Letters

Readers respond to Ellen Willis' review of "Terror and Liberalism."


Salon Staff
March 29, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

Read the review.

I have not read Berman's book, only the recent New York Times excerpt. Ellen Willis is wrong on one very big account. I am a liberal guy, totally anti-Bush. But, when she writes "James Kopp should remind us that Christianity has its own terrorist fringe; the violence committed by the fanatics of Operation Rescue and the Army of God may be puny compared to Osama bin Laden's, but it's similar in spirit."

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She gets it wrong. Operation Rescue would be similar in spirit if they strapped bombs on to themselves and walked into the clinic.

I am pro-choice by the way. Assassinating somebody is not similar to the new wrinkle of Islamic fundamentalism.

The basic tenet of Islam is submission to the will of Allah. We cannot explain this in Western terms, and we can't reason with it because it rejects the idea of reason. We are not going to be able to deal with the fundamentalists in Islam like we deal with Christian fundamentalists. They are not Western in thought, and they are not similar. Submission is a powerful concept, and is different than what motivates a Christian. To not understand that has led to our mistakes thus far; we have to change the debate.

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-- Tim Herrick

Thank you for publishing the recent articles of Paul Berman and Ellen Willis. I feel like I've actually been exposed to some intelligent dialogue about politics and the current war. This is the first time I've experienced "shock and awe" since the war started. Insightful, intelligent and thought-provoking political discourse: I'm shocked to have come across it and awed after reading it.

This is a wonderful antidote to the despair I've been feeling the last week. I was compelled to watch more TV than usual and saw "media coverage" that frightened me. San Francisco reporters seemed to imply that protesters should feel bad about the cost of protest. Police overtime is expensive. Not quite as expensive as a $75 billion war (current estimate) that now seems like it might take longer than expected and may include more countries than expected.

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It may have more deaths than expected. It seems our troops are being exposed to more horror than we anticipated.

How many mothers want to send their children over to Iraq to be tortured on national TV? How many of us are able to tolerate the fact that our troops are getting killed as they try to help "liberate" the Iraqi soldiers expected to surrender? I believe that our troops are generally acting in good faith. I think they believe that they are risking their lives to liberate the Iraqi people from a horrible dictator and that they are protecting America from another Sept. 11. I want to believe that also.

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Unfortunately, I don't believe our government has exhausted every possible alternative to war. It seems we are also not acting within the confines of international law. For me, organizations like the U.N. and NATO make the prospect of world peace seem like a tangible future. Yes, it is hard diplomatic work and it's painfully slow. Yes, the organizations are works in progress and yes, we need to devote more people, more thought, and more money to diplomacy. I really don't want a future where we give up hope in those organizations. I am scared of our future: We decided to override the power of a democratic, global organization to "unilaterally and preemptively" bring democracy to a country across the globe. I don't want anyone to sacrifice their life for this type of future. This type of sentiment does not make me unpatriotic. The only people I would characterize as "unpatriotic" are those who are apathetic. People have complained about American apathy for a long time.

American apathy has been an international frustration for quite awhile. I believe that American apathy is now hazardous to the lives of both Americans and foreigners.

So, in the context of not being apathetic, I went to the peace rally in San Francisco last Saturday. There were moments when I was inspired and moments when I was disgusted. It seems there are many people who regard the "antiwar" movement as a chance to "just say no." What are you saying no to? Many are saying no to Bush, no to death, no to authority, no to silence, no to war. In addition, no to poverty, no to racism, no to Israel, no to Nike, no to SUVs. In my opinion, "just say no" is for toddlers and "question authority" is for teenagers. Signs like "bush+dick=f*cked" and "bongs not bombs" trivialize the fact that people are dying in horrific ways for a fearsome future.

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Real dialogue about the problems of our society is what I was hoping for. Creative thought and passionate discourse about alternatives to preemptive war are what I long for in our media, our community, ourselves. So, thank you again for giving me some hope when I felt hopeless.

-- Robin Furner

An interesting and stimulating piece. I agree with some of the ideas developed and am inclined to disagree with others, but what I wish to comment on is something missed. Given there is a complex of ideas which we group together under the rubric of liberalism. Whether the list is that proposed here, or consists of other variously overlapping formulations, such as in Michael Mandelbaum's recent book, "The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets," there is clearly something defined and well understood as active in the modern world. It is seen as a threat by some, as hope by others, and is clearly understood as underpinning the richest and most powerful societies in the world. But why? Why this complex of ideas? Why now?

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To those of us immersed in the modern West, indeed in the whole of the modern world, they seem self evident, self-recommending. Yet, in various forms, at least some of them have been around for a long time. Organizing a stance toward life around the rigorous application of human reason dates back at least to the Greeks, and it enjoyed a great vogue during the golden age of Islam. It is, however, Enlightenment rationality that most particularly defines what we understand as a "rational" view of the world. Individual freedom, understood as the principled autonomy of responsible citizens -- not as license -- is as old as the Greek city-state, and was a key element in the Roman Republic. The separation of the secular from the sacred dates back, again, to the Greek adventure with rationality. And freedom of religion was, by and large, a practice of the Roman Empire. Peace, as the active avoidance of war, is, on the other hand, an essentially modern idea. Free markets are arguably older than civilization itself, but the immense scope and power they assume in the modern world is novel and native to that world. Free speech is largely a creature of the modern world. So what brings this all together?

I suggest this:

The modern world is born of the nexus between human creativity and the discoveries of modern science and technology. That nexus has created, and is creating, a world that prospers no longer by the sweat of our brow and the strength of our backs, but by the educated creativity of its people.

Societies achieving a strong flow of educated creativity will prosper; those failing, will not, and will fall into eclipse. That flow will not come from people systematically repressed, suppressed, and exploited. It will come from populations secure in self-governance, rich in opportunity for innovation and its implementation, and able to achieve a satisfactory life for all.

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Modernity is about our increasing mastery of material reality. It is not wisdom (except of a particular sort), and it is not spiritual elevation, or moral accomplishment. It remains for us to endow the modern world with those achievements.

This should, of course, disturb, because it postulates that to achieve what all surely want, people will have to change their societies. Consider, 300 years ago there were no democracies; now they are the most prosperous and dynamic societies on earth. Three hundred years ago if you had proposed you had to educate all the children of a society you would have been laughed at. Today it is the accepted commonplace throughout the developed world.

Turmoil is built into our world, and we cannot avoid it. The societal, institutional and conceptual structures of all previous human history have been, and are under, assault by a new reality whose birth travail has vexed the last 300 years. The irrationalisms with which we are beset, whether of the left or right, are attempts to keep the demons at bay. As Ms. Willis points out, that part of the left built on Marxism ostensibly uses reason to tame the dragons, but taming these dragons isn't easy. The "Communist Manifesto" is a masterpiece of inflammatory rhetoric, and the impact of that heat shaped a movement which eventually fell to the seductions and force of totalitarian commitment. The right, as fascism or religious fundamentalism, uses those things which lie deepest within us -- our basis for community -- to pull us together, and to rally a what is seen as a defense. Not unexpectedly, an aggressive lashing out, after a fierce gathering in, results. But, in the modern world is the sheer prodigality of outcomes that becomes defining: such potentials are released for both constructive and destructive outcomes that we must be keenly aware of the power and responsibility that devolve upon us.

It is not irrationalism, but rationalism we need. But it is a rationalism which recognizes the depth of emotion which will be alive in a world changing so rapidly and decisively, and which comprehends, and can summon, the depth of emotion -- as reasoned conviction -- that is needed. For a broader overview of these matters you consult this blog.

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-- R.K. Rodebaugh


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