Letters

Readers respond to an interview with Todd Gitlin. Plus: Two core members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity explain their July 15 resignation from the activist group.


Salon Staff
July 24, 2003 5:19AM (UTC)

[Read "Anyone but Bush,"] by Laura McClure.

Todd Gitlin claims Democrats and Republicans aren't the same, but why did so many Democratic politicians -- contrary to the wishes of their own constituency -- vote in favor of the Iraq war resolution? Why in fact do so many Democratic politicians routinely vote alongside the GOP, on everything from military spending to drug laws to corporate regulation?

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The problem seems to be that Democrats always feel a need to represent both sides of an issue, whereas Republicans -- outside a few moderates in the Senate -- never feel an obligation to represent anyone but Republicans. What we have then is a situation where blind support of the Democratic Party will result in a GOP majority on just about every issue outside the litmus tests of abortion and tax cuts for the wealthy.

What then is the incentive of the left to vote for Democrats?

-- Michael Ellenburg

Thank you for the interview with Todd Gitlin. If the Democrats and their handlers, along with the antiwar left, don't get their asses in gear, get some balls, toss the Birkenstocks, learn to talk to average Joes and vow to win at all costs -- even by making strange bedfellows if necessary -- then we will be stuck with another four years of disaster at the hands of our hollow-puppet president, with all the strings being pulled by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle et al. And God knows where that will lead us.

-- Lorraine Forte

I very much enjoyed the interview with Todd Gitlin. Many things stood out for me, but one of the things I particularly liked was his comments about how the left needs to reclaim its place as the "patriotic left."

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I agree. I remember walking around D.C. in November 2001, when people went a little flag-crazy; I kept seeing American flags that had fallen off a truck or a pole, and I would pick them up and put them in my pocket and take them home and put them up somewhere, because that's what you're supposed to do with a flag -- you're not supposed to let them touch the ground. And my companions thought this was deeply weird and not a little creepy; after all, it's the flag, and we leftists get a little uncomfortable around the flag (and prayer, but that's a different matter). Which is unfortunate. Gitlin's right: We do need to reclaim the idea that we're patriots just as much as, if not more than, the right, because it gives us the confidence in our actions and the acceptability of our ideas that the left so desperately needs. And that particular ickiness about the flag -- which afflicts even practical leftists who have no qualms about power or working within the system -- is a big part of what's holding us back from that goal.

The process we've engaged in over the last 40 years or so of reexamining the darker aspects of American history has been a good thing, but it's unfortunate that it's led to such widespread anti-Americanism on the left. It seems like one of those "failures of imagination" that Gitlin talks about -- a failure to separate a justifiable distrust of American nationalism and the authoritarians who exploit it, from a justifiable love of the republic and the American experiment. The hallmarks of the left -- anti-authoritarianism, prioritizing civil liberties, localism, an intellectual approach to politics -- are far more deeply rooted in American thought and government than in Europe, which has made highbrow anti-Americanism so fashionable. We need to remember that, despite the way the right twists American thought into American nationalism, and despite the horrible things that American nationalism has done throughout the nation's history, expressing a leftist point of view is to express the point of view of not only a great number of living Americans but also a great number of our best and brightest.

We must have confidence in our vision, and we must use it to kick the nationalists out of the seat of power in this great democracy of ours.

-- Michael Barthel

Todd Gitlin's diatribe against ANSWER is outrageous. Equating the organization with a "cult" is such an enormous insult to the many activists and organizations who are involved in that coalition, and a gross attempt to downplay their important role in organizing several antiwar protests of hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, D.C.

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Evidently Gitlin feels no reason to distinguish between the groups involved with ANSWER, which include IFCO/Pastors for Peace, the U.S. Partnership for Civil Justice, the Nicaragua Network, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and the International Action Center, or talk about the different points of view they represent. Instead he tars the groups involved in typical red-baiting fashion.

And what's with the accusation that ANSWER tried to make it look like they had organized the demonstrations in New York City because they had big signs? So what if they had signs? Didn't everyone else?

Not only did your interviewer allow this nonsense to pass as legitimate criticism, but then she goes and compares the coalition to the Weathermen! How on earth is ANSWER anything like that group? Because Gitlin claims they use "abstract language"?

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It must be delicious to be Todd Gitlin, glory days long behind him, comfy professorship at Columbia University in hand, with nothing at stake, to sit back and wag the finger at people trying to make the world a better place in diverse ways, whether it's organizing in the streets or voting for Nader. Luckily there are people who are still pushing ahead despite the tut-tutting from on high.

-- Tamar Smith

Reading Todd Gitlin is depressing. Yet another so-called activist with a mind set in the concrete of existing political structures. His answer to everything seems to be that progressives have to vote Democrat forever to keep the Republicans out. Swap one one-party state concept for the other.

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I've traveled. I've seen real multiparty democracies in almost every democratic country except the United States. Guys like Todd Gitlin would be doing everyone a favor if they advocated proportional representation for electing members of Congress. Then voters could vote Green, Libertarian, Democrat, Republican -- whatever -- and see those ideas represented directly in the Congress -- where they belong, if America is ever to be a true democracy.

Todd Gitlin's message is one of despair: the two-party, tweedledum and tweedledee slow dance into a poisonous, partisan future just as corrupt as the present. Nothing changes if you don't change anything. The winner-take-all, two-party gerrymander is what is wrecking America. It has to go. Voting Democrat forever, no matter what, is not the answer; look where that kind of thinking has gotten us today. The real hope now is electoral reform.

-- Steve Withers

I thoroughly enjoyed Laura McClure's interview with Todd Gitlin. He fully understands what modern liberalism is all about -- practicality and flexibility. Furthermore, he gives those of us dismayed with Mr. Bush some eye-opening advice, along with a recipe for success in 2004.

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Gitlin is truly a mentor and a national treasure.

-- Frank Cocozzelli

Editor's note: Last week Salon published two articles regarding Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, an activist group of former U.S. intelligence officers that has been harshly critical in recent months of the Bush White House, alleging that the administration deliberately distorted intelligence reports and drove the nation to war with Iraq using a "campaign of deceit."

"Cheney Must Go" reprinted the VIPS open letter of July 14 to President Bush calling for Vice President Cheney's resignation in light of the Niger-uranium intel scandal; and "Spooked by the White House" featured a Salon interview with VIPS steering group member Ray McGovern. After VIPS published the open letter, two members of its steering group, Kathleen and Bill Christison, resigned. The Christisons are both former CIA officers who retired from the agency in 1979; Bill Christison's service included a stint as director of the CIA's Office of Regional and Political Analysis. An open letter explaining their resignation from VIPS, published July 15 on Counterpunch.org, follows.

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- - - - - - - - - -

Why We Resigned From VIPS: It's About Policies, Not Personalities

Many readers of [Salon] will have seen a statement by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), [reprinted] on July [16] as a "Memorandum for the President," decrying the "melting down" and disintegration of the U.S. intelligence capability, placing the burden of responsibility for this on Vice President Richard Cheney, and calling for Cheney's resignation. Many will also have noted that, although charter members of VIPS, we did not sign this memorandum. In fact, we resigned from VIPS, with some regret, as the only credible way to dissociate ourselves from the memo.

We have been asked for some elaboration of our reasoning, and an explanation is indeed in order. We want to make it clear at the start that our actions signal no change of heart or of thinking on our part about the policies the Bush administration has been pursuing. We share the disgust of other VIPS members at the aggressive policy direction of this administration and particularly at its distortion and politicization of intelligence. Our disagreement is over methods, not principles. Our objection is to this particular memorandum; we continue to respect the VIPS organization itself and its purposes.

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Our principal problem with the memo is its call for Cheney's resignation. Not that this result would not in fact please us. But our very strong feeling is that an organization like VIPS, and any serious policy analysts, should be writing about policies and actions, not personalities. Harry Truman famously observed that "the buck stops here." Calling for Cheney's resignation, or the resignation of any single individual, is to us a cheap shot. Virtually everyone in this administration is implicated in some way, and Bush is ultimately entirely responsible; the buck stops there. Cheney shares responsibility at his level. Secretaries of Defense and State Rumsfeld and Powell share it at their level. And so on, down through Condoleezza Rice and CIA director George Tenet, and then through all the neoconservatives, starting with Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Richard Perle.

VIPS should, as it has done, call for a full-bore and independent investigation. No other purpose is served, except possibly grandstanding, by issuing another memorandum now. Furthermore, calling for Cheney's resignation before an independent investigation is wrong tactically, in our view. If he ended up as a scapegoat and this ended all calls for further change, VIPS would not have achieved what is most important: changing the aggressive, strutting, anything-goes approach to foreign policy that this administration pursues and that has led it to misuse intelligence so badly.

We have a further problem with the memorandum as issued. We feel that it shoots from the hip, and this is dangerous in so serious a matter. Administration spokesmen are extremely clever at using verbal gymnastics to dodge responsibility. For this reason, any organization that goes up against them must be extremely clever itself about what it writes and must avoid at all costs being caught out in statements that cannot be adequately backed up. VIPS in particular, made up as it is of retired intelligence officers without firsthand inside information, must be scrupulously careful in anything it writes about what goes on inside the administration. This is particularly so when the subject is lying and obfuscation by senior officials and when an art form as notoriously uncertain and as broadly interpretable as analysis of intelligence data is involved.

To take just one example, statements such as the remark in the VIPS memo that "there is just too much evidence that Ambassador Wilson was sent to Niger at Vice President Cheney's behest," when Wilson himself has made this connection much more indirect (writing in a New York Times Op-Ed that unspecified CIA officials asked him to go, and paid his expenses, because Cheney "had questions"), diminish VIPS' credibility and open it to charges of the very kind of truth-stretching that it is trying to combat.

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We do not feel that this latest VIPS memorandum to the president is as careful or as judicious in its language as it should be. It is an attention getter, an effort to keep the subject alive, rather than a reasoned piece of analysis and exposition. The Bush administration as a whole has clearly played fast and loose with the truth in a matter of surpassing importance. We fear that, in its very laudable effort to expose the administration, this memorandum runs the risk of showing up VIPS itself as a group that plays fast and loose with the truth. There is a place for rhetoric and flashy writing. We do not believe a memorandum for the president about a subject as serious to the nation's destiny as the politicization and distortion of intelligence in the service of aggressive warfare is such a place.

-- Kathleen and Bill Christison


Salon Staff

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