Thanks to C-SPAN, I watched at least some of this weekend’s anti-war demonstrations with a great measure of ambivalence and even wonderment. To be honest, I watched for about 20 minutes until I began to overdose on the shrill rhetoric from a bunch of shouting nobodies on the rostrum. Like it or not, they were the voice given to the sea of people who actually turned out.
No question that there is a growing frustration and even dread about where the war in Iraq is leading – if anywhere. Or if it has been worth the bloodshed until now. And the demonstrations were a good opportunity to manifest that mounting discomfort.
That said, there are only two ways the anti-war movement can achieve its goals. Either through what the Europeans calls “extra-parliamentary” methods i.e. the disruption of business-as-usual and rendering the country ungovernable. Or through a political strategy by which there is a strategic shift in The Establishment.
Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the facile rhetoric many times before about an “inside/outside” – "suites and the streets” strategy that would combine both approaches. But in the end, it’s really one or the other. Either you overthrow the government, or you force it to change its policies.
Going way out on a limb, I would say the former option– the collapse of the American government via street demonstrations—is rather a long-shot. Which means that the peace movement will achieve its goals primarily and only by building a political coalition broad enough and forceful enough and credible enough to provoke a sea-change in policy.
That, in turn, means that at least a significant, if not a majority, slice of the Democratic Party has to be on board. Unfortunate, but true. That means including not only those who sign on to the 'Out Now' mantra of the current movement, but also those who have a less drastic view -- but still oppose the current course. The war issue could be “nationalized” in next November’s congressional election if that movement were broadened sufficiently. A Democratic upset in the mid-terms could force the Bush administration to change course and/or could lead to a Democratic victory and a change in war policy in ’08.
Yet, not a single top Democratic official publicly associated him or herself with Saturday’s street protests (sorry, Reps. Conyers and McKinney don't qualify as "top" officials). Not just Mister Kerry and Madame Clinton were missing. But equally AWOL were outspoken critics of the war like Howard Dean and Russ Feingold and Ted Kennedy – just to mention the better-known.
This is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but only a bit. Much can be said about the timidity of the Democrats when it comes to staking out a position – any position—on the war. And I have not flinched from saying so, rather repeatedly.
Indeed, one of the reasons that the peace movement’s organizational logistics remain in the hands of fringe groups like ANSWER, is because they eagerly fill a gaping void left by more moderate forces. Democrats and liberals have not stepped forward – so they get trampled by the few dozen fervent comrades from the glorious Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Fundamentalist-Leninist grouplet that runs ANSWER.
There is another coalition that helps organize the peace rallies – United For Peace and Justice. Somewhat more moderate than ANSWER, UFPJ nevertheless has few and only tenuous links with mainstream political forces. At various times over the last few years UFPJ has threatened to resist getting bullied by the cultish members of ANSWER, but in the end it always capitulates in the name of “unity.” Such was the case with this past weekend activities in which ANSWER once again set the themes and the tone of the protests.
There's an odd and defeating dynamic that pervades these activist groups -- a dynamic that often leads young critical thinkers to abandon them after a short infatuation. The inner circle, the feverish full-timer activists are often members of tiny, Marxist groups, "vanguard parties" or their "mass organizations." These devoted militants dedicate all of their time, all of their energy and all of their lives to "building" these miniscule sects. Some of the more entrepreneurial among them even figure out a way to make a living out of their politics.
Their relentless, round-the-clock energy allows them to easily dominate the tedious, mind-numbing meetings and planning sessions that go into organizing large-scale protests. Who else but a humourless party-builder could survive those marathon "consensus" sessions. But God Forbid anyone should actually criticize any of them or the 'line' they impose on the demos. Anyone who dares to challenge them is immediately called out as a McCarthyite -- as if joining one of these sects offers some implied warranty of immunity from criticism. When confronted with this cheap blackmail of being branded as "red-baiters," the more reasonable liberals and "progressives" almost inevitably fold and the cycle repeats itself. And then people actually wonder why the peace movement can't attract more mainstream political support?
Who could imagine a nationally-known Democrat pol showing up to one of Saturday's rallies unless motivated by some sort of electoral death-wish? Show up to be joined on the stage by George Galloway wearing a Palestinian kefiyah? Or by the kefiyah-draped leaders of ANSWER shouting out how they stand for the Cuban Revolution? Indeed, the kefiyah was the de rigueur accessory worn by countless speakers – speakers from little-known and tiny solidarity groups loudly condemning U.S. policy not only in Iraq and Cuba, but also in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Haiti etc. etc. And a plethora of speakers condemning Israel (without finding a way to equaly condemn the suicide-bombers).
I’m not even going to deal with the justice or legitimacy of each of the above causes. But you don’t need as much as an abacus to figure out that with each of the above-named planks you shrink, not widen the anti-war platform. There ought to be one single issue that admits someone to this movement: you simply oppose Bush policy in Iraq. Period.
Instead, the organizers of the protests imposed a political litmus test that narrows down possible supporters to the smallest, rather than the largest, common denominator. Given that its leadership comes from the political margin, the peace movement needs to be built from the sidelines inward, not the reverse. This works wonderfully for the marginal. Their political isolation only reconfirms their self-righteous purity. Hell, if a Democrat actually showed up on the dais, the organizers would no doubt claim they were being "co-opted." But it sucks for everyone else.
I have no idea if under different circumstances, with a different crew onstage, a few Senators might have been lured into the mix. I do know that the current configuration makes that impossible-- for now and for the immediate, crucial future.
This is a failure not only of the Democrats themselves, but also of the clearer-thinking folks inside the peace movement who ought to know better. I have said it before, so why not again? These more moderate voices need to resist the political blackmail of true-believers of the ANSWER variety and simply push them out of the leadership of the movement. At least they must if they want that movement to be something beyond an impotent theater of self-expression.
I can anticipate some of the reaction to this notion. “Oh, Marc,” I will be told, “Who cares what the idiots on the stage said? You don’t really think that the scores of thousands who came to Washington actually listened to the speeches from the stage, do you?"
My answer: Of course not. There aren’t five hundred people in America, let alone a hundred thousand, who could sit or stand through more than five minutes of that drivel.
But wouldn’t it be nice if there were antiwar speakers on that platform – just two or three instead of 45 or 50—whose words could inspire not only the protestors, but also move other millions into some deeper sort of reflection and action?
Wasn’t that the case in the great 1963 civil rights march on Washington? Have you ever in your life met a single person stupid enough to say that the only important thing that day 42 years ago was merely showing up in D.C. because it really didn’t matter what Martin Luther King actually said? That no one was really listening?
Why do we accept such a miserably lower standard for the anti-war movement?
A related post By Nathan Newman here.
Update: Steve Gilliard has a wonderful post on why A.N.S.W.E.R. is not the answer. He says, among other things:
"I watched an hour or so of the rally and I wanted to smash my screen.
Why can't they have adults who can speak in words, not slogans.
Here's a hint, Palestine is really unpopular in the US, even among liberals. You do not gain support for the Palestinians by having some campus clown talk about the injustices of the Palestinian people. You know, why not have a real Palestinian from Palestine who doesn't speak in slogans. You know, but a human face on it. And leave the support of terrorists like FARC at home, after all, you can't call Israelis terrorists when you're praising drug dealing terrorists."
"...Let's face facts. ANSWER are parasites who use our good intentions to push their agenda. So instead of rejoycing about the massive turnout, a hint that Bush's war is extremely unpopular, we're debating the speaker list and their abuse of their audience.
The reason ANSWER does this shit is because no one stands up to them...People can pretend that the CSPAN coverage didn't matter, but it did. It mattered to millions of liberals who saw that circus and said they would pass on the next protest. It mattered to people who financially support such protests. It mattered to polticians and their staffs. It matters. How you conduct yourself matters and what you represent matters..."
Gilliard also publishes the list of speakers from the protest podium. I reprint it without comment. None is necessary:
* Jessica Lange, actor
* George Galloway, British Member of Parliament
* Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general
* Cindy Sheehan*
* Dolores Huerta, Co-Founder, United Farm Workers of America
* Malik Rahim, New Orleans community activist who survived Hurricane Katrina
* Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney
* Ralph Nader
* Mahdi Bray, Exec. Dir., Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation
* Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, attorney/co-founder, Partnership for Civil Justice, National Lawyers Guild
* Elias Rashmawi, National Council of Arab Americans
* Brian Becker, National Coordinator, A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition
* Lynne Stewart, human rights attorney
* Rev. Al Sharpton*
* Anita Dennis, mother of Iraq War veteran / resister
* Clayola Brown, President of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Vice President of UNITE HERE*
* Ben Dupuy, Former Ambassador At Large for the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide
* Jos Williams, President, President of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO
* Michael Berg, father of Nicholas Berg
* Christine Araquel, Alliance for a Just and Lasting Peace in the Philippines
* Andy Thayer, Equality Campaign
* Curtis Muhammed, Community Labor Union of New Orleans
* Margaret Prescod, Global Women's Strike
* Hadi Jawad, founder of Crawford Peace House
* Chris Silvera, Teamsters Black Caucus
* Musa Al-Hindi, Al-Awda National
* Michel Shehadeh, L.A-8 defendant, a Palestinian activist framed COINTELPRO-style
* Nancy Wolforth, Executive Vice President, AFL-CIO
* Manuel Santos, Socialist Front of Puerto Rico
* Brenda Stokely, Million Worker March, New York City Labor Against the War
* Peta Lindsay, Youth and Student A.N.S.W.E.R. Student, Howard University student
* Mounzer Sleiman, National Council of Arab Americans
* Macrina Cardenas, Mexicanos Sin Fronteras
* Jeanette Caceres, Spoken word artist from New York University
* Gloria La Riva, National Committee to Free the Five
* Riya Ortiz, Network in Solidarity with the People of the Philippines, Campaign for Justice Not War
* Larry Holmes, Troops Out Now Coalition
* Chuck Kaufman, Nicaragua Network
* Women's Anti-Imperialist League
* Representative of Bayan USA
* Eugene Puryear, Youth and Student A.N.S.W.E.R. Student, Howard University student" link