The Big Flinch


Last year I spoke at a rally to protest the Patriot Act, a demonstration whose primary purpose, as nearly as I could tell, was to reassure John Ashcroft and his minions that from the specter of domestic dissent they had nothing whatsoever to fear.

Excluding the focused remarks of an unpretentiously militant librarian and an overdressed (for that crowd, anyway) spokesman for the ACLU, the rally would best be described as a muster of prima donnas. Only a few actually spoke on the topic. Some were barely speaking on the planet Earth. One went so far as to put forward a theory that the September 11 attacks had been masterminded by the CIA, a brazenly absurd idea, not because the agents of covert shenanigans are necessarily above such things but because they would never have chosen targets like the WTC and the Pentagon. We live in a time when thinking outside the box is so prized that people will not even think within the rationale of their own fantasies.

If I was one of the few people to take umbrage, it may be because I was one of the few actually listening to the speeches. Those who had already taken a turn at the mic were conspicuously inattentive, preoccupied as they were by the need for verbal solidarity with anyone who might pay them a compliment. Out of the corner of my eye, where I fondly expected I might glimpse a plainclothesman in sunglasses, a protester lay on his back, working on his abs, surely the last and best defense of our civil liberties, right up there with buns of steel.

Almost no speaker observed the stipulated time limit. I deduced from this that economic justice must be every bit as unworkable as the talk-show pundits would have us believe, for how can we expect to fashion a society in which every citizen gets a fair share of the pie when “progressives” are incapable of contenting themselves with a fair share of an hour and a half?

Shortly thereafter I was invited to attend the burial of a man I hardly knew. I felt obligated to go, if for no other reason than that hardly anyone else had seemed to know him either. For many years he had been unemployed, mentally disabled, and institutionalized. As he was a veteran, his widow had requested a color guard. They showed up in full dress, played taps, and with a demeanor that would have suited the funeral of a president, folded and presented the flag to his blind wife. No first lady was ever approached with greater deference. If this was all show, it was a pretty edifying show.

I went away from both events, the rally and the burial, recalling George Orwell’s essay “My Country Right or Left” (1940), in which he spoke of “the possibility of building a Socialist on the bones of a Blimp, the power of one kind of loyalty to transmute itself into another, the spiritual need for patriotism and the military virtues, for which, however little the boiled rabbits of the Left may like them, no substitute has yet been found.” Lots of standout phrases there, but the two that were standing out most for me, aside from the irresistible “boiled rabbits,” were “military virtues” and “need.”

It would seem, in the aftermath of the Democratic convention, that the boiled rabbits have at last learned to love the virtues. The fierce Republicans, of course, have never stopped loving them. It would seem, for the duration of this election at least, that we are all “in the army now,” or on the Swift boat as the case may be.

It would seem—but it is nothing so much as unseemly, and to such an extent that the only word that serves better is unsoldierly. If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the pose and counterpose of more-military-than-thou and not-so-military-as-you-claim, it is that the very idea of military is as dead to the public imagination as the idea of socialism. Whenever something becomes extinct, we revive it as kitsch. In that sense, the Democratic nominee for president had to be a vet with a Purple Heart for much the same reason as Barney needed to be a dinosaur with a purple hide. A black bear or some other creature off the endangered list would simply not do.

The soldier is now as remote from middle-class experience as was the missionary of the 19th century. He or she is someone we revere, of course, someone we assume is saving souls somewhere, and someone we suspect, though we’d never say it out loud, is not very bright. Even the words “Support our troops,” and especially the pronoun, seem vague and abstract, as if a Nebraskan wheat farmer were to speak fulsomely of “our lobstermen at sea.” God bless our lads out in those little boats. Our lads, perhaps, but hardly our daughters and sons. They live elsewhere.

I don’t believe in blue states and red states, but I believe very much—because seeing is believing, and I see it every day—in the sharp distinction between the kinds of neighborhoods that hang bedsheets scrawled with soldiers’ names out the windows and neighborhoods where, for aesthetic reasons, one is not even supposed to hang bedsheets on a clothesline. Recruiters tend not to waste much time visiting the latter.

Of course this distinction has been institutionalized by our so-called volunteer army. What the word voluntary means in the case of a poor kid from deep in clothesline country who decides to join the army is something akin to what the word choice means when his laid-off sister decides to get an abortion. It amounts to one of those heart-stirring underclass demonstrations of free will so memorably symbolized by the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire who “chose” to jump from the windows when all the exits had been locked from the outside. Let freedom ring; just don’t ask for whom the bell tolls.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of our estrangement from military culture is that the instinct for mobilization, for organized resistance—including organized resistance to militarism—is simply not part of the bourgeois ethos. Is it only coincidence that the largest growth of union membership in our history coincided with the demobilization of our largest civilian army? We should not be sentimental. The maddening propensity of working-class voters to support reactionary candidates in opposition to their own class interests is also a striking if twisted example of a vestigial military virtue, namely suicidal sacrifice. I wonder, though, if we of the leftward tilt would be capable of the same if, say, a truly progressive income tax meant that our Chip would have to go off to Bates lacking a kayak. Or for that matter, if the Chipster had to play his part in one of those dirty little wars we are more or less willing to tolerate so long as the plebes can get their prosthetic devices at discount.

The degree to which the educated classes take their privileges for granted is thrown into even sharper relief by comparison to societies where class privilege is or was supposedly absolute. Of the 5,687 Eton graduates who fought on the English side in the First World War, 1,160 were killed and 1,467 wounded. First in everything, and thus trained to be officers, they were also expected to be first over the top.

In the same essay in which Orwell extolled the military virtues, he wrote: “It is exactly the people whose hearts have never leapt at the sight of a Union Jack who will flinch from revolution when the moment comes.” How better to describe the protest rally I attended than as an exercise in flinching. The selection of John Kerry and of every Democratic presidential candidate since George McGovern—and perhaps including George McGovern—has amounted to much the same thing. It is essentially a pacifistic reflex, a hope that the bullies will be nicer if you act silly or try to be more like them, that if somebody like Newt Gingrich throws you a punch, perhaps you can get some of his friends on your side by throwing masses of people off the dole.

In that regard, the homecoming of Lieutenant John Kerry, the part of his service record that a certain type of nervous Democrat wishes would simply go away, might prove especially helpful. No doubt it will want a new interpretation. The young veteran who “broke ranks” needs to be seen instead as one who donated his experience to a protest movement that was floundering because of its inability to form ranks. It may be that in our moment and place, marching to a truly different drummer means recovering some of the discipline required to march in step.

Garret Keizer’s book Help: The Original Human Dilemma is out this month from HarperSanFrancisco.