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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #90, July 1999. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.

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On September 9 at No Moore, a bar in lower Manhattan, Dissent staffer Jo-Ann Mort told LBO editor Doug Henwood that this article is "disgusting," and a terrible breach of a confidential meeting. We're happy to share it with a wider audience on the web.

Dissent goes to war

The first weekend of May was quite a killer for the Sontag-Rieff family. On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published Susan Sontag's strongly asserted but weakly argued pro-bombing screed, "Why Kosovo Is Not That Complicated." The writer who once diagnosed the white race as the cancer of history had evolved into thinking that it was OK to worry more about Europeans than Africans; the writer who'd once condemned the U.S. war on Vietnam (though her famous essay on the topic is mostly about her feelings) had discovered the wondrous humanitarianism in B-52s.

Just the day before -- May Day -- Sontag's son, Balkan warrior David Rieff, was the guest of honor at an editorial meeting of the nominally socialist magazine Dissent. LBO was the lucky recipient of an email from a guest at that meeting who was shocked at its bellicosity. Clearly the Dissent crowd had invited Rieff to slap them around a bit for being insufficiently warlike. As our distressed correspondent noted, "the scene reminded me that liberal guilt doesn't always manifest itself in a sentimental sympathy for the poor and powerless; often liberals are actually embarrassed about being liberals, because they believe it would be more rational and tough-minded to be conservatives."

Our correspondent continues:

Rieff condescended to the faithful throughout his lengthy talk, smirking and saying things like, "I know most of you probably won't agree. I'm not coming from a left perspective. I have a different analysis of How Power Works." He was consistently patronizing and disrespectful to people who - timidly - asked him questions. Rieff expressed regret at the imminent likelihood that the U.S. would "make a deal" with the Serbs. He said "I'm in favor of more bombing. I don't think they're doing enough." The idea of ground troops really animated him -- he said, as if he wasn't a weedy intellectual like everyone else in the room, "I would be in the lead vehicle!"

Not likely, but no one called him on this empty bravado; they were completely cowed by his raw machismo. In fact, only one person out of 30 voiced any serious dissent. The crowd seemed to accept his implication that the very fact of being on the left made them lily-livered weaklings who didn't understand what their guest kept lucidly referring to as Reality.

The Dissentoids were not to be outdone. Jo-Ann Mort, member of the editorial board and editor of the Verso collection Not Your Father's Union Movement (little more than PR for the AFL-CIO), hastened to reassure Rieff that such queasiness did not represent the assembled company. "David, I'd like to make it clear that not everyone here disagrees with you," she said. She then went on to tout boisterously her own warmongering credentials: not only did she gleefully applaud the NATO bombing, she was proud to have supported the Gulf War. "I don't think the militarization of Europe is a bad thing," she said. "I think it's a good thing."

Some of the faithful did seem bemused and a bit dissatisfied by Rieff's performance, because, as more than one member of the editorial board noted privately afterward, their meetings usually involve more discussion. The top-down nature of this one did seem to go against the publication's culture. But they weren't bothered by his hawkishness -- nor by their assent to militarism. Editorial board member James Rule, one of those disappointed that there hadn't been more debate, said he'd written an essay for Dissent's summer issue 'ambivalently' opposing the war. But the ambivalent Rule was in the minority. A Dissent editor, asked why a wider range of opinions hadn't been expressed, said "I think most people in this room support it," our correspondent concludes.

As it turns out, this cheerleading for war comes with some institutional history. Dissent founder Irving Howe never really opposed the Vietnam war; according to Doug Dowd, one of the leaders of the antiwar movement, while Howe was never exactly prowar, he was anti-antiwar, because he thought the peace movement was full of Communists. Dissent's "expert" was Milton Sacks, an old Shachtmanite of the kill-a-commie-for-Max variety. (Max Shachtman was the leader of a Trotskyist grouplet whose 1930s anti-Stalinism evolved into pro-Americanism after the war.) A Southeast Asia specialist, he was intimate with the Saigon regime and the U.S. government, claiming authorship of their (awful) constitution. In 1964 they opposed U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam as "something quite as inhumane" as the "hopeless attrition of the Vietnamese people." U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam would, they reasoned, "almost certainly" be followed by "a slaughter in the South of all those who have fought against the Communists." At the end of the war, in Spring 1975, they concluded that their position had been correct, apart from "nuances." And so the consciences of self-identiified democratic socialists were relieved of guilt for the deaths of several million Indochinese. And now, the consciences of self-identified humanitarians have been relieved of the deaths of thousands of residents of the Balkans.

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