The show was over, recorded for one of those nice liberal local American TV cable channels – this time in Texas – where everyone agrees that war is wrong, that George Bush is in the hands of right-wing Christian fundamentalists and pro-Israeli neo- conservatives.
Don Darling, the TV host, had just turned to thank me for my long and flu-laden contribution. Then it happened. Cameraman number two came striding towards us through the studio lights. “I want to thank you, sir, for reminding us that the British had a lot to do with the chaos in the Middle East, ” he said. “But I have something else to say.”
His voice rose 10 decibels, his bare arms bouncing up and down at his sides, his shaven head struck forward pugnaciously. “Yeah, I wanna tell you that the cause of this problem is the fucking medieval Arabs and their wish to enslave us all – and I tell you that it is because we want to save the Jews from the fucking savage Arabs who want to throw them into the sea that we are about to fuck Saddam.” There was a pause as Don Darling looked at the man, aghast. “And that,” cameraman number two concluded, “is the fucking truth.”
Darling called to the studio manager. “Where does this man come from?” he demanded to know. The lady from the University of Texas – organiser of this gentle little pow-wow – advanced on to the studio floor in horror: “Who is this person?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. All of a sudden, our nice anti-war chat had been brought to a halt by a spot of redneck reality. There really were right-wingers out there in the darkness who really did want George Bush to zap the Arabs. I asked the guy his name: “Gregg Aykins,” he said. “And the FBI can do nothing to me if you give them my name.”
It was a telling moment, a symbol of the vast gulf of reason between the pro- and anti-war movement in America. They don’t talk to each other. And if they do, neither comprehends the other. Like the endless chat programmes on Pacifica Radio and all the smaller liberal talk shows from Boston to LA that serve up inedible dollops of anti-Bush, anti-Republican rant, there is simply no contact between the intellectual “elite” of the left and the less privileged Americans who work with their hands and join the military to gain a free education and end up fighting America’s foreign wars.
At a seminar at the University of North Carolina, I listened to a group of professors and senior lecturers and “activists” debating how to influence the “path to war”. “What we’ve got to do is to reach out to mainstream press and bridge-build to other activists,” a lady with long grey hair announced, reading a list of proposals – all couched in the language of academic discourse that ensures her message is incomprehensible outside academia – which she wished to discuss.
Quite apart from the irredeemable nature of the “mainstream” press – The New York Times, The Washington Post and the rest are far too busy carrying more Iraqi horror stories from “intelligence sources” than reporting the American anti-war movement – the lady’s desire to “bridge-build” with fellow “activists” was all too familiar a theme.
The people with whom these liberal academics should be building bridges are the truck-drivers and bell-hops and Amtrak crews, the poor blacks and the cops whose families provide the cannon fodder for America’s overseas military adventures. But that, of course, would force intellectuals to emerge from the sheltered, tenured world of seminars and sit-ins and deal directly with those whose opinions they wish to change.
When I made this very point at Harvard and several other universities, I was told, rather patronisingly, that these people – the phrase was almost identical – had “so little information” or are “not very informed”. This is, in fact, untrue. I have heard as much sense about the Middle East from a train crew en route from Washington to Georgia and from a waiter in a St Louis diner as I have from the good folks of North Carolina.
Black Americans, for example, are uninhibited in their sympathy for Palestinians under occupation. But when I told a lecturer in Austin that I had asked hotel staff and air crews to turn up to my lectures on the Middle East and America – and that all had come – I was treated with a kind of weird amazement, puzzlement that I should bother to ask such unpromising material to think about the Arab-Israel conflict mixed with faint pity that I should ever expect them to understand.
Sometimes I rather suspect that the anti-war left in America likes being in a permanent minority. I mean no disrespect to the Noam Chomskys and Daniel Ellsbergs and Dennis Bernsteins; they fight, amid abuse and threats, to make their voices heard. Yet I have an uneasy feeling that many on the intellectual left are fearful that America will lose its next war amid massive casualties – but are even more fearful that America may win with minimal casualties.
Perhaps this is unfair. But as long as America’s anti-war movement talks to itself rather than to others, it is going to go on being surprised when the Gregg Aykinses emerge from the darkness with their hatred and venom intact to support George Bush’s forthcoming war in Iraq.