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Post D-Day Depression

Is the antiwar movement in danger of becoming marginalized by its own over-the-top rhetoric? It's time for activists to speak with the audience, not to each other.
 
 
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This week is when it really hits.

After the initial wave of 24/7 news coverage and demonstrations in the streets, the reality remains. The Bush Administration defied logic, international law, and the wishes of virtually all humanity, and launched an unprovoked and unnecessary military invasion of a country halfway around the world. The shock, horror, grief, rage, sputtering impotence all finally echo away into silence. And still the pundits chatter and the bombs fall.

What to do?

For me, in many ways, the U.S. street demonstrations of the last week have been nearly as depressing as the invasion itself. They have been primal screams, by definition unsustainable, when what is desperately needed is sustainable responses. They have been expressions of what protesters have felt they need to say, rather that what protesters felt other Americans needed to see or hear. They have been reactions to what has been done, rather than demands for what should be done now. They have used the shopworn tactics, iconography, and slogans of 40 years of left street protest.

And, by this conduct, they have turned their backs on the far broader segment of Americans who have in recent months also been alarmed by this government's direction, but who have over a matter of decades expressed quite clearly that they find the activist left's tactics, iconography, and slogans to be profoundly unappealing.

This past week's protests were nowhere near a scale needed to have an impact through (to use the more extreme rhetoric) "shutting down the country." Any remotely thoughtful organizer knew this, yet still, the tactic persists. My dog does the same thing; she'll leave my home office ahead of me, and then look over her shoulder to make sure I'm coming where she wants me to (i.e., to take her for a walk). She does it every time, even though, when working, I never follow her. She never learns.

This is what powerlessness does. Primal screams (or canine begging) happen when there is nothing else left, when citizens feel not only that they have not been heard, but that by definition they will never be heard. It's barely removed from simply giving up and tuning out -- which is what more people in America than in any other Western democracy choose to do, and what many current activists, in this war as in past ones, will also choose to do.

The thing is, I don't want to be heard. I want the policies to change, the killing to stop, the living to start. If going mute would do that, I'd happily go mute. Policy change isn't simply a function of decibel level or of number of heads counted at a march; it's also a function of having clear policy alternatives, and putting into power people willing to enact those alternatives. Chanting "No justice, no peace!" (until we go home in an hour) is easy; building long-term change is much harder. And "The People" know it.

Until two weeks ago, there was a clear alternative to war: the inspection process, which at minimum bought time, at best was a path out of an artificially induced, but nonetheless real, crisis. When that was lost, so too were many members of the new anti-war movement, because there was no "next step," no contingency plans in the peace movement's demands beyond lame and hypocritical calls to "support the troops." Possibilities abound, from a movement to have the U.N., rather than United States, take part or all of the post-invasion administration of Iraq, to a concerted push to unseat Bush in 2004. Yet at the moment more protesters are trying to impeach Bush (which is not, repeat not, repeat not going to happen) than to elect a Democratic president in less than 20 months.

This isn't simply a matter of pragmatism; it's also earning, in the public's eyes, the legitimacy to make moral as well as pragmatic demands. In modern American politics, the messenger is as important as the message, and one does not gain moral legitimacy simply by having one's policy preferences ignored. I guarantee, for example, that 1,000 people registering new anti-war voters would get far more attention and respect, with more lasting impact, than last week's protests -- from the public, from decision-makers, and from those numbers opposed to the war and to freeway blockades.

You're an anarchist and hate electoral politics? Fine. Don't just sit down in front of cars because we're waging a war to feed our SUVs and everyone should abandon theirs, and then wonder why people who could be on your side but need to get to work are angry at you and vote for Bush next year. Teach tax resistance (and redirection); start some alternative community institutions that meet a need other than your own. The socialist and anarchist movements of a century ago had some traction because they started with the community's needs, not their own ideas.

Take some risks that mean something to other people, not just to you and your friends. For goodness sakes, even take some time to study something about political science, military science, communication, mass psychology, something, anything more goal-oriented than what most of the protest left has over the past 30 years ossified as.

Long-term or even short-term organizing is not as much fun as marching on a freeway, but then, the people on the front lines waging this war probably aren't having much fun, either. A lot of them probably don't want to be there; some probably don't even like the orders they're getting. But they signed on to do what was necessary, up to and possibly including death, for a larger cause. That's a major reason why virtually every segment of American society gives them respect. Religious figures, until proven otherwise, command the same respect for much the same reason.

In the public's eyes, the average demonstrator, and the theoretically moral movement he or she represents, has done nothing within light-years of that level of moral legitimacy. Protesters may disagree, but if you want to change policy in this country, whose opinion is more important -- that of the advocate, or the advocate's audience?

The United States, at the moment, is careening away wildly from all but one country (Israel) in terms of how its public views the world. Israel is for many reasons a special case; born of the Holocaust, surrounded by countries that for decades were intent on its destruction, it's easy to see (though not to condone) how the Israeli public could embrace its current fortress mentality, and its attendant abuses.

America has no such claim; 9/11 was not the Holocaust, and this country, far from being threatened, has lived an existence of remarkable isolation and ease. Before the Cold War, it hadn't faced any meaningful external threat in over a century; even after a planet's worth of abuses inflicted in the name of that Cold War, it took another half-century before anyone caused harm on U.S. soil, and even then, it was a single act (so far) by an illegal private organization, not the army of a nation-state. To many around George Bush (and probably Bush himself), America's charmed history is a sign of America's unique partnership with Providence.

That sort of talk, and the power abuses now accompanying it, scare and enrage even traditional U.S. allies, who see it as evidence not of the moral authority of democracy and freedom, but the "might makes right" attitude of a bully. Among allies and around the world, people wonder why so few Americans seem willing to challenge this mindset from within, using a different type of moral claim.

For those of us who do want to challenge it, there's much we can't control. Barriers to such changes in U.S. public perception are formidable. The military complex in this country has enormous money behind it, enough to employ millions of people earning (except for the soldiers) a comfortable living building pieces of a repugnantly deployed whole. Mass media are currently dominated by a range of political opinion that makes Genghis Khan a centrist, and that usually acknowledges dissent only to ridicule it. Both major political parties are corrupted by corporate money almost beyond redemption.

But what we can control is what we say (and hear), how we act, who we appeal to and work with, and to what ends. Much of the political rhetoric in this country -- with or without a war in progress -- is so over the top and intolerant as to be anathema to a secular democracy, and many Americans know that, too. What is lacking is a coherent, appealing alternative. Times of crisis and maximum dissent are precisely when those alternatives should be on display -- not when they should be abandoned for the protest equivalent of comfort food.

Many of us who have opposed this war feel frustrated and powerless; it is an emotionally charged time. Remember this sensation. Remember how unpleasant it is. Then resolve to do what you can to ensure that neither you nor future generations of people who care about their world will be put in this place again. And start working to do something about it.