secret_history (2007-11)

The View from Gay Street

The democracy of the modern American pub, and its one rare failure

by Jack Neely

I've rhapsodized before about the democracy of the reborn American pub, which may be the best place to encounter people unlike ourselves, who can tell us things we don't know and challenge our prejudices. Over the last dozen years or so, among the most dependable I know has been the brewpub on Gay Street known most recently as the Downtown Grill and Brewery.

It draws men and women, blacks and whites; Catholics, Jews, pagans, atheists, Presbyterian deacons; academics, professionals, businessmen, civic leaders, musicians, judges, some not obviously employable; octogenarians, the middle aged, and students who, when asked for identification at the bar, opt for a Coke.

Among the crowd on some weekday evenings four years ago this month were 40 or 50 weekly regulars. There were Gore Democrats and Bradley Democrats. There were some libertarians, Naderites, and disgruntled Perot men. There were McCain Republicans, and some who had strongly supported George W. Bush in 2000, and were then still happy to tell you why they did.

Every issue that came up, there were always enough people at the brewpub to take both sides; I was disappointed if I didn't hear a third or fourth side that I hadn't heard before.

It was about four years ago this month that I realized our brewpub society was a failure, and that our show of perfect diversity was sham. There was not among us a single one who thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq.

Not one regular, not one Republican, not one Democrat, not one 2000 Bush for President supporter, not one professor, not one businessman, not one veteran, thought starting a war over there made any sense.

Saddam Hussein seemed like an aging dictator with his most terrible days behind him. The New Hitler persona didn't fit; he hadn't invaded anybody in over a decade, and hadn't done a very good job of it then. An ass, to be sure, but hardly worse than shahs, Saudi princes, and others America supported. The reports of mass atrocities were mostly old ones, from the '80s, back when Donald Rumsfeld was shaking Saddam's hand, when America anointed him the lesser of evils. Dictators peak and fade. By 2003, Saddam seemed like another Qaddafi, another Castro, another miserable old despot tamed by age.

The idea that he was connected to al-Qaeda was silly. Radical Islamic fundamentalists who live in caves might make connections with the ayatollahs of Iran. But could they even stand to be in the same room with the most secular, luxurious, Western-style dictator in the region? A guy who wore a coat and tie and liked American movies? A guy whose second in command was ostensibly a Christian? Come on.

If America invaded they'd hate us; the violent reaction might last for decades. It was the worst thing America could do. Four years ago, before the invasion, that was the brewpub consensus.

Veterans confirmed what others knew from history, that every time you go to war with anybody, for any reason, you open the gates of Hell. Horrible things happen that you can't control. You better be damn sure there's no other choice.

The best pro-Bush advocate emphasized the effectiveness of the bluff. "Look," he said, in early March, after Saddam agreed to sanctions and limitations he'd previously been stubborn and belligerent about. "He fell for it. Bush has him where we want him. He's a Texas card sharp! He's convinced Saddam we're really going to invade!"

And then we really did.

The pub's deficiency in pro-invasion voices was unsettling. Polls said something like 80 percent of the American people supported an invasion. That was baffling to me. They hardly ever walked down Gay Street. We assumed they were the sort of people who spent evenings at home, watching cable TV, listening to fast-talking radio con men. They were captive audiences.

Some points of view need to be carefully protected from argument   and evidence. But the weird thing was that even the so-called "liberal media" seemed to be signing on . Historians are already criticizing the credulousness of the New York Times and the Washington Post . From most American media you got the impression that invasion was necessary, and a quick victory ordained.

The brewpub's regulars didn't think that way. One unseasonably warm evening in March, there was finally a spirited debate about the war. On the sidewalk were a couple of retirees, a math professor, an architect, a literature professor, a lawyer, a columnist. They went at each other with hammer and tongs.

One faction held that the Bush administration was well-intentioned but stubborn and willfully naïve about the consequences of war.

The other faction held that the Bush administration was pure evil.

Both these factions thought the invasion was a terrible idea. That went without saying.

Rarely, regulars succeeded in luring a pro-invasion guest to the bar. Their arguments were disappointing. The gist of most of them was that the administration had some secret knowledge that the war was absolutely necessary; or that there was a secret democratic network in Iraq that would rise up and take over, that Iraq was really just another Connecticut waiting to happen.

One visitor seemed annoyed at our arrogance, declaiming foreign policy from a Gay Street sidewalk. "They know more than we do," he said.

And they did. There was a lot that we didn't know, sitting on a sidewalk on Gay Street. That dismissal was meant to be a discussion-ender-- Shut up and let the grownups handle it . To me , it wasn't a very satisfying one.

Several months after the invasion we witnessed a going-away party for an enthusiastic young Marine. The war wasn't going well. He told me it was because the Army didn't know what it was doing, that the Marines were soon to dominate the war on the ground, and when they did, he was confident, it would be different. I wished him well.

Later in the evening, he got a little out of control. His friends escorted him out. "Sorry, folks," they said. "He's shipping out tomorrow."

I never heard what became of him.

One of our own number, a middleaged reserve officer, went over and served for a couple of years, and returned.

"Do you see a way we can salvage this?" I asked.

"No," he said. I waited for him to say more, but it was clear that was it.

The politician's motto of 2007 is: "If I'd known then what I know now." Some Republicans say that. Hillary Clinton, who supported Bush's war, says that. They went to the wrong bars. I wish they had just come by. Bad ideas don't last long in a good pub.