Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

TO GET PEACE MESSAGE HEARD, CALL OUR LEADERS MISGUIDED, NOT EVIL.

Ira Chernus

 

Is the peace movementís cup half-full or half-empty? Against all expectations, the movement remains strong enough to command notice in the mainstream media. But it is only the movementís existence, not its message, that gets reported. How can we get our message heard? The first step is to understand why it is suppressed.

Itís more than just pro-war bias. Many mainstream editors who shut out the peace viewpoint now were giving it plenty of space just a week or two ago. Some were opposing the war themselves. Why the change? Yes, they are afraid of losing advertisers if they donít seem patriotic enough. Yes, they remember the Vietnam war, when journalists were accused of "losing the war" by undermining the nationís will. Criticizing the war has greater potential cost than muting the criticism.

The important lesson lies a bit deeper, though.

Before the war started, mainstream journalists were willing to question the Bush administration's policies, but not its goals. They never doubted that the administration has good, moral intentions. They could not doubt it. If you want a job in the mainstream press, you have to believe in what most Americans believe in: American-style democracy and capitalism are the unquestionable foundations of the good life; America wants only to bring its goodness to everyone everywhere; Americaís intentions are unquestionably good.

The president and his advisors, like all U.S. officials, subscribe to the same faith. From inside that faith, where most journalists live, our leadersí intentions are obviously good. The only legitimate question is whether their policies are likely to get the results that every "good American" wants.

Thatís what the mainstream debate was about: Would war in Iraq help spread democracy, capitalism, and the American way, not only in Iraq but around the world? It was a debate about means, not ends. Now that debate is over, at least as far as Iraq is concerned. Once the war switch is turned on, you canít turn it off. Now the only thing worth debating in the mainstream is post-war policyóthe reconstruction of Iraq, and beyond.

Before the war started, the peace movement could get its message heard because it included millions who share the mainstream faith and trust in their governmentís good intentions. For those millions, too, it was only a question of the right means. And the debate is now over. Even if they fear the war will bring no good results, they see no point in carping at an administration doing its best, however misguided.

Since they trust in the goodness of America, they have a patriotic impulse that overrides their qualms. They can only sit back and hope for the best. That is one reason you wonít find these people out in the streets or writing letters to the editor any more.

The other reason is that the peace movement was always a broad coalition, where political differences were papered over for practical reasons. Its mainstream members had to endure an endless flow of words from the left, where there is no trust of the administration's good intentions. On the left, there is a widespread conviction that the president and his advisors are driven by a desire for money, power, and American empire. From the left, it looks like the U.S. wants to dominate the world, not to serve it. Sometimes it even looks like Americaís aims are not good, but evil.

The critics of U.S. aims are often the movementís best speakers and writers. Their moral rage gets the crowd fired up. But they can easily alienate the larger part of the movement, who believe that our leaders are mistaken, not evil. This split was papered over in the run-up to war, because each group needed the other. Now the split is wide open. Those who questioned only the administration's means are drifting away. The movementís numbers have dwindled. That gives the media one more reason to ignore the movementís message.

If the peace movement is to growóand it desperately needs to grow in this time of waróit must find a way to heal this grievous split. The only way is for the two sides to start listening to and learning from each other. On the left (where I reside), we should stop demonizing our political leaders. There is little reason to doubt that they seriously believe they are serving the best interests of the world.

Consider the leaders of an earlier generation, whose historical record is open for all to see. Truman, Acheson, Eisenhower, Dulles, Kennedy, McNamara, Johnson: they all sincerely believed that their policy of exporting Americanism served the best interests of all humanity. There is no reason to doubt that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld believe it just as sincerely. (So do Daschle, Kerry, and Pelosi.) They are not driven by greed; they could make far more money as corporate executives. Nor are they hypocrites.

They are simply making an enormous mistake. That is what we can teach our mainstream allies in the peace movement, if we can get them to listen. To keep the lines of communication open, letís stop denouncing our governmentís moral intentions. Letís just talk about policies and their effects. Letís patiently explain why U.S. policies amount to an arrogant drive for an empire that will, if successful, effectively control the world.

That drive may be motivated by the best of intentions. Nevertheless, it will kill thousands in war. It will widen the gap between rich and poor. It will deprive millions (perhaps billions) of people around the world of self-determination and self-fulfillment. It will rob them of the full measure of dignity and humanity which is their right, simply by virtue of being human.

It will also rob us, here in the U.S., of our full measure of humane self-fulfillment. We will pay for the suppression of freedom and dignity that inevitably accompanies empire. We will pay not only with our tax dollars, but with a loss of our own security, because every empire engenders enemies. A majority of Americans already agree that the war in Iraq makes us less safe at home, even if the president and his advisors have the best of intentions. War will not make life better, here or anywhere.

If we can explain the effects of our national policies, we can bring back some of the people who have left the peace movement. We can build an enduring coalition to stop wars for global domination. Eventually, we can get our voice heard once again in the mainstream media.

To do that, we should criticize our government's goals, but not its moral intentions. We should say that our leaders are mistaken, misguided, even stupid, but not evil. Then we can influence the debate, about ends as well as means, which must go on every day in a true democracy.


[ HOME ]   [ COURSES ]   [ RESEARCH ]   [ CONTACT ME ]
[ OP-ED COLUMNS  /  SINCE SEPT. 11 ]   [ PUBLIC CITIZEN ]  

 

 

.