Considering we've gotten to the point that some 60 plus percent of folks in the United States want us out of Iraq now, the peace movement seems kind of anemic. Not that there isn't one, but instead of gaining momentum as public opinion has come to agree with it, demonstrations and other visible manifestations of opposition aren't grabbing center stage the way we might expect. This essay is not a slam at that peace movement; I have huge respect for its efforts, especially, nationally United for Peace and Justice and CodePink. But somehow we just aren't having the heft one might expect from something so popular.
Two smart thinkers from the Vietnam protest generation (my generation too, just to be clear) have recently weighed in on this question. At Tom Dispatch, Tom Engelhardt gave us a long, nuanced essay which I won't attempt to summarize, except to pull out three differences from the Vietnam era which he enumerates:
- no draft;
- young people of the 60s believed they could change the system in a way no one does today;
- and, however alienated they were, young people of the 60s believed they would be and should be listened to -- again, today, no one has that faith.
It seems to me that both these guys are on to something; go read both of them. And remember the context of consolidation of corporate media in which this all takes place.
And then join me in thinking about another difference from those long ago times that I think is shaping our current responses. Today's war is clearly branded as a Republican war. Vietnam started as a Democratic war and remained a bipartisan war pretty much throughout. By the time Nixon was elected with his "plan to end the war" which turned out to be to bomb his way to victory, both political parties seemed hopelessly implicated in the immoral carnage in Southeast Asia. There were antiwar folks who tried to bring the peace movement into the Democratic Party -- in 1966, the columnist Robert Scheer unsuccessfully primaried a Democratic Congressmen from Berkeley of all places, who like most good liberals of the era was gung ho for the war.
But serious anti-Vietnam war activists quickly concluded that the Democrats were not really much better than the Republicans. Certainly the party apparatus was not where they could most usefully put their energies. Because Vietnam was a Democratic war, a whole generation of smart political people dropped out of the electoral arena and into cultural and identity politics movements, into Third World-oriented Marxism, even simply off the grid, back to the land. The Democrats got the careerists and the unimaginative from the 1960s. It is probably only a slightly over-sweeping generalization to suggest that the Democratic Leadership Council set are very much the people who missed the boat in the 1960s and have never quite got over resenting the braver, more creative --if less materially successful-- members of their own generation.
Since Iraq is branded as a Republican war, the political dynamics play out differently today. Though Bush got bipartisan support to launch his war, it is relatively easy for contemporary Democratic politicians to distance themselves from it. And newly minted peace activists who were not formed by the Vietnam era look to the Democratic Party as the vehicle that will end it. Howard Dean brought a lot of them into the fold in 2003; the Lamont primary campaign showed they could win in a limited arena; winning a Democratic Congress in 2006 convinced many that they had found their right place in the struggle. And they didn't just shut up and go home -- they/we are still hammering that new Democratic Congress to cut off war funding.
The Democratic political blogosphere has given this new generation of peace activists a place to meet and created a culture that keeps us engaged. These folks are not (usually) hostile to the activist peace movement -- just peripheral. They are carrying out their own strategy for making peace -- by challenging and, they hope, becoming the Democratic Party. They know this won't be easy. BooMan laid it out recently:
He's worried that a Hillary Clinton nomination will stop the movement he is a part of -- and I think he should be. None of the Democratic candidates can be relied on to listen to pressure from the left, activist, base. But only Clinton can afford to completely ignore us, if not repress us.
I would hate it if it took a lousy Democratic administration to give the peace movement the energy it would need to once again seize center stage. But this could happen. Better we make the Dems stop this damn war now.