Belief and Doubt

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

Cindy Sheehan’s temporary withdrawal — in exhaustion and frustration — from a leadership role in opposition to the war that claimed her son has at least given the mainstream media something to talk about: the antiwar movement’s lack of a “face,” or celebrity void.

That’s news, I guess, while mere abysmal poll numbers, which indicate that the war is lost on the home front, seem to have little more than curiosity value. And, indeed, the American public’s two-to-one opposition to the war and a presidential disapproval rating of nearly 70 percent have so far barely caused a sputter in the Bush war machine. Its vigor and ability to intimidate Congress haven’t flagged, and plans for a 50-year occupation of Iraq proceed apace, under cover of impenetrable cliche: Our troops have to be allowed to complete their mission.

It occurred to me the other day, as I read an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune berating the antiwar movement for gutlessness because its street presence is less than it was four years ago, that we have a serious paradox on our hands. The piece, by reporter Rex Huppke, was odd in that it affected to aim its rant at a defined entity, with purpose, direction and the capacity to wince at criticism. In fact, it was aimed at almost nothing.

The antiwar “movement,” like the universe itself, is mostly empty space. Its existence, such as it is, consists of a tiny allotment of anger, dissatisfaction or despair contributed by or wrested from several hundred million isolated individuals, most of whom have far more urgent matters to deal with in their lives and strong ambiguity about taking this emotion to the streets, for good reason.

Every war protest I’ve been a part of here in Chicago, at any rate, has elicited, courtesy of the city’s Democratic mayor, a Tiananmen Square showing of helmeted riot police along the route of the march, establishing an air of confrontation almost no one at the rally reciprocates. It makes no sense, except as some sort of symbolic re-enactment of the ’60s, and has the practical effect of rendering public opposition to Bush’s war an anti-establishment undertaking. This belies the true nature of the opposition, which is mostly an ache for common sense, shared by most members of city government (if only because the war is bankrupting the city). So natural allies are pointlessly squaring off against each other.

But the larger paradox I see in all this concerns belief and doubt. As writer Alfred Korzybski said, “There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or to doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.”

If thought is the dynamic, imperfect flux between these two poles, my sense is that in a pro-war position, belief is ascendant. Those who support it and those who pursue it are believers, oriented toward belief, with compunction, self-doubt and close examination of consequences stifled when necessary and perhaps habitually. There are a lot of advantages to this. Action isn’t hobbled, except, ultimately, by negative consequences; and action cliches — “our troops must complete their mission” — maintain their driving force.

In the antiwar position, on the other hand, doubt is ascendant. Another term for doubt is open-mindedness — the willingness to entertain opposing viewpoints, to forgive, surrender, admit mistakes, form syntheses, learn and grow. We’d be lost without the capacity to doubt; soon enough, we’d stop being human.

The disadvantage, of course, is that doubt and action are mutually exclusive qualities. The believers get it done. The doubters agonize. This strikes me as the state of the antiwar movement today and, perhaps, in general.

This is not a situation to be remedied, except in the short term, by better slogans, greater anger, guilt-induced participation and the reduction of complex situations to us-vs.-them simplicity. Nor will “replacing” Cindy Sheehan do the trick.

I have no solutions for any of this, but I do know that my own self-doubt is no longer the comfort zone full of distractions that it once was. Every new blood-drenched headline, every disclosure of secret plans, every furtherance of a hideous agenda in utter contempt of public opinion, squeezes that doubt unmercifully — not in the direction of protest, but in some less certain way, into a furious marshaling of my energy toward protecting the unborn future, in much the same way that new parents swaddle that future in their arms and stare into its eyes.