Ends, Means, and the Politics of Dissent

Ends, Means, and the Politics of Dissent

Reply to Jeffrey C. Isaac

In the Spring 2002 issue of Dissent, Jeffrey C. Isaac and Michael Walzer take portions of the American left to task for their moralistic, knee-jerk opposition to the war on terrorism. Wondering why there can’t be a decent (“intelligent, responsible, morally nuanced”) progressive camp in the world’s sole remaining superpower, Walzer suggests that the left’s only way out of its current theoretical and practical stagnation lies in making a “new beginning.” But what is this fresh start supposed to look like? This is where Isaac’s piece comes in. Adopting a tone of haughty confidence reminiscent of Niccolò Machiavelli, Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger, and other maestros of Realpolitik, Isaac urges the pacifist “campus left” to abandon its “debilitating moralism” and instead warm up to the levelheaded pro-war stance embraced by the vast majority of Americans. For him, the events of September 11 should have taught naïve peaceniks on the left a morally tough but politically necessary lesson: learn to work with the inevitable violence and messiness of the “real world” or accept political irrelevance.

As someone who considers himself part of the pacifist antiwar crowd, I always expect to be hammered on the subject of violence by right-wing war hawks like Lynne Cheney or Charles Krauthammer. Criticism from the left is usually confined to scornful ultrarealist Marxists-a dwindling bunch of sectarians Isaac is not known to hang out with. Indeed, the great respect I hold for Jeff as a friend and political thinker requires me to respond to his arguments. In my view, he uncritically proposes that the left adopt a realist narrative that equates pacifism with moral dogmatism and political impotence-an influential myth that serves only to shore up the dominant ideology of violence. My own experience with the pacifist campus left suggests a different picture. In countless post-September 11 interactions with students, faculty, and community members critical of the war effort, I encountered pacifist arguments that were far more thoughtful and nuanced than Isaac would have us believe.

The Caricature

Who belongs to the pacifist campus left? Isaac points to “progressive faculty and student groups, often centered around labor solidarity organizations and campus Green affiliates” such as the Student Peace Action Coalition Network, the National Youth and Student Peace Coalition, Global Exchange, and the Bloomington (Indiana) Peace Coalition. He doesn’t provide much detail on each group, but it is clear what he dislikes about all of them: their substitution of moral rhetoric for sober political considerations, their imprudent and ineffective use of language and symbols, their vague and empty policy proposals, and their refusal to “act decisively against terrorism.” Like so many mainstream journalists, Isaac does not...