Thursday, June 16, 2005

the State of the Anti-War Movement

I'm on the "portside" email list and thus just read a long piece by Van Gosse about the "state of the anti-war movement" based on a talk he gave at a big UFPJ steering committee meeting. In it, he argues: that the
Republican hold on power, while apparently commanding,
is extremely fragile, the Right's apparent hegemony is illusory, there
is no realignment (yet), their control of
the institutional levers of power is real but insecure.
I wasn't totally clear about what Van Gosse was suggesting, but it seemed mostly to be that people in the anti-war movement have to get more involved in electorial and legislative politics. He also said that it was disorganization early on that led the sectarians of ANSWER to be the initial leaders in the anti-war movement. (more on that in a future post)
Tom Hayden said something very similar back in 2004, right after the election: In short: pinch the funding arteries, push the Democrats to become an opposition party, ally with anti-war Republicans, support dissenting soldiers, make "Iraqization" more difficult, and build a peace coalition against the war coalition. If the politicians are too frightened or ideologically incapable of implementing an exit strategy, the only alternative is for the people to pull the plug. Where do mass demonstrations and civil disobedience fit into this framework? Certainly Bush's inauguration will be an appropriate time to dissent in the streets. Nationwide rallies are an important way to remain visible, but many activists may tire if they see no strategic plan... Care will have to be taken during such militant actions to send the clearest possible message to mainstream public opinion.
Van Gosse's electoral strategy involves getting states to pass resolutions for "out now" resolutions. Not quite there, but close, Wisconsin's state legislature has passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of Bush, Chaney and Rumsfeld based on the lie that sent us to war. I think that's good and I'm also greatly encouraged by Conyers' hearings on the Downing Street Memo, which will be held on Capitol Hill this afternoon at 2:30 and broadcast on CSPAN-3 and Pacifica Radio.
However, while I think that it's very important for people who are active Democrats to push the party to act against the war, I have to agree with Ron Jacobs' comments from May 2nd in Counterpunch, ....groups like the US organization UFPJ are in real trouble. This trouble does not come from a lack of antiwar sentiment, nor does it come from apathy. Instead, it comes from a growing sense that the leadership of this organization (and others like them) are attempting to lead those of us who attend their demonstrations into the arms of the dead-end process known as mainstream politics. By this, I mean that the UFPJ leadership wants to lobby Congress to end the war. While this is certainly a noble thought, it has about as much possibility of success as me turning into a frog.
A strong anti-war movement, well organized, with chapters in schools, unions, and other locations articulating its own clear positions on issues, reaching the broad public, etc. will ultimately force the political establishment to respond. SDS did not gain its strength by writing to letters to congressmen, as I recall - largely because the escalation of the war began under a Democrat and because SDS activists had staked out early territory in opposing JFK's aggression against Cuba, and because SDS was active in community already used to direct action because of the growing strength of the Civil Rights Movement, which had been building for ten+ years by the time that SDS began organizing.
No matter how much Van Gosse wants to argue that the right is not strong, I think that the reason people are so determined to work within the Democratic party is that the right wing is in fact very strong and very powerful in the US. Their control of the media, which Van Gosse doesn't mention in his article, is very significant and demoralizing. The most important thing that the anti-war activists can expect and should be prepared for is that their efforts and strategies will be described as "way out on the left" and crazy no matter what they do. If we base our actions on avoiding media distortions, etc., we will be completely paralysed. I am dubious about Democratic party's willingness to act courageously in the face of bad coverage in teh media when I look at how many in the party responded to Howard Dean, who is far from taking an "out now" position on the war.
People who are the base of the broad anti-war movement, those who are against the war in principle, but not experienced activists, also worry about how to get the best "spin" from the media, and are afraid of "looking like wackos" (just read the Dailykos and you'll see what I mean). I think that the negative commentaries and baiting of groups like ANSWER has contributed greatly, particularly at the beginning of the anti-war movement in 2001, to the generally negative characterization of people on the left as "way out" "fringe" and "wacky." There was a more principled way to respond to that group than what Michael Lerner, whose actions were terribly damaging, did. These attacks ulimately hurt anti-war organzing, in my opinion.
While I disagreed strongly with ANSWER's tactics, I think that a lot of the pressure brought to bear against them had more to do with their positions on the issues and their un-corporate-media-friendly style than it had to do with their top-down structure. While certainly there are better ways to relate to people than carrying leftoid jargon-filled signs around, trying to build a media-friendly movement is not going to succeed in winning over the corporate media, and it is unlikely to succeed in "diversifying" the leadership or the base of the anti-war movement beyond the white and middle-class, highly educated world of progressive activism. Wading more deeply into democratic party activism and lobbying is even more likely to take the group down the white-middle class, bureaucratic, slow, slow, slow road to change. I don't feel as negative as Jacobs does about UFPJ, however, and I think some of the elements of their program are directed at building a real grass-roots anti-war organization, such as the "grassroots education campaign" and the "local costs of the war" plan.
Within this strategy, I think that the fear of looking like a freak really should not be underestimated. It's something that I think people have to confront when they move from holding opinions to taking action collectively. It has to do with our media climate. The media's reporting on politics is often based on predicting how people will react to statements, demonstrations, etc. These predictions then become prescriptions to the public about how they should feel about events. (For example, the coverage of the Dean scream predicted how people would react, and then created that reaction. There are plenty of other examples.) People on the left must come to recognize that the way they get talked about in the media is not the measure of their real success.
Look at what anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, of Gold Star Mothers for peace said to the president at a rally in Kentucky yesterday:
"Hard work is seeing your son's murder on CNN one
Sunday evening while you're enjoying the last supper
you'll ever truly enjoy again. Hard work is having
three military officers come to your house a few hours
later to confirm the aforementioned murder of your son,
your first-born, your kind and gentle sweet baby. Hard
work is burying your child 46 days before his 25th
birthday. Hard work is holding your other three
children as they lower the body of their big (brother)
into the ground. Hard work is not jumping in the grave
with him and having the earth cover you both,"....
"We're watching you very carefully and we're going to
do everything in our power to have you impeached for
misleading the American people," she said, quoting a
letter she sent to the White House. "Beating a
political stake in your black heart will be the
fulfillment of my life ... ," she said, as the audience
of 200 people cheered.

I'm glad to see someone willing to say something that negative is about to be a witness at John Conyers' hearings today. However, even as I'm excited about the anti-Bush organizing, the agitation around this memo, and its focus on the war's illegality, in the rush and the excitement, it's important for us to talk about the war in a way that encourages probing how this war fits into American foreign policy in general and doesn't just focus on the deaths of Americans. Iraq Vets Against the War have done this, and when I've heard them speak, they talk a lot about US imperialism. It can be done...and not just by college professors.

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