Monday, August 08, 2005

Abbie Hoffman was wrong

I was sitting in a cafe in the Haight the other night and I noticed a poster on the wall that had a long quote from Abbie Hoffman's commencement address to Vanderbilt University in 1989. He said,

In the nineteen-sixties, apartheid was driven our of America. Legal segregation -- Jim Crow -- ended. We didn't end racism, but we ended legal segeration. We ended the idea that you can send a million soldiers ten thousand miles away to fight in a war the people do not support. We ended the idea that women are second-class citizens.

Now, it doesn't matter who sits in the Oval Office. The big battles that were won that period of civil war and strife you cannot reverse. We were young, we were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong -- and we were right.

I regret nothing.

Now that domestic support for the war has headed into Vietnam-like numbers, we're about to find out if Hoffman was right in claiming you can't send a million soldiers to the other side of the globe to fight an unpopular war. As I've said repeatedly, the Iraq War is nothing like Vietnam in terms of the political rights and wrongs of the local or global dispute -- but it's very much like the Vietnam War in terms of its domestic American political significance.

As has been quoted to death, this White House believes very much that "it matters who sits in the Oval Office." They believe that the notion of responding to the will of the people -- or any other inconvenient factoid -- is "not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality." Well, Scooter, we'll see, we'll see.

Moreover, don't forget that this regime is interested in "creating its own reality" not just (in fact, not even mainly) in Iraq, but also (mainly) in reversing all the other historic "realities" created by the cultural advances of the 1960s that Hoffman was so smug about a decade and a half ago.


zachawry said...

Your comments seem to assume that Bush was not elected, and that a war against the will of the people just happened magically.

Well, the war was going on when Bush was re-elected, and Democracy means that those elected get to do basically what they want during their term (within the bounds of the law), while voters get kick them out at the next opportunity if they wish. It does *not* mean that as soon as support for something drops below 50% leaders are required to drop it.

That's what a representative democracy is, like it or not.

Anonymous said...

Zak, I disagree. We elected him President for the next 4 years -- not Dictator for the next 4 years. The suggestion that Bush's reelection was a referendum on the Iraq is not just a Republican talking point, it's also a joke. The Republicans claim that Bush's reelection was a referendum on his social policies, his Iraq policy, his terrorism policy, his Social Security policy, his environmental policy, blah blah blah: basically, they claim that the election (one of the closest ever for an incumbent) was a positive affirmation of everything Bush has ever proposed. Obvious nonsense. The bottom line was that Bush was elected because Kerry was less likeable than Bush, and didn't propose significantly different policies on anything except social issues.

Moreover, I think you're misreading Small Precautions. SC's point (I think) is that Abbie Hoffman was asserting that what the 1960s showed is that Presidents in fact do have to respond to public opinion between elections. Then again, SC titled his post "Abbie Hoffman was wrong" -- so maybe SC is hedging, saying that the Bush administration is providing a test case for Hoffman's assertion about whether the Presidency needs to respond to public opinion.

purpleprose said...

"SC"? Yeah, Anonymous more or less gets at the point I was trying to make.

The larger point I was obliquely trying to make is that the Bushies believe that don't need to respond to public opinion because they can manipulate -- i.e. change -- the reality that the public is responding to. They don't feel constrained or limited by "reality" or "facts" -- which they regard as a kind of limp-wristed, sweaty-palmed liberal conceit. This unwillingness to face the contraints of "actually existing" reality is what gives them their boldness, but also what makes them (like other revolutionaries) so dangerous.

zachawry said...

Well, I wasn't claiming that the 2004 election was a referendum on the Iraq war per se, but there's a simple fact you seem to be refusing to see: if the American public really disagreed with the Iraq war, they would have kicked Bush out.

To claim this isn't so because Bush was more "likeable" infantalizes the electorate.

zachawry said...

PS - Is it considered quaint these days to think that an election is affected by the policies and actions of the incumbent, or is this an example of "If my guy wins, it's because the people thought he was right, but if the other guy wins, it's because they were dooped"?

purpleprose said...

I'm not saying the electorate was duped. Rather, what I am saying is that the election did not primarily turn on policy differences between the candidates on the issues most wonks would consider the biggest ones facing the country -- i.e. the fiscal trainwreck, homeland security, and the handling of the war in Iraq. The main reason for this is that on these issues there was little policy differentiation between the candidates and hence little (possibility for) "reasoned debate." As a result, the "debate" about Iraq, about homeland security, and about the so-called GWOT revolved more around perceptions of credibility , as captured in the phrases "you know where I stand" vs. "flip-flopping" -- i.e. issues of perceived character, defined in the terms that the Republicans wanted. Beyond these security issues, the other topics that motivated the electorate, according to most seasoned observers, were things like gay marriage -- i.e. domestic cultural issues.

To reiterate, the point is not that the electorate was "duped," but rather that the Democratic Party was politically outmanouevered by the Republican Party. As I've said before, in countries where the large majority of the elecorate and all the significant parties agree on the vast majority of what might reasonably be considered major issues*, the whole art of politics becomes selecting which few issues will be the central points of discussion during a campaign. In this respect the Democrats, quite straightfowardly, got their asses kicked. The fact that the election was so close anyway, despite the Democrats' ceding of topical choice to the Republicans, just shows what an opportunity the Dems squandered last Fall.

* As Alexander Cockburn accurately observed last Fall, "Consider the number of issues on which there is tacit agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties, either as a matter of principle or with an expedient nod-and-wink that, beyond pro forma sloganeering, these are not matters suitable to be discussed in any public forum: the role of the Federal Reserve; trade policy; economic redistribution; the role and budget of the cia and other intelligence agencies (almost all military); nuclear disarmament; reduction of the military budget and the allocation of military procurement; roles and policies of the World Bank, imf, wto; crime, punishment and the prison explosion; the war on drugs; corporate welfare; energy policy; forest policy; the destruction of small farmers and ranchers; Israel; the corruption of the political system; the occupation of Iraq."