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April 23, 2003

Tim Robbins at the Press Club

I'm a bit late on writing about Tim Robbins speech at the National Press Club.

As I've said I think we have to be careful conflating consumer boycotts with real censorship-- yes when Tim Robbins gets attacked, that no doubt means that others are feeling even worse pressure. But he was giving the speech at the National Press Club nonetheless.

So I prefer to praise Robbins not for the worries about censorship but the humane message that highlights exactly the message progressives should be emphasizing:

For all of the ugliness and tragedy of 9-11, there was a brief period afterward where I held a great hope, in the midst of the tears and shocked faces of New Yorkers, in the midst of the lethal air we breathed as we worked at Ground Zero, in the midst of my children's terror at being so close to this crime against humanity, in the midst of all this, I held on to a glimmer of hope in the naive assumption that something good could come out of it...

I imagined leadership that would take this incredible energy, this generosity of spirit and create a new unity in America born out of the chaos and tragedy of 9/11, a new unity that would send a message to terrorists everywhere: If you attack us, we will become stronger, cleaner, better educated, and more unified. You will strengthen our commitment to justice and democracy by your inhumane attacks on us. Like a Phoenix out of the fire, we will be reborn.

And instead we have had appeals to Americas baser instincts-- fear, arrogance, hatred-- and the moment was squandered by Bush and his acolytes.

But Robbins emphasized exactly what I felt and wrote about right after 911, when I argued that the left needed to go beyond its traditional opposition language to emphasize solidarity with that spirit of post-911 goodwill:

While the US has its own international crimes for which it should be held accountable, they are irrelevant to these events, for there is no calculus that allows the grievances of one set of innocents to be taken out on the bodies of another set.

No one wants to hear about past mistakes right now that this tragedy has occurred (since that just doubles the bitterness), but everyone wants to hear about solutions to prevent a similar tragedy in the future. The Right is coding their explanation and scapegoating in their proposed solution - military response - implicitly (and in a few cases explicitly) blaming too little military spending and too lax repression for the events of September 11.

Conversely, instead of discussing past crimes by the US government, a better approach is to stress solutions for the future - collective security through global justice. We can act in solidarity with the Palestinians and the other victims of US violence by strongly emphasizing the evil of all violence bred of hate, domination and exploitation. We will find far more allies for a just world through building solidarity between the victims of the World Trade Center and other global victims of violence than through any finger-pointing or causal explanations.

My anguish as an activist has been that even as Bush sought to obliterate those better angels of American feeling from 911, the left too easily matched it with appeals to conspiracy, resentment and anger. While the latter was in many cases justified, it missed the opportunity to affirm a better American identity, to wave the flag of the sacrifice of the police, firemen and volunteers of 911 that Bush himself has dishonored with his budgetary wrecking ball and indifference to suffering both in NYC and overseas.

Norman Thomas, the old Socialist leader, was once asked about flag burning as a tactic. His answer was that the left needed to wash the flag, not burn it, and restore it to the dignity of the ideals that so many people wish it to be. That is a message that more progressive activists need to follow in these tough days.

Posted by Nathan at April 23, 2003 04:47 PM

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Goood post. I hope if Robbins said that, he did work at Ground Zero. I'm sure he wouldn't say it otherwise (unlike Bush).

Posted by: John Isbell at April 24, 2003 08:21 PM

I wouldn't be surprised. There was a lot to do, and they live literally a few blocks from the site.

Posted by: J. J. at April 25, 2003 11:54 AM

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