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On Russia, America's Peaceniks Are Behind the Times

  • Our correspondent attends a leading progressive event in Massachussetts, USA
  • Judging from the discussions there, the American Left has yet to realize the reality of the situation in Ukraine and Russia
  • They seem to be taken in by a heavily biased media and the cumulative effect of two decades of disinformation

In this brief essay I present my observations as an attendee of plenary sessions and co-chair of a Workshop in the Massachusetts Peace Action at the MIT campus on Saturday, 8 November.

My ‘sample of one’ method to characterize the American peace and anti-nuclear movements might be dismissed as anecdotal evidence were it not for the high visibility and high quality of the event in question.

The keynote speaker for a day dedicated to the principle of ‘A Foreign Policy for All’ was the great American dissident MIT Professor of Linguistics Noam Chomsky. His well-constructed speech, delivered in a calm and reflective tone, covered the waterfront of wrongs in Americans’ conceptualization of their place in the  world, beginning with ‘exceptionalism’ and extending to the bizarre notion that they own the world and any ‘loss’ of some piece of it is a direct challenge to their national security.

Other featured speakers included veteran NY Times journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer, noted journalist and activist on the Israeli occupation, Phyllis Bennis and Black affairs – labor activist and writer Bill Fletcher, Jr., all of whom delivered informative presentations with great passion.

The national reputations of these speakers assured the event’s relative popularity. The 300-seat auditorium was filled with a cross section of ages and occupations.  To be sure, gray heads predominated, veterans of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 60’s and ‘70’s, of the SANE and nuclear freeze movements of the ‘80’s.

They ran the show, unlike the days of their own training in protest when youth called the shots in the post-1968 world. However, though they were observers rather than leaders, the students from the many universities of the Greater Boston area constituted close to 50% and one workshop was dedicated to recruitment of sympathizers on campus. 

The organizers and participants clearly shared an identity as the Progressive Left, with strong anti-corporate, anti-Washington biases. For all that it was unmistakable how very strongly their priorities have been shaped by the narrative coming from the nation’s capital and from the mass media. Put simply, this community of peaceniks is concerned about what CNN and Fox News tells it to be concerned about – whether Ebola or the ISIS threat in Syria and Iraq. In a misguided approach to risk appraisal, it allows itself to panic over Jaws while pooh-poohing the risks inherent in driving automobiles.

These problems show up in the unstructured menu of Workshops which head off in all directions from Food and Foreign Policy to Drones, Space Weapons and Cyber Wars; from the Struggle Against Inequality and for Social and Economic Justice to Manufacturing Consent. They show up in the list of Priority Regional issues calling for “New approaches to China, Korea, Middle East and Persian Gulf, Israel/Palestine, Africa Cuba, Venezuela, Marshall Islands, NATO and more.” The failure to mention new approaches to Russia at the very moment when the onset of a New Cold War is recognized by all political commentators is emblematic of how the leadership of the peace movement is behind the curve, oblivious to changes in the international arena which have bypassed the favorite topics of special cause groups in which so many of the presenters are heavily invested.

This obtuseness is all the more striking in the vital area of nuclear disarmament: the Workshop on this subject was dedicated wholly to issues of non-proliferation, working in line with Washington’s post-9/11 concerns about terrorists laying their hands on dirty bombs provided to them by rogue states. Armageddon from a nuclear exchange between the world’s two nuclear superpowers, a notion which spawned SANE and the other organizations represented at the MIT event decades ago and which is today back with full vigor has not yet penetrated the consciousness of the leadership.

The net result of this blindness to the new realities and subservience to old concerns of injustices around the world and to a phony agenda manufactured by their opponents in Washington, like cyber warfare and Ebola threats, is that the Workshop on Eastern Europe, Ukraine & Russia with its 3 presenters attracted just 9 visitors from among the 300 plus persons in the plenary sessions. 

The single greatest draw was the Workshop on A Foreign Policy for All in the Middle East & North Africa: Foreign Intervention, Jihadism & Alternatives. Beheadings clearly have captured the popular imagination; the murder of the civilian population in the Donbas by heavy artillery, the threat of a hot war between NATO and Russia as their respective proxies in Ukraine suck the principals into conflict on Ukrainian territory is still off the radar screens of peaceniks.  For now.

Of course, there are other reasons why they are clueless that merit a word or two. First, Russia and its President Vladimir Putin are not likable after years of denigration and information warfare coming from Washington. Peace movement members are no more immune to media manipulation than the general population whatever they may think of their own perspicacity.

The values-based Progressive Left easily gets taken in by propaganda about an authoritarian regime that allegedly jails dissent, about homophobia and about conservative family values of Russia’s silent majority, not to mention about greedy, raw capitalism. They ignore the obvious fact that most of the movement’s values on peace and international cooperation, justice and indeed human rights as well as most of their policy bullet points have been promoted by Putin in deed and in word, most recently in his Valdai Discussion Club speech in Sochi. They ignore the obvious fact that only one world leader, Vladimir Putin, directly challenges American global hegemony, that he does so in a principled and disciplined way. China is silent. The EU is cowed. Shame on the peaceniks for failing to get it.

In keeping with the age and sentiments of the leaders of the 8 November event, the morning and afternoon plenary sessions were opened by a banjo-strumming singer composer of protest songs in the Pete Seeger tradition who cleverly appealed to the conceit of the audience that they are subversive, subject to the watchful eye of the Feds who photograph and tape record their every move. In this spirit he warned the audience to be vigilant and to point out any of their neighbors who were not singing along. As one of only two in attendance wearing a jacket and tie, I sang lustily.

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