by Arthur J. Magida
Published on Thursday, November 1, 2007 by The Baltimore Sun
A bunch of unrepentant '60s activists and socially concerned students
met recently at Georgetown University. The usual suspects were there
- people such as Todd Gitlin, a former leader of Students for a
Democratic Society; Marcus Raskin, a founder of the Institute for
Policy Studies; and Katha Pollitt, a columnist at The Nation.
There wasn't a centrist or conservative in sight, even at the
university whose former dean of its School of Foreign Service, the
Rev. Edmund A. Walsh, proposed to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy over dinner
in January 1950 that the senator take up the issue of Communists in
government to invigorate his political career, which was heading
downhill fast. This was not long after the Soviet Union had exploded
its first atomic bomb, and Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury. Mr.
McCarthy began waving around his "lists" of Commies who had
infiltrated every nook and cranny of the federal government.
Georgetown is a different place now, but Washington isn't, not with
the Bush administration reviving one of Mr. McCarthy's favorite
weapons: assaulting your opponents' patriotism. What's enormously
different, though, is the tone of the opposition to the Iraqi war,
compared with the one that Norman Mailer wrote about four decades ago
in The Armies of the Night. (The Georgetown conference was convened
to observe the 40th anniversary of the October 1967 march on the
Pentagon, chronicled in Mr. Mailer's landmark book.)
To some extent, the conference had a modest self-congratulatory
sheen, not just because liberals had "won" their fight - the war did
end, although not "on schedule" - but also because they had mustered
a muscular, unavoidable presence. They didn't stop the war in its
tracks; that would have been like making an aircraft carrier halt on
a dime. But the left retarded the war, and let Lyndon B. Johnson and
Richard M. Nixon know that all their actions were being observed, and
not many were laudable.
I wasn't immune from the smug satisfaction that salted the air at the
Georgetown meeting, yet that faded quickly as I considered the
situation today. At some point, someone asked the panelists whether
they had speculated in 1967 where they would be 40 years in the
future. Of course, no one had: They were creatures of the moment,
defining themselves in the crucible of the instant.
But that question can be thrown on its head:
Forty years hence, what would a conference about opposition to the
war in Iraq resemble? Would there be a sheepish hemming and hawing, a
belated coming to terms with the low drama of political scheming and
strategizing (the damned focus-grouping of it all!) that has
supplanted principled and uncompromising opposition? Would there be a
coming to terms with the timidity that is keeping voices silent and
mute? Would there be a hoary regret that we stayed home, safe behind
our computer screens, while convoys rattled through Iraq and our fine
youths got killed and maimed, like the 25-year-old I know whose
insides were littered by shrapnel and who has just left a hospital
after another operation - his 17th?
I won't be around for that conference in the year 2047, and neither
will Norman Mailer. But this war needs a brilliant testament to its
spooky and brilliant perversity. It needs a Mailer, and it needs a
Thoreau - someone who, while briefly in jail for refusing to pay a
poll tax, took his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson's inquiry -
"Henry, what are you doing in there?" - and turned it around: "Waldo,
the question is, what are you doing out there?"
Arthur J. Magida is writer in residence at the University of
Baltimore. His latest book is "Opening the Doors of Wonder:
Reflections on Religious Rites of Passage." His e-mail is email@example.com.