There’s dissent and there’s dissent.
I remember attending a concert at Carnegie Hall one January eve, right before the start of Desert Storm. Samuel Ramey, the bass-baritone, had programmed a mixture of opera, show tunes, and American folk classics. Carnegie Hall determines the program well over a year in advance. But it was with great pleasure that Mr. Ramey was able to introduce a rousing patriotic song already on the program by dedicating it to our troops in the Gulf. I was proud to be in the presence of this patriot so simple and unself-conscious in his respect for our great country.
Perhaps that would not be so odd elsewhere in America but I found it memorable because you rarely see anything like that in the city of the New York Times. We Americans are a diverse lot - we don’t always agree on goals or means. But when we are at war with a vicious dictator there is no moral ambiguity: America is honorable and worthy of every citizen’s respect. It is just common sense and common decency. Or it should be!
It was clear to me that while I preferred a different course of action I could never align myself with those opposing the war. This continually surprises people. “But you consider this wrong, why don’t you oppose it?” It seems so simple to the critics: oppose and demonstrate – the war must be stopped! Using Utilitarian logic, they argue if stopping the war is desirable, doing whatever it takes is right. Taking a cue from Pragmatism, they form ad hoc groups for the sole purpose of obstructing American efforts. "If it works now and we stop the war, nothing else matters," they argue.
What was wrong with this anti-war movement? Very simple – the values it reaffirms: America is a shameful country doing evil things. Their opposition to our involvement was meant to demoralize and demonize our country so that we would not have the spiritual strength to fight in the future. And this is the essence of the opposition today. Forget all the details that are offered – it isn’t about the practical advantage of having a few more troops from France. Forget all the arm-chair generals – it isn’t about effective post-war management. Forget all the conspiracy theorists – it isn’t some hidden motive of a secretive neo-con cabal. The driving force of the opposition is a deep moral antipathy to our country’s values and a desire to harm our ability to rally our people to fight for those values now and in the future.
In the Gulf War, as in today’s war on terror, even if I hold that a course of action isn’t prudent, I cannot join forces with those who would re-affirm such hateful notions about our country. Even if they gained a more prudent action today – which is not their purpose – it would leave us unarmed, unwilling, and enervated. The reason one proposes actions is more important in the long-run that what one proposes. Why? Because the principles and character one reaffirms determines one’s ability to weather the storms of the future time and time again.
Many Americans find this hard to understand. There is a narrow consequentalist mindset – be it Utilitarianism, Pragmatism, or other variant – that deals with problems on a case by case basis at the cost of establishing and reaffirming long-term principles, traditions, and practices. Cultivating character, maintaining a discipline, adhering to a tradition, all seem foreign to this “ends justify the means” mentality. And don’t even mention the word honor.
However, such movements are driven instinctually by a long-term agenda they refuse to explicate; their narrow consequentalist focus is meant to obscure the meaning of their program. It is not a prudential objection that drives the far left; it is a moral objection that cuts to the core of America’s identity. Prudential dissent is thoughtful; but dissent driven by a fundamental antipathy to our values deserves our contempt.