July 6, 2004
Critiquing the critique
Pandering to the lies the Left tells itself about the Democrats
By Stephen Gowans
Robert Jensen, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas,
has written a penetrating and mostly cogent critique of Michael
Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11**, in which he argues the filmaker's
documentary panders to the lies Americans tell themselves about the
military protecting Americans' freedom, rather than projecting US
Calling the film conservative, and not the far-Left critique it's
believed to be, Jensen takes issue with Moore's attributing the US
drive to war to the business dealings of the Bush family, rather than
recognizing empire-building as a regular feature of US foreign
as ardently pursued by Democrat as Republican presidents.
Isn't Clinton responsible for more Iraqi deaths than both Bush
presidents combined? And didn't regime change become official US
foreign policy when Clinton was president, before Bush?
But with Moore working furiously to atone for what he now regards as
the sin of punishing the Democrats by backing Nader in 2000, the
country's long history of aggressive foreign policy, and the
Democrat's central role in shaping it, is swept under the rug.
The problem, we're told, is the moron in the White House. And that
means the solution is Kerry.
Moore isn't alone. A bevy of US Leftists, including Noam Chomsky,
Angela Davis, Michael Parenti and Pete Seeger, have called on "peace
and social justice activists" to dump Bush in November in a "Letter
the Left", citing the need to stop Bush's drive to war, as if
the drive to war belongs to Bush alone, and isn't indelibly etched on
the country's foreign policy.
The group pussyfooted around the question of whether dumping Bush
means voting for the Democrat candidate, as if recognizing it's an
anathema for a self-respecting radical to actually utter the words
vote Democrat, but the message, delivered obliquely, was clear.
Left-wing voters are urged to feel free to vote for a third party
where it makes no difference, but to vote for Kerry where it does.
Elsewhere, the Communist Party is going all out for the Democrats.
so too is Joel Wendland, a "Marxist for Kerry", who is editor of the
party's Political Affairs magazine. It seems all sorts of Leftists
have come to the same conclusion as Moore on electoral choices.
Jensen says Moore's analysis is dangerous, misleading and superficial
for failing to recognize empire-building as a recurrent and systemic
pattern of US policy. But doesn't it follow that an analysis that
concludes that Bush must be defeated and Kerry installed to stop
"Bush's" drive to war, is similarly dangerous, misleading and
Jensen doesn't think so, which is why I've only taken my gushing over
his critique so far. Here's Jensen on strategic voting.
"I agree that Bush should be kicked out of the White House, and if I
lived in a swing state I would consider voting Democratic. But I
believe that will be meaningful unless there emerges in the United
States a significant anti-empire movement. In other words, if we beat
Bush and go back to "normal," we're all in trouble. Normal is empire
building. Normal is U.S. domination, economic and military, and the
suffering that vulnerable people around the world experience as a
result. This doesn't mean voters can't judge one particular
empire-building politician more dangerous than another. It doesn't
mean we shouldn't sometimes make strategic choices to vote for one
over the other. It simply means we should make such choices with eyes
open and no illusions. This seems particularly important when the
likely Democratic presidential candidate tries to out-hawk Bush on
support for Israel, pledges to continue the occupation of Iraq, and
says nothing about reversing the basic trends in foreign policy."
Otherwise sharp, crisp, concrete and to the point, Jensen's argument
suddenly succumbs to a flabalanche -- it's loses its muscle tone and
sags under the weight of its avoir dupois. What's he saying?
He says strategic voting can be an option, but does he mean it's the
right option today?
He says there's nothing wrong with voting for the less dangerous
empire-building politician, but who is the less dangerous option --
Kerry or Bush?
He says Kerry is trying to out-hawk Bush, pledges to continue the
occupation of Iraq, and says nothing about reversing the basic trends
in foreign policy, which makes it seem Bush is the lesser evil (he's
less hawkish on Israel.) So, should we vote for Bush?
On the other hand, Jensen says he would consider voting for Kerry if
he lived in a swing state, which makes you think he believes Kerry is
the less dangerous empire-building politician, but how can a
politician who tries to out-hawk his opponent be less dangerous?
What are we to make of this? Jensen seems to be saying that Kerry
a movement against empire building has a chance of succeeding where
Bush plus a movement against empire building doesn't. So do what you
can to secure a Kerry victory.
That's also Howard Zinn's view. Politicians, says the historian,
respond to their constituencies, so if Kerry is pressured he just
might back away from pro-war policies.
Convincing? I don't think so. Why should Kerry be any more
to pressure from the Left than Bush? Because Kerry needs the Left to
win, and Bush doesn't?
That might be so were it not for the reality that there's a far more
powerful constituency the Democrats, as much as the Republicans, are
inextricably and powerfully bound up with: the business community.
the business community has a vital interest in US empire building.
The Left, greatly impoverished, is no match. The Iraqi insurgency,
however, might be, as a North Korean nuclear weapons program might be
against US designs on the Korean peninsula. Which is to say, what's
going to stop US empire building is the only thing that's ever
it: the recalcitrance of the natives and the rivalry of competing
What's more, most Left voters are going to vote for Kerry anyway, so
Kerry doesn't need to do anything to accommodate them.
He doesn't even need to pander to the Left during an election, even
he intends to ignore it afterward, what established parties usually
when they need to appeal to left-leaning voters. Thank the
dump-Bush-equals-vote-for-Kerry movement for that.
Indeed, Kerry hasn't pandered to the Left. On the contrary, as Jensen
puts it, Kerry's trying to out-hawk Bush, which hardly seems to be
hallmark of either a less dangerous empire-building politician or one
that's likely to be responsive to the Left.
To be fair, Jensen tries to play-down the election, and for good
reason. It commands far more attention than it deserves, having
diverted the energies of the Left from fruitful pursuits. What, for
example, has happened to the once promising anti-capitalist movement
that staged mass demonstrations against the World Bank, WTO and IMF
�EUR" has it morphed into a dump-Bush, which is to say,
I agree with Jensen that organizing outside of elections is far more
important, but I'd go further. I'd dismiss strategic voting as a
game and the election as an essentially meaningless affair, in which
it's impossible to predict whether the infinitesimal differences to
achieved by a Kerry victory will be for the better or worse. Who's to
say Kerry will be a little less dangerous and not a little more? So
why bother? And why waste any more time and energy on it?
To put it another way, the difference to be achieved in voting for
Kerry vs. not voting at all is tantamount to the difference between
buying a lottery ticket and saving your money. Except the price of a
lottery ticket is nothing against the opportunity cost of squandering
time and energy on the Democrats, when it could be spent building
genuine anti-war, anti-imperialist, pro-egalitarian movements and
parties committed to radical change. ...