little less dangerous and not a little more? So why bother? And why waste any more time and energy on it?

To put it another way, the difference to be achieved in voting for Kerry vs. not voting at all is tantamount to the difference between buying a lottery ticket and saving your money. Except the price of a lottery ticket is nothing against the opportunity cost of squandering time and energy on the Democrats, when it could be spent building genuine anti-war, anti-imperialist, pro-egalitarian movements and parties committed to radical change.

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Stephen Gowans