Shortly after Sept.11, the Weekly Standard began offering facetious “Susan Sontag Awards” for anti-war comments. The reference was to a snotty 460-word New Yorker article, in which the famous New York intellectual described the terrorist attacks as a “consequence of specific American alliances and actions” and called high-altitude bombing “cowardly.” Winners of the Standard’s Sontag Award have included the novelist Alice Walker, filmmakers Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, and Ted Rall, a syndicated political cartoonist. A separate feature in the magazine dismembered Katha Pollitt for something she wrote in The Nation.
Around the same time, the New Republic initiated an “idiocy award” for dumb comments about the war against terrorism. Honorees have included Katha Pollitt, Alice Walker, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Arundhati Roy, and Ted Rall, as well as the novelist Barbara Kingsolver. In a separate column in the magazine, Lawrence Kaplan compared Susan Sontag’s comments to the views of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. AndrewSullivan.com has also put forward nominations for a “Sontag Award”—to Pollitt, Stone, Walker, Roy, and Rall. Sullivan’s Web site clobbered Moore and Kingsolver under a different rubric.
If the point of these anthologies is simply to call people out for saying foolish things, then I have no complaint other than the repetition. I recently criticized Pollitt myself for her views on the American flag. But if, as I suspect, the suggestion is that these comments represent a significant body of anti-war opinion, I’m far from persuaded. Stone and Moore are well-known cranks, regarded with considerable distaste even on the left. Roy and Stockhausen aren’t even American. The sins of the others fall somewhere short of lending aid and comfort to the enemy. Kingsolver published something in a Milwaukee newspaper equating patriotism with terrorism. Walker wrote something incoherent in the Village Voice about how “the only punishment that works is love.” I’m not sure many people have even heard of Ted Rall.
As for the much-maligned Susan Sontag, she subsequently regretted writing that New Yorker piece in an interview with David Talbot of Salon. “I’m not against fighting this enemy—it is an enemy and I’m not a pacifist,” Sontag said. She added: “I want to make one thing very clear, because I’ve been accused of this by some critics. I do not feel that the Sept. 11 attacks were the pursuit of legitimate grievances by illegitimate means.”
In other words, anti-war villain No. 1 isn’t even against the war, much less in sympathy with the other side, as she was during Vietnam. But Sontag’s critics aren’t much interested in finding out what she—or the other rogues in their gallery—actually think. To do so might undermine their enjoyable hunt for heretics. Even some leftists have joined in this fun. In the latest issue of the Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens describes his heroic resistance to Osama Bin Laden’s radical-chic sympathizers. And who are these sympathizers? Stone, Sontag, and Noam Chomsky, in whom Hitchens now recognizes clinical symptoms that have been obvious to everyone else for years. On the basis of these people’s views, Hitchens heaps contempt on a group he calls “American liberals.”
But neither Hitchens nor anyone else can produce the name of a single prominent “liberal”—as opposed to a radical literary figure or European intellectual—who actually opposes military action against Osama Bin Laden. Among Democratic elected officials, the only opponent of the war is Rep. Barbara Lee of Berkeley, Calif. Barney Frank, Paul Wellstone, and David Bonior are all firmly in the war camp. So is the American Prospect. So is Arthur Schlesinger. So is Molly Ivins.
Even many non-liberal leftists who have protested every American military action since Vietnam aren’t against this war. The Nation these days sounds like someone with a mouth full of marbles, because most of the writers can’t bear to say that they support what the United States is doing in Afghanistan, even though they do. In the current issue, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the magazine’s editor, struggles to acknowledge that the war “seems justified.” Then it’s time to change the topic: She hopes that the national unity engendered by the war can be turned to something really important, like campaign-finance reform. And Hitchens is not the only Nation writer in open defiance of the magazine’s surviving readership. Eric Alterman, a longtime critic of U.S. foreign policy, has recently taken to decrying “the Hate America Left.”
As for our college campuses, they’re hotbeds of … patriotism. According to a recent study by the Institute of Politics at Harvard, student support for our bombing of Afghanistan is “slightly lower” than that of the general population—79 percent versus 92 percent. That, however, was before the airstrikes began to work. Seventy-five percent of college students trust the American military to “do the right thing all or most of the time.” A story in the Los Angeles Times quotes someone from the American Friends Service Committee in Cambridge, Mass., who says the anti-war movement “is still in the process of taking shape.” As for such traditional hallmarks as protests, organizations, slogans, buttons, and posters, be patient. “Momentum is building.”
Put bluntly, there is no anti-war movement, intellectual or popular, in the United States. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying no one opposes the war. According to polls, 5 percent of the country is against it. There are pacifists and Buddhists. There remain others whose ears hear only evil about the United States. But even among such folk, it’s impossible to find anyone who explicitly sides with our enemies, as so many radicals and intellectuals did during the Vietnam. Opposition to the war against terrorism is more like opposition to World War II. You can draw up a list of names, just as you could catalog those who didn’t think we should fight the Nazis, such as the critic Dwight Macdonald, the pacifist poet Robert Lowell, and the once pro-fascist architect Philip Johnson. But however wrongheaded it was, such opposition was marginal and idiosyncratic. It meant nothing in terms of the country or the war effort.
If today’s anti-war movement is insignificant, why are some supporters of the war so fixated on it? Their reasons vary. Someone like David Horowitz understands everything in terms of the Cold War and Vietnam. Without an anti-American left to do battle against, his life would be drained of all meaning. His fund raising would suffer as well. Other conservatives adopt an embattled posture simply out of long-standing habit, without reference to whether any barbarians are actually at the gates. A furious centrist like Michael Kelly seems to need a treasonous anti-war movement to stir his outrage and generate column inches. A born-again patriot like Hitchens finds it useful in another way. Decrying the left’s true believers validates his newly acquired mainstream credentials.
The rest of us, who don’t need an anti-war movement for any particular reason, are free to take note of its virtual nonexistence. Those policing the debate are dropping the rhetorical equivalent of daisy cutters on a few malnourished left-wing stragglers. Of course those opposed to the United States defending itself against terrorism are wrong. They also happen to be totally irrelevant.