Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Peace movement:
Gone off to be Democrats?

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.
Max Elbaum, my WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras friend, wrote a much shorter but perhaps more even more convincing effort to explain the phenomenon available here.

the anti-Vietnam War movement emerged out of a period of progressive advance and was infused with near-utopian optimism. First and foremost, the Black freedom struggle had become a powerful force which every other opposition movement drew on for lessons, inspiration and strength. There was a direct line from the African-American upsurge to the revolt within the military itself, as Black soldiers spearheaded the G.I. rebellion which rendered the U.S. occupation force virtually unusable by 1971.

Today’s antiwar movement, in contrast, follows 30-plus years of right-wing rollback, which has weakened the Black community and the other social sectors that provided the base for the antiwar, anti-racist and progressive motion of the 1960s.

Last, for all the anticommunist hysteria of the Vietnam era, no one from the International Communist Conspiracy (and certainly no Vietnamese) ever actually attacked the U.S. But the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 was an all-too-real crime against humanity which traumatized the country. It provided Washington with a perfect excuse to justify its military adventures, and with a powerful ideological weapon for manipulating popular fears, demonizing Arabs and Muslims, and intimidating critics.

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:

The war in Iraq will have consequences. One of those consequences will be a renewed vigor on the left, as it has devised tools to overcome the crap served up to us by the Washington political establishment.

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.


Anonymous said...

Contrary to what Max Elbaum states, it is not Washington who has been demonizing Arabs and Muslims. Arabs and Muslims have been demonized in American culture much before the war on Iraq. In the early 80s there was a catalogue of the UC Press listing a scholarly translation of writings about the Crusades by an Arab of the time as: "The Crusades as seen by the enemy."

We have been seen as the enemy for many decades now.

And seen from outside the US, the US anti-war movement is non-existent. How many sit-ins, how many people gone to jail, how many civil desobidience actions has there been in the past four years to stop the killing of Iraqis? How many of those have happened in order to stop the shipment of US arms to Israel with which Arabs (Lebanese and Palestinians) have been killed and are still killed? What about the million and a half of American cluster bombs thrown on South-Lebanon, who has screamed against it in the US? Who is still screaming about it in the US? What about all the money that is sent to Israel?

My experience of the good people of the US is that they are very shy when it comes to save Arab lives from the ugliness of the US government and the Israelis, and all this much much earlier than September 11: There is the embedded anti-Arab racism of a Northern-European christianity that has migrated to northern-America and there is the constant work of the Jewish lobby on both the politicians and the public that makes it all possible.

Very few are really screaming about what is being done to the Arabs by your country. :(

tina naccache

Nell said...

Tina, many of your points are good ones -- especially about the decades of demonization of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.

But there is an answer to some of the questions that you may have posed as rhetorical ones, assuming the answers are 'none' and 'nobody'.

United for Peace and Justice, the coalition of antiwar organizations that organized the January 27-29 demonstrations and lobbying in DC, has joined the call for a national demonstration and other events on June 10 in Washington focused on the Israeli occupation.

"Seen from outside the US, the US anti-war movement is non-existent." You will forgive me, I hope, if I say that that's not a particularly cutting criticism. This is an enormous country, and a great deal of effective anti-war work is by its nature invisible to people outside local communities, much less to people outside the country.

But even on the terms you set, there are in fact more and more civil disobedience actions opposing the Iraq war and occupation. See Project Occupation, for instance. There were 200 religious protestors arrested at the White House on Friday, March 16. Students who blocked the shipment of Stryker vehicles near Tacoma, Washington three weeks ago were met with fierce police repression, which is not a good thing but is a sign that such actions are taken seriously; it also has a radicalizing effect.

If Congress caves in to the Bush administration's determination to maintain the occupation without end, there will be more activity of that kind. Maybe even enough to see the response from outside the country.

Nell said...

Sorry, meant to add a link to The Occupation Project.