The Ism Schism
by Patton Price      6/16/2003



American foreign policy, and even what it means to be an American to some, has recently been redefined in terms of the War on Terror.  The rhetoric of Good and Evil, the tendency toward concrete dichotomy in discourse and action, and the politicization of culture at large suggest that the War on Terror may in some ways resemble the Cold War.


The central lesson of the Cold War was learned by those on all sides: to not give in to the promise of deliverance by ideology.  Indeed, one could easily posit that it was the excessive glorification of and to commitment to the Communist ideal—at the expense of institutions and processes—that most poignantly characterized the descent of much of the world into authoritarianism.  Immediately following the fall of the Eastern Bloc Communism, it seemed self-evident that those who stood to benefit the most from this lesson were those who had been the “losers” of the Cold War.    


But as Soviet tyranny becomes a thing of the past, and Russia and Eastern Europe ostensibly embark on their own bumpy paths to capitalism and democracy, history is threatening to repeat itself—in the United States, of all places.  The nascent War on Terrorism reveals an American failure to assimilate much of that which could have been gleaned from our common Cold-War history.  


When viewing the Cold War as a perfectly binary competition between two entities, it is easy to retrospectively (and accurately, one would presume) identify a winner and a loser.  But this literal, tangible outlook belies a stickier, more contentious fact: that as ideologies, Capitalism and Communism were not alone as players in the Cold War, especially on the American front.  Anticommunism—quit separate from Capitalism itself—was a political and ideological force in its own right, playing a role in policy in culture that transcended any abstract or concrete commitment to the simple sanctity of markets. 


The scope and power of Anticommunism grew to incredible breadth in its impact, not only in terms of foreign and domestic policy, but also on American culture at large. Often it was this unacknowledged cultural mandate that drove regrettable and counterproductive outgrowths of American actions during the Cold War.  McCarthyism can be linked to no material gains in the real long-term campaign against the Soviet Union; Vietnam was lost, and without grave consequences for the democratic world; the US’ Central American proxy wars of the 1980’s were justifiable to a public—even after the eruption of a major scandal surrounding their illegal means of execution—that saw foreign policy through a framework tempered in its very essence by Anticommunism.


As Anticommunism imbued the Cold War with certain fallacious pre-destiny, so too does an emerging Antiterrorism threaten to permeate and distort the War on Terror.


Ideology, Myth, Monolith


The late Harry Rositzke, a scholar and a spy, described the Cold-War mindset as being driven by the “Myth of the Communist Monolith.”  Abstractly, this myth led to assumptions about a broad international conspiracy which oversimplified things on one hand while creating false dilemmas on the other; it was also a large component of the aforementioned overzealous Anticommunist mindset.


In more practical terms, the Myth generated a framework through which poor decisions were made.  Essentially, the Communist monolith was one in which Communism superceded nationalism.  This aspect of the Myth did not bear out.  The kernel of falseness may have lain in the fact that Communism, being a system of government, is always tied to nationality (and, empirically, usually followed a nationalist revolution).  In this way, Communism, as it exists in the concrete world, is necessarily and in essence tempered by nationalism.  This is not in the spirit of the Marxist ideal or Soviet rhetoric which were seen to underlie Communism, but it was nonetheless demonstrably true throughout the Communist world.


In simple terms, Communism was necessarily a nationalist enterprise, but in he eyes of Anticommunism it was transformed in to something supranational.  This created the platform for American engagement and political violence in dubiously-justified conflicts in Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere.


This myth is being turned on its head in regards to terrorism, and it is still fallacious.  The myths of Anticommunism purported that somehow the distinctly nationalist could become supranational.  The current means of prosecution of The War on Terrorism presume that the distinctly transnational, or supranational, phenomenon of terrorism can somehow be herded and trapped into the confines of a given state or group of states, a reductively monolithic “Terrorism.”


The American response to the events of 9/11/2001 thus far has proceeded exactly along those lines.  A terrorist attack was carried out by a group of men who—though they did belong to single, supranational organization—were native to a number of different nations.  The response has been to affect specific regime change in individual nations, the first two of which were not even home to any of the attackers.  Early success in this phase of the War on Terror has been fleeting, with Al Qaeda still able to launch devastating attacks in Saudi Arabia and both dominant figures in the contrived, monolithic Terrorism movement—Saddam Hussein and Ossama bin Laden—still at large.


The War on Rational Policymaking


The most essential and most alarming aspect of the new War on Terrorism is the utter refusal by those perpetrating it to define "Terrorism" itself.  The dismantling of the “Communist monolith," the fallacious notion that ideology could supercede all else, was indeed abstracted and applied to the ways of life of entire populations, most heartwarmingly in America's collective acknowledgement that the Russkies really did love their children too.

But the problem with such rational and populist lessons is they are only learned by those who were not benefiting from the flawed old order. Thus, transfusing what may really be common cultural “knowledge” into the discourse of the politicos—who always have such a tremendous continuity, even when their cultural or social bedrocks may not—is like having the Flat Earth Society give out the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Enter the War on Terrorism. A war on a word sounds so brilliant and absolute: Drugs, Poverty, Evil, Communism, Infidels.  Indeed, a war against Evil itself.  I certainly can’t see the point in sitting down for talks with a representative from Evil.  Such base declarations of our shared intent to set ablaze the vast armies of straw men allied against us are ultimately counterproductive.  Each of these Wars is either a component or a function of the larger, long-seeded War on Rational Policymaking.   

 I understand the political necessity of John Ashcroft never telling me what "terrorism" means, lest he lose his ability to expand his powers every day, but before 2001 it was generally thought to mean something along the lines of "using violence against civillians to further political goals." But it instead gets applied to everyone we don't like.

When a war against a word becomes a de facto national religion, we as a people approve of or overlook foreign policy actions and frameworks for action that are counterproductive to our real security and quality of life needs, as well as wholly incompatible with our shared principles. The Contras are may be the most bizarrely sinister example. Suharto in
Indonesia, the House of Saud, even Hussein himself, the list of rotten friends we've had goes on and on.


Anticommunism justified the overthrow of democratically elected governments in our own hemisphere, funded by our own CIA, and aided by our own Army Rangers. The people chose to look the other way en masse, that being a preferable alternative to risking a regional outbreak of the great ism disease of the day. Anticommunism was the disease, not tiny Central American countries that wanted to mix state planning into their nascent economies (as we still do today, in the form of tariffs and subsidies that would be unthinkable in the developing world).

Soviet Union was a real threat to the United States, as was the possibility of losing the trade and friendship of Western Europe. But a monolithic ideology was never really the problem. Communism, as set of beliefs and not as just a concrete, human government, was a problem faced by the people of the Soviet Bloc themselves. They got over it.

This new ism is all the more powerful, because we in effect created it. The word gets to mean whatever is politically expedient.  Already, special legislation and task forces in
California were used by police to target non-violent protestors under Antiterrorist laws.  Ari Fleischer has suggested that all who ask questions are aiding terrorists.  And of course, we all know, the War on Terrorim boils down to the basic, self-fulfilling truth that “you’re either with us or against us.”


There will be mistakes.  There will be over-exertions of vigilance and politicization of process.  There will be victims.  And this time around, they can be rounded up secretly and executed in Cuba instead of grilled in an open session of Congress. "Terror" permeates our national language, and the blurry edges of its definition appear to be spreading slowly, like a stain on the fabric of our shared culture and institutions.