Sunday, May 02, 2004

Remember "No Nukes"?

The Guardian laments the fading of the popular movement to halt the growth of nuclear weapons arsenals. This once was a defining cause for the left, and in my days of association with it, in the late 1970s, it was still very much alive, both in America and in Europe. It seems things have changed.

In 1958, some 15,000 people set off for this sleepy corner of Berkshire to protest outside the AWE. Over the following five years they came in ever increasing numbers and from ever further afield, from Pakistan and Sweden to India, Cyprus and Iraq, from Malta, South Africa, France, Ghana and Nigeria, trudging through rain and sometimes snow.

Some 46 years later, a 200-strong reception party awaits these 300 road-weary marchers outside the austere AWE building today. There are tents and teepees and refreshment stalls around the main gates and the main camp in Bluebell Wood. Tethered to the barbed wire are home-crafted banners reading "Women for Peace" and "No War", alongside more official notices reminding us that the premises are protected by police guard dogs and that we are at all times under CCTV surveillance.

It is, by any measure, a disappointing showing.

Now, this is sad, because stopping the spread of nuclear weapons is a valid cause that ought to transcend left and right. And it does, but it draws people differently. In the 1960s and '70s, the issue in Western Europe and the U.S. was to condemn Americans for their nuclear arsenal (not used since its infancy) and to make the deployment of American military power as difficult as possible.

Now, the nuclear threat remains; if anything, it's worse than it was in 1958. But it's also more complicated. It involves non-Western nations like Pakistan and Iran and North Korea. It seems many of the people who felt the fire in their bellies to march against American nukes can't be bothered to do the same when they fall into the hands of people who were, or might be, or might fear to be, oppressed by Americans.

Bruce Kent, an official in a British anti-nuclear organization, typically sees the thing right but upside down: "People have just got complacent," he said in the "Guardian" article. "People seem to think that nuclear weapons in the hands of countries such as North Korea or Libya or Iraq are bad but in our hands they're reasonable, and that, in some sense, has been sold to the public."

No, a great many people see nuclear weapons in the hands of Iraq or North Korea (and ultimately in the hands of al-Qaida types who boast that as soon as they get one they'll take out an Israeli city) as a big problem. And they're thinking about it, and trying to do something about it. But hanging out with aging hippies in a British pasture isn't high on the list.

It's possible (but probably inaccurate) to take the 15,000-to-500 ratio as the ratio of people in those organizations who simply reflexively oppose American power to people who are serious about the threat of nuclear weapons. After all, what are Kent and his companions doing about Libya? And if the U.S. still has a nuclear arsenal, and Libya is giving up its aspirations to have one, is his approach to the thing better than Dubya's?

Plenty of wingnuts on the right simply opposed anything that the U.S.S.R. embraced, whether the thing itself was good or bad. But it also seems to me the John Birch types largely have been marginalized in the "conservative" wing, while the "loony" contingent has claimed a lot of core ground in the intellectual circles of the "left." Think of Chomsky denying the Cambodian holocaust because, well, any indigenous power that rises up to oppose American hegemony must, de facto, be a good and benevolent thing (hell, think of a turgid, tenured professor at MIT being held up as the champion of the world's oppressed).

It also seems to me that more people who are labeled "right" take the time to develop consistent ethical and intellectual positions, and to stick with them even into uncomfortable situations. Simply opposing anything an American leader wants to do is, like, so much easier.