Every once in a while I have a startling impromptu conversation with someone that I think is worth sharing. I ran into a student outside the cafe who asked me what I thought about the war in Iraq. The student said he gets a “sadistic” pleasure from asking students at the university why they were against the invasion of Iraq, because most students aren’t challenging enough for him. He said he hasn’t met one student who can convince him that there weren’t weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
“That’s an awful assumption,” I said, “to assume that students walking to class are going to be able to defend themselves against your gadfly criticisms right on the spot. It sounds like you’re more interested in making them feel uncomfortable than you are interested in what they’re verbal responses will be.”
“I find that most people don’t know what they believe. Saddam had weapons of mass destruction because we gave them to him,” he said.
I fired back, “chemical weapons like sarin nerve gas really only have a shelf life of about five years. So if he obtained them in 91 or 92 from us, they would have been useless by 2003 anyway. But why do you think that just saying he has WMDs is a good enough justification to invade their country anyway? Pakistan and Israel have WMDs too you know.”
“But they’re our allies and they wouldn’t attack us.”
I decided at this point that his Socratic method was falling apart and decided to turn the questions on him. “So you setup a criterion where anyone who is possibly a threat is invaded and overthrown? Couldn’t the foreign policy hawks just fabricate all kinds of threats and you would fall for every single one them and become a mouthpiece for their imperialism?”
It was interesting that after this point we started talking about what the student had believed at various points during the timeline of the war in Iraq. He gave me a short history of his changing political beliefs. And rather than being angry at the “liberal” college campus setting, it seemed that this student was actually fishing for reasons to accept himself as a member the very liberal college campus setting he was rebelling against.
Now, I don’t consider myself “liberal”, but a radical, a libertarian, and an anarchist. “Liberal” and “conservative” are binaries that the mainstream promulgate. It’s incredibly inconsistent, and that’s why the student had such a difficult time consulting his American-style pragmatism regarding when threats are formidable enough to warrant military force. Pragmatism is only consistent in the sense that it is consistently pragmatic, but there are no deeper principles involved. I find that radicalism in general has much more consistent reasons for its oppositions, and our analysis is better than either of the mainstream views.
This confusion and this anger about the war seems to have been produced by disgust at the social environment of the campus. Many students get quite angry at the bourgeois liberals on campus, and then amazingly backfire and become its mainstream binary opposite: conservative. They don’t, however, take their critique of the liberal bourgeoisie further to be able to explain better why they’re actually part of the reason Iraq was invaded. Bourgeois liberal college students did relatively little to stop the run up to the war in Iraq. They’ve done nothing but talk about elections in between television show parties. They criticize the direct actions and the lobbying that others are doing. They laugh to themselves as if they’re too good for that. It’s a way of “outsourcing” your political opposition while maintaining your liberal bourgeois sensibility.
The liberal bourgeoisie are the people who cannot satisfy this student’s eagerness to feel politically satisfied in the college setting. He cannot think of himself as being similar to them in any way, so he becomes the opposite of them in every way. Secretly, he would like to be like them, but he would only want to be like the best of them. And the ugliest of them prevent him from doing that. It is an inner ideological struggle over his own self-identity.