Jeffrey C. Isaac Responds

Jeffrey C. Isaac Responds

I argued in my Dissent essay that the campus antiwar left is moralistic and politically irresponsible. Steger asserts that my tone is one of “haughty confidence” and claims that I caricature the pacifism of the campus left and idealize “realist politics” in general and the Afghan War in particular, mirroring the views of “right-wing hawks.” The texts of the many antiwar groups I cited are as moralistic as I claimed. Instead of defending these texts or the simplistic “left” commentaries regularly circulated on ZNet and elsewhere-a daunting task to be sure-Steger appeals to his own experience at Illinois State University and to the historical examples of Gandhi and King. But his defense of pacifism misses my point, which was to criticize only one “peculiar strain of pacifism, according to which any use of military force by the United States is viewed as aggression or militarism.”

Steger’s scholarly writings develop a subtle understanding of nonviolent strategies for social change, with which I mostly agree. But post-September 11 antiwar statements typically lacked any such subtlety. Indeed, the Bloomington peace statement I quoted was an almost verbatim copy of a statement put out in 1999 during the Kosovo War. It evinced little serious effort to assess what is going on now, opting instead for anti-imperialist pieties. Steger says that his ISU group defies my characterization. I am sure that his presence elevated its discussions. But these are the words attributed to this group’s leader-Steger himself-by the local newspaper: “We stand up to evil. We’ll fight it. We struggle, but we will not use violence.” This sounds pretty categorical to me; it doesn’t suggest strategic subtlety.

I agree that Gandhi and King exemplify the politically responsible deployment of nonviolent strategies. But it is impossible for me to locate the Gandhi or King of the antiwar movement today. I doubt that these two would feel comfortable lining up with this movement. And in any case al-Qaeda is neither the British Empire nor the Citizens’ Councils of the 1950s American South. How are Gandhian tactics a plausible way to respond to terrorism? The mere invocation of these tactics doesn’t constitute a serious political argument.

Steger also accuses me of idealizing “realist” politics. For him “realism” means arrogance and warmongering. None of the nine pieces I’ve written since September 11 have idealized violence or war; their point instead is that all politics must pragmatically attend to questions of means and ends, and that such consideration must include the possible use of violence. This may be a view associated with Machiavelli and Morgenthau; it is also associated with Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, and others whom Steger would have difficulty smearing as “right-wing” warmongers. Nowhere have...

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