Confessions of an Anti-Sactions Activist

There are a bunch of fas­ci­nat­ing rants against the con­tem­po­rary peace move­ment as the result of an arti­cle by Charles M. Brown, an anti-sanctions activist that has somewhat-unfairly chal­lenged his for­mer col­leagues at the Voic­es in the Wilder­ness. Brown talks quite frankly about his feel­ings that Sad­dam Hus­sein used the peace group for pro­pa­gan­da pur­pos­es and he chal­lenges many of the cul­tur­al norms of the peace move­ment. I don’t know if Brown real­ized just how much the anti-peace move­ment crowd would jump at his arti­cle. It’s got­ten play in InstaPun­dit and In Con­text: None So Blind.
Brown’s cri­tique is inter­est­ing but not real­ly fair: he faults Voic­es for hav­ing a sin­gle focus (sanc­tions) and sin­gle goal (chang­ing U.S. pol­i­cy) but what else should be expect­ed of a small group with no sig­nif­i­cant bud­get? Over the course of his work against sanc­tions Brown start­ed study­ing Iraqi his­to­ry as an aca­d­e­m­ic and he began to wor­ry that Voic­es dis­re­gard­ed his­tor­i­cal analy­sis that “did not take … Desert Storm as their point of depar­ture.” But was he sur­prised? Of course an aca­d­e­m­ic is going to have a longer his­tor­i­cal view than an under­fund­ed peace group. The sharp focus of Voic­es made it a wel­come anom­aly in the peace move­ment and gave it a strength of a clear mes­sage. Yes it was a prophet­ic voice and yes it was a large­ly U.S.-centric voice but as I under­stand it, that was much of the point behind its work: We can do bet­ter in the world. It was Amer­i­cans tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for our own people’s blind­ness and dis­re­gard for human life. That Iraq has prob­lems doesn’t let us off the hook of look­ing at our own culture’s skeletons.
What I do find fas­ci­nat­ing is his behind-the-scenes descrip­tion of the cul­ture of the 1990s peace move­ment. He talks about the roots of the anti-sanctions activism in Catholic-Worker “dra­matur­gy.” He’s undoubt­ed­ly right that peace activists didn’t chal­lenge Baathist par­ty pro­pa­gan­da enough, that we used the suf­fer­ing of Iraqi peo­ple for our own anti-war pro­pa­gan­da, and that our analy­sis was often too sim­plis­tic. That doesn’t change the fact that hun­dreds of thou­sands of Iraqi chil­dren died from sanc­tions that most Amer­i­cans knew lit­tle about.
The peace move­ment doesn’t chal­lenge its own assump­tions enough and I’m glad Brown is shar­ing a self-critique. I wish he were a bit gen­tler and sus­pect he’ll look back at his work with Voic­es with more char­i­ty in years to come. Did he know the fod­der his cri­tique would give to the hawk­ish groups? Rather than recant his past as per the neo-conservative play­book, he could had offered his reflec­tions and cri­tique with an acknowl­eg­ment that there are plen­ty of good moti­va­tions behind the work of many peace activists. I like a lot of what Brown has to say but I won­der if peace activists will be able to hear it now. I think Brown will even­tu­al­ly find his new hawk­ish friends are at least as caught up in group-think, his­tor­i­cal myopia, and pro­pa­gan­da prop­a­ga­tion as the peo­ple he critiques.
Voic­es in the Wilder­ness has done a lot of good edu­cat­ing Amer­i­cans about the effects of our poli­cies over­seas. It’s been hard and often-thankless work in a cli­mate that didn’t sup­port peace work­ers either moral­ly or finan­cial­ly. The U.S. is a much bet­ter place because of Voic­es and the peace move­ment was cer­tain­ly invig­o­rat­ed by its breath of fresh air.

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