Eulogy for Voices in the Wilderness?

The Summer 2003 edition of The Middle East Quarterly has published the Confessions of an Anti-Sanctions Activist by former Voices In The Wilderness activist Charles M. Brown:

On May 22, 2003, the United Nations (U.N.) lifted the sanctions regime it had imposed on Iraq twelve years earlier. The end of the economic embargo invites a review of the “peace” activism that was aimed at bringing down the Iraq sanctions while Saddam Hussein ruled. Anti-sanctions groups sought to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people. In fact, they became—whether wittingly or unwittingly—mouthpieces for Saddam in the United States. I should know: I have the dubious distinction of having been one of them. . . .

As I came to see [Voices in the Wilderness] as a complicity and collaboration with one of the most abusive dictatorships in the world, I tried to get the rest of my group to acknowledge that our close relationship with the regime damaged our credibility. I failed to persuade them, so I quit. Unfortunately, it seems that my former colleagues have regarded this decision as a kind of political “defection,” and it has cost me several friendships, which were apparently contingent on my continued willingness to toe the (Baathist) line.

Voices in the Wilderness, according to Brown, was “almost without exception” formed by Catholic Workers inspired by the ideals and personalities of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the radical priests Daniel & Philip Berrigan, whose symbolic actions during the 60’s against the Vietnam War left a great impression:

Voices belonged very much to this tradition with its emphasis on symbolic acts. The group’s trips to Iraq with symbolic amounts of medical aid were to Voices what the burning of draft files was to the Berrigans and what the beating of nuclear weapons into “plowshares” is to the Plowshares movement. . . . All of these interrelated social movements are characterized by “dramaturgy” — the combination of drama and liturgy, with ostensible prayers for peace and dramatic protest action in the face of significant jail terms. For some of these activists, dramaturgical protest has become nearly synonymous with other (traditional) Catholic sacraments.

The obvious danger of [radical] political activism is rushing into things without thinking: prioritizing the accomplishment of your agenda — in most cases, staunch opposition to U.S. foreign policy — over time-consuming research and careful investigation of the facts. Charles describes how he and fellow members of Voices became the unwitting pawns of the Baath party’s propaganda campaign in the United States:

We saw ourselves as people of action, not reflection. Did we really need to learn the intricacies of Iraqi history and politics and plumb the broader political and economic issues? Who wanted to sit in the library when there were prayer vigils to organize? We opted to march, fast, and hold our signs. . . . Even worse, we were quite willing to consider the Baath regime as a reliable source of value-free information on Iraq. Group members had neither the training nor the inclination to dissect Baathist propaganda, and we in Voices regularly parroted this propaganda in our public presentations as if it were fact, without much editing or critical reflection. Little effort was expended in learning more about general trends and issues in Iraqi history, culture, and politics.

Likewise, critical engagement of conflicting positions in a serious debate is unfortunately sacrificed to the convenient issuing of labels and denunciations. Historical materials on Iraq “that did not take the injustice of Desert Storm as their point of departure were not only ignored, but were very often denounced as pro-American or even pro-Israeli propaganda”, including those of the prominent Iraqi dissident intellectual Kanan Makiya. One can certainly expect the future writings of Charles M. Brown to be met with similar dismissal.

The chief flaw of an organization like Voices, observes Brown, is that it’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to oppose U.S. foreign policy and the “military industrial complex” inevitably led to an overall lack of action to help the victims of Iraq:

Our uncritical treatment of the Iraqi regime was not a case of ignorance. It was the result of a deliberate choice we made among our priorities. We had to decide which moral challenge we wanted to make. We chose to limit that moral challenge to the U.S. policy of maintaining sanctions against Iraq. We were never particularly interested in or suited to challenging Saddam and his regime over their invasion of two neighboring states, the systematic genocide against the Kurds, or Saddam’s consolidation of one of the most violent internal security systems in the world. . . . Voices was an attempt by Catholic radicals and their disciples to promote their vision of world peace; Saddam Hussein’s only apparent desire was to maintain his iron grip over Iraq. Voices and the regime agreed only that the sanctions crisis was rooted in U.S. policy. Yet that single point of agreement became the fulcrum of Voices’ venture in Iraq.

This post shouldn’t be construed as a general condemnation of opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq, which remains a matter of “prudential judgement” upon which Catholics can disagree, hopefully with the backing of intelligent arguments and rational discussion. Nor should it be read as an opposition to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, which (as previous blogs demonstrate) I hold with great respect for its persistent witness through their works of mercy and critique of unbridled American consumerism.

But there was a time when, as a college student infatuated by radical politics, I once shared a similar naive perception of world events as Voices in the Wilderness (and as I recollect, probably distributed their literature as well). I can relate to Mr. Brown’s recollections about the dangers and pitfalls of such passionate activism, and it is my hope that young radicals today will learn something from him. Mr. Brown concludes with the following summary of his experience:

In the end, I concluded that the Voices campaign against sanctions was a case of misplaced radicalism. Voices had borrowed the concepts developed by the Berrigan brothers against the war in Vietnam and applied them to their agitation against the Iraq sanctions. But this hand-me-down rhetoric was not suited to a deep understanding of the sanctions crisis in Iraq (and it might be the case that the Berrigan-style rhetoric was ill-suited for a better understanding of the war in Vietnam as well). Voices was acutely aware of its Catholic ultra-resistance heritage and wanted to ensure that it continued. It needed a cause. Unfortunately, it picked the wrong one. Voices’ tragedy is that there may no longer be any causes amenable to its concepts and methods, and that the really important policy debates of our time have left it irrelevant and anachronistic.

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