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Wednesday, March 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Nation's antiwar left remains clueless

Special to The Times

Way back in 1968, Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy ran for president on a strong anti-Vietnam platform. Almost immediately, thousands of young volunteers joined the cause. Almost as immediately, a slogan began to be heard in the McCarthy camp:

"Neat and Clean for Gene."

As in: Guys, get a haircut. Jacket and tie, please. Women, modest makeup and attire.

As in: Don't let your style get in the way of your message.

It didn't quite work out that way. More probably, it worked in reverse. For millions of Americans, supporting the war (and voting for Nixon) became a way of opposing the people who were against the war.

And now, 35 years and three wars later, it is clear: The antiwar left has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. This is tragic. For today America needs, desperately, a rational, attractive, compelling left.

Don't expect it anytime soon. For the antiwar left is a movement that speaks almost entirely to, for, and about itself. It is so mired in worn-out tactics (in Hans Kung's apt phrase, "So many provocations that no longer provoke"), in odious self-righteousness, and in the arrogance of the impotent, that they make the Bushies and the neo-cons seem positively reasonable by comparison.

They also seem to make a point of driving away potential friends. I know. After coming out against the war (several months ahead of them) I received endless snide congratulations on "finally growing up" and "finally coming to my senses."

At a recent Town Hall meeting, I had the pleasure of listening to a local activist, whom I'd never met and who didn't know I was in the audience, denounce me from the podium as "some fool" who'd quit the Republican Party (sic) because it wasn't conservative enough (double sic).

It would be amusing, were it not also tragic.

So why the left's adamant refusal to change its style? Many explanations are possible. None explains everything or everyone. But when, across the decades, any movement willfully refuses to make itself effective at attaining its professed goals, some other agenda must be at work.

In military science (more precisely, in maneuver warfare theory) there are two orientations. Inward and outward. A force that orients inward focuses on itself. A force that orients outward focuses on the enemy.

An inward force frets about whether its lines are straight and its flanks secure, its reports and orders flowing smoothly. If its operations proceed according to the book, if its predetermined objectives — bodies counted, ground taken, schedules met — are achieved, then all must be well.

For an outward-looking force, all that matters is the effect upon the enemy. Or, to borrow the motto of a fine restaurant chain, "No Rules. Just Right."

A force that orients outward wins. A force that orients inward wonders why it lost.

Clearly, today's antiwar movement orients inward, on itself. Blocking traffic, screaming obscenities, reducing complex issues to silly slogans, flaunting their righteousness, exulting in their vitriol, obsessing over the body counts (how many demonstrated, got arrested, etc.), sneering off the rest of us, have never been winning strategies. So why does it go on?

Again, many explanations are possible. But one seems especially apt.

Back in 1984, sociologist Peter Clecak published a book titled, "America's Quest for the Ideal Self." Clecak's contention was that, for much of the left, protest had become less an effective political tool than a means of personal growth and self-fulfillment. What you protested about mattered less than that you did it.

Around the same time, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton and others started talking about "honorable communities of protest."

Put differently: People need to feel right about themselves. Not just good, but morally right. This need has driven many great women and men, many great causes, in the past. But with one vital difference. The revolutionaries and the abolitionists, the suffragettes and the civil-rights marchers and so many others, focused on achieving real-world goals and on appealing to the best within us. Their feelings of being right were earned and validated by the realities they changed.

Since Vietnam, far too much of the antiwar movement, and of the left in general, has oriented inwards. The psychological payoff, the feeling, devoid of sacrifice or accomplishment or respect for others, has become the goal.

That's cheap. It's also a cheapness this nation can no longer afford.

Today, America begins, in a dim, fearful 3 a.m. sort of way, to face a single question. Are we a civilization fit to exercise the power and dominion now in our possession? No question since slavery has so torn, and will so tear, at our national soul. Answering this question will be no less vital to our nation, and far more vital to our species and our planet.

But we won't find the answer in the streets, or in the sneers, or in the slogans. We'll find it, instead, when we speak with respect to the best within each of us: our hearts and minds, informed by our reason and our faith.

Philip Gold is president of Aretéa, a Seattle-based research and cultural affairs center.

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