My friend and former colleague, Conor Friedersdorf, takes me to task for my demonization and dismissal of anti-war protesters a decade ago. He is right to, and I certainly don’t take it personally. I would have been disappointed if he had left me out – because it would not be consonant with Conor’s integrity as a writer.
I could quibble. But I simply do not have the standing to do so at this point. Still, here are a few salient issues that I think have been missed in this necessary reflection.
The first is the 2000 election. In some ways, 9/11 wiped that vivid, searing, deeply divisive event from the public consciousness. But it played a part, I think, in the polarized climate that made the post-9/11 debate so poisonous. In the summer of 2000, when I foolishly found myself wanting Al Gore to lose (Excelsior!), it was not a strong emotion. In the campaign, Gore was the advocate for a larger defense budget and Bush was all about being a “humble” nation. I figured there wasn’t much difference between them (and I still think Gore would have launched the Iraq War as well). But when the vote ended up a statistical tie in a key state, Florida, stances hardened.
I was a lonely Bush supporter in TNR offices back then, and I felt something I’d never felt before, even in the polarized, back-biting, ego-colliding of that era’s TNR. My colleagues felt that the election was being stolen in front of their eyes – and there was almost a cold civil war mood emerging. They also knew, as I did, that Bush would be a president without a majority of the national popular vote. Worse, Bush, instead of governing in a way that calmed the waters, and acknowledging his weak position, acted from the get-go as if he had won a landslide. America was in a constitutional crisis months before it was embroiled in a second Pearl Harbor. The very legitimacy of the entire democracy was in the air. It was in that profoundly polarized atmosphere that the catastrophe happened.
I succumbed to the polarization, and had become far more attached to the new president than I ever expected to a year before. Others also got carried away:
It may have seemed meaningless at the time, but now we know why 7,000 people [sic] sacrificed their lives — so that we’d all forget how Bush stole a presidential election.
My horror at 9/11, combined with crippling fear, compounded by personal polarization was a fatal combination. This is not an excuse. It’s an attempt at an explanation. And my loathing of the left had been intensified earlier that year by a traumatizing exposure of my own sex life by gay leftists determined to destroy my reputation and career because of my mere existence as a gay conservative. I had spent much of the 1990s at war with the gay left, and I think it had embittered me. That those battles were over my campaign for marriage equality and military service as the two biggest priorities of the gay rights movement makes for a strange irony today. Nonetheless, when you have been smeared, physically threatened, picketed and despised by the gay left, you dig in and begin to see nothing but bad in that political faction. And earlier that same year, I had been publicly humiliated by parts of the gay left for being HIV-positive, and trying to find other HIV-positive men online for sex and love. That made my embitterment deeper. When I really examine my emotional state that year, I can see better now why my anger at the left in general came out so forcefully in the wake of such a massacre. It was a foolish extrapolation from a handful of haters to an entire political tradition. Again, this is not an excuse. But if I am to understand my own personal anger at the anti-war left, it is part of the story.