06/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why I Criticized Code Pink

On Wednesday I admonished a Code Pink protester for her melodramatic "attempt" to arrest Donald Rumsfeld. My post (published here, here and here) was not a rebuke so much as a practical call for more advanced operations. Nonetheless, so-called progressives -- including David Swanson, whose After Downing Street website is largely dedicated to the torture scandal -- told me I had crossed some line.

As he explained in an email, Swanson refused to run what I had written because he thinks "self-critique from our own side" is so deleterious it must be silenced. He said he would "promote" my point of view only if I express it "without criticizing...the few people who are doing something."

To comply with Swanson's unwarranted rule would be to perpetuate the very problem I want to address, which is that many activists are more concerned with feeling good about themselves than being effective.

The incident which prompted my previous commentary occurred on May 9 at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in Washington, DC. As Rumsfeld arrived at the event, he was harangued by Medea Benjamin and Desiree Fairooz of Code Pink. I wrote that Fairooz seemed "a bit crazed" as she screamed at Rumsfeld and unconvincingly claimed she would apprehend him for war crimes right then and there if only she were in possession of handcuffs.

Although I approvingly noted her desire "to hold our leaders accountable," I also questioned whether Fairooz's outburst would influence public opinion as presumably intended. My emphasis on the latter consideration is what caused Swanson to deem the post too incendiary for publication.

I pointed out in my rejected piece that allegations of unlawful conduct tend to be more persuasive when the accuser bothers to mention what crime the accused is believed to have committed. The closest either muckraker came to mentioning a cause for arrest was when Benjamin said of Rumsfeld: "He killed people in Iraq."

It should be obvious to everybody that the basis for apprehending Rumsfeld needs to be something more than feeling the former Defense Secretary did something illegal. Nonetheless, those who lately have been professing certainty about war crimes, typically fail to identify the laws they "know" were violated. Trying to be helpful, I recommended "focusing on conspiracy to commit torture, which is a felony under 18 U.S.C. 2340A of the U.S. Code." Unfortunately, Swanson has so far prevented that suggestion from entering the After Downing Street echo chamber.

Citing applicable statutes is no small factor when it comes to arresting lawbreakers. Moreover, recruiting people to make citizen arrests is ostensibly a key aspect of Swanson's mission. Indeed, his website includes a page that's headlined "How to Make a Citizen's Arrest of a War Criminal," on which he purports to be in search of "[arrest] teams in California, Texas, New York, and Washington, D.C., among other places." As I told him in an email, my proposed strategy and tactics are more consistent with his stated objectives than Code Pink's theatrics are. So it's very strange that Swanson squelched constructive criticism of fictional arrests, and turned his back on an offer to initiate real ones.

Ironically, my history with Swanson and Code Pink reflects a kinship concerning the very issues which lie at the heart of our current disagreements. In 2005 I joined forces with Code Pink activists at one of Rumsfeld's speaking engagements. After I asked an unwelcome question that day, I was forcibly removed from the premises, just as Benjamin and Fairooz were ejected a week ago. And in 2006 I hosted a forum on media censorship televised by C-SPAN that Swanson had organized. So it's especially disappointing to now be required to pass a purity test in order to participate in "his" discussion.

Swanson's fluctuating principles represent a blind spot which surfaces frequently on "our own side." (For the record, I'm not actually on any "side.") The tendency to embrace tolerance and such virtues only intermittently, has dealt a virtual death blow to the concept of free expression. A generation ago it was common to find self-identifying liberals who understand the importance of defending ugly or unpopular speech. Two well-known examples are the support the American Nazi Party received when its members sought to march in the streets of Skokie, Illinois, and Larry Flynt's widely recognized right to publish an intentionally hurtful cartoon depicting a public figure (Jerry Falwell) engaged in a bogus act of indecency. But nowadays the people "on our own side" who detect and reject thought control in all its insidious forms are few and far between.

It was mostly "progressives" who insisted on punishment for Don Imus even though the irreverent radio announcer had violated no rule when he referenced racial characteristics while ridiculing the physical appearance of basketball players. After copies of an O.J. Simpson book had been shipped by one of Rupert Murdoch's imprints, an uproar ensued which caused Murdoch to pull the title out of circulation. Nary a liberal seemed concerned that a lynch mob had robbed everyone of the option to buy that book. And then there's war correspondent Dahr Jamail, lionized by peaceniks as the antithesis of a censor and bigot, who endorsed an effort to thwart development of a film project simply because he doesn't "trust Hollywood."

The common thread here is a mindset which impels unwitting acts of censorship by individuals who believe they stand for free speech and open debate. When confronted with the reality of their oppressive behavior, the oblivious morality czars either retreat or rely on convoluted logic and semantics (i.e., quibble over the definition of "censorship") to deny the charge. In the world of activism, as elsewhere, such shenanigans are extremely counterproductive, and the consequences include inertia, drastically low standards and loss of credibility.

Imagine if fire department officers were to indulge in the sort of pointless diversions Swanson and his ilk see as noble behavior. Buildings would burn to the ground because commanders would have already purged the ranks of skilled individuals whose opinions are offensive, leaving too few to get the job done. Luckily, most communities are actually served by a diverse, amply-staffed contingent of firefighters, some of whom are occasionally critical of one another, all of whom focus exclusively on putting out destructive fires when called upon to do so.

Swanson spends what must be huge chunks of his time sounding alarms about torture and the need to punish war criminals. But where the rubber meets the road, his paltry emergency response team, devoid of disciplined actors and independent thinkers, is busy being fitted for costumes and enjoying a group hug.

UPDATE 5.18.09: Swanson emailed me over the weekend to say he is "eager and delighted" to assist me, and today has begun to do so.

Click here for follow-up post.

Jeff Norman blogs at