Earlier this month while at the University of Chicago taking notes on the antics of the newly reformed Students for a Democratic Society, I stumbled upon a plaque marking the spot on campus where the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction was prodded into being by physicist Enrico Fermi and his team of scientists on December 2, 1942, a feat which went a long way to securing America’s victory in the race for the atomic bomb.
So I was not surprised to see flyers appear a couple days into my stay announcing the plaza housing the plaque and Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy statue would be the site of a commemoration of the anniversary of Hiroshima Day headlined by Matthew Rothschild, editor of the Progressive.
The flyer read “Hiroshima, 1945…Iran, 2006?” and so a few perfunctory mentions of those terrible firestorms were set adrift in a veritable ocean of about words about “neo-con” conspiracies, admonishments for those gathered to let their representatives know “peace is a non-negotiable issue” and solemn recitations of Seymour Hersh’s anonymous sources’ contention that the United States is planning to attack Iran with tactical nuclear weapons.
Most of the gathered were those one might have expected to see at a Rothschild event: prim and proper middle-class adults, many of whom were likely anti-nuke activists from the movement’s 1970s heyday, with a strong progressive leaning, but sans the bombast and revolutionary rhetoric par for the course at the SDS meeting. A man in a Buddhist Peace Fellowship T-shirt, in a typical scene, nodded along as folk singer Dave Martin crooned, in between speakers, “Gather friends around you/ Don’t let silence seize the days/ There is wealth enough for all creation/If we speak truth to power.”
There were a few exceptions to the Good Vibes crowd, of course. A Communist Party volunteer handed me a newsletter with a copy of a Hezbollah leader’s speech on prominent display and chatted amiably enough about the imminent collapse of the capitalist world order and, inevitably, American empire. Another less amiable fellow shoved a handwritten flyer a few minutes later advising me to “REFUSE TO PAY TAXES: DESTROY ISRAEL,” join a “militant union” called the Industrial Workers of the World and avoid the Socialist Party which has a “Jewish Bias.” By the way, did you know Bush stole two elections with “the help of Mossad-empowered Jews in the Democratic Party”? Well, now you do. The gates of the Elders of Zion open before you!
Rothschild, like his target audience, was much more sophisticated than these aberrations. “There have been bleaker times” in our nation’s history, he said, noting that while Bush contends we can “no longer hope that oceans protect us from harm,” those oceans didn’t help us against the British in 1812 or thwart the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, nor in the five years since the Sept. 11 attacks have terrorists proven themselves the sort of existential threat the Soviets once posed. I agree, apart from the “obvious and significant exception of terrorists getting hold of a nuclear weapons,” to use the caveat James Fallows employs in his Atlantic Monthly piece on declaring victory in the War on Terror. If there were terrorist cells on every corner in America, they would have disrupted our lives somehow, someway these last five years. Terrible as global terrorists are, we assign them strength they do not posses.
At any rate, the crowd applauded mightily when Rothschild derided Bush’s stoking of terrorism fears as a ploy designed to make Americans so jittery “we’ll give our freedoms to him.” Likewise, Rothschild wrote a column last year on the sixtieth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki arguing that fear of mass casualties to be sustained in an invasion of the Japanese home islands was used to justify unjustifiable nuclear detonations over civilian centers.
That fear is a political tactic and its magnification has clear benefits for political power brokers is a sentiment I have no quibbles with. Nevertheless, Rothschild has what some might deem an exceedingly bleak view of the American political landscape. He believes the Bush Administration is “more eager to drop a nuclear weapon than any administration since the early days of Ronald Reagan,” a desire he attributes to a “messianic” view of the world which has created “meglo-Cheney-acs” — “It’s a clinical condition,” Rothschild assured — who are following a “doctrine of eternal empire” and Bush’s personal belief that he is “God’s UPS man with a truck load of bombs.” The highest superlative today’s activists could earn, Rothschild said as his speech wound down, would be as the generation that “overcame madness.”
So much for letting go of fear. If Rothschild is right, the most powerful country in the world is being run by messianic madmen eager for nuclear holocaust. How could there ever been “bleaker times”? With that sort of laundry list of doom, how could we not rather be facing angry Redcoats instead of fascist mullahs?
Rothschild wasn’t alone in this. Another speaker noted his own “fight for justice” against Wal-Mart before fretting about “state and non-actors so afraid they are in George W. Bush’s crosshairs,” that they are forced to “buy an insurance policy.” The insurance policy they’ve got just happens to be kept in a room with whirring centrifuges. Fear Wal-Mart, not Iran. Meanwhile, a former member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War dismissed suicide charges by Japanese soldiers during World War II as the actions of “selective troops…in Guadalcanal or Peleliu” — something that boldly contradicts, among other texts, William Manchester’s memoir of the Pacific War Goodbye, Darkness, a wonderful, but hardly pro-war, tome — in a clear attempt to debunk a fear that led to a military action he disagreed with. Fear U.S. military propaganda, not overblown reports of Banzai charges.
I wouldn’t label any of this as the sole province of any political philosophy. Republicans have used post-9/11 fears to justify legislative, judicial and fiscal policies that even the most partisan GOP booster with one day have to grapple with the constitutionality, or at the very least propriety, of. Still, explicit attempts by Rothschild and the other speakers that day to allay or diminish those fears that work against progressive or pacifist goals while subtly enhancing and encouraging fears that play against those of his philosophical foes is a telling juxtaposition.
While I sympathize with Rothschild’s contention that fearful citizens make poor choices — or, more precisely, allow poor choices to be made for them — progressives by no means have any special cachet with regard to overcoming madness or slaying fears. One need only take a cursory gander at the overblown rhetoric of environmentalists, class war enthusiasts, anti-globalization xenophobes and race-baiting activists for proof of that.
The theme running like a string throughout is not — despite the left’s proclivity for invoking the penultimate line of FDR’s first inaugural, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” — a cooing “Be not afraid” or even “Be reasonably afraid,” but rather, “Choose the right fears, or face the apocalypse.” Problem is, how many positions of true strength do you know of that were born of abject terror?