Rick Perlstein writes in the London Review of Books about how the American right constructed a mythology around Jane Fonda in order to delegitimize opposition to the Vietnam war. As Perlstein says, Fonda wasn’t a saint, and indeed represented a particular form of starry-eyed liberal masochism. But that isn’t the point – the Nixon administration and its supporters engaged in a systematic campaign of misinformation to make Fonda and anti-war veterans into hate-figures.
The urinal stickers would not be far behind. Every time Nixon ratcheted down the US commitment to the war, he launched an attack on the people who called on him to ratchet down the commitment. Che Guevara spoke of creating a New Socialist Man. The president’s upright vanguardists in the Operation Homecoming travelling circus did a much more effective job of inventing a new sort of capitalist subject: New Republican Man, willing to believe anything to preserve some semblance of faith in American innocence.
While Perlstein doesn’t draw an explicit parallel with what’s happening today, it’s lurking just beneath the surface of his argument. The current efforts of various right wing propagandists to tar the anti-war left as traitors smack of Nixon’s smear campaign in the 1970’s. Perlstein’s account is also an important cautionary tale for the left. Then, as now, there was a widespread perception on left and right that the war was a disaster. Nonetheless, Nixon succeeded in using it as a wedge issue to split voters from the Democratic party, and to generate a set of pernicious myths that last to this day (not only Hanoi Jane’s treachery, but bogus stories about anti-war protesters spitting on veterans). While the public is beginning to accept that the Iraq war was a disaster, few people want to acknowledge that the US has been responsible, as it has been, for systematic abuse of prisoners and civilians, for outsourcing torture to its allies, and for itself directly engaging in torture. People are going to be looking to create scapegoats to preserve the image of American innocence, and to turn this to political gain. It’s important that they’re not allowed to get away with it.