Sunday, April 06, 2008

There is no anti-war movement; was there ever?

I have, as one voice among many others, posited the absence of an anti-war movement for some time now. While reliable pro-peace, labor and left groups still oppose the war from their position of consistency, there is no genuine anti-war movement per se. There are, instead, socialists opposed to the war, unitarians opposed to the war, nurses opposed to the war, feminists opposed to the war, and so on.

I mean, sure. There are networks of activists, there are activities, there is communication, there are declarations. But the rank-and-file anti-war demonstrators are smaller in number than ever, and what may even be more important in the current age, the anti-war side has zero influence on the media.

Not coincidentally in the least, the New York Times editorial page Editor Andrew Rosenthal posited an absence of a movement two years ago. The subtitle of his piece, incidentally, was "Where have all the protesters gone," which would have been a clever take on Peter, Paul and Mary, were it not for the fact that this is apparently the chosen title or subtitle of about a hundred other pieces asking similar questions (google it, seriously.)

Liberal newspaper editors are one thing, though, and serious anti-establishment intellectuals and writers like Tariq Ali are another. And the title of his recent piece is not some funny play on our familiarity with a hippie song. Instead, his scathing and pessimistic case for movement nothingness is subtitled "The Movement That Has Dissolved Itself." It's the most grim prognosis of politics I've read in a long time...

The fact is that it never was, in the true and proper sense of the word, a movement -- only a day of paroxysm, a spontaneous and desperate attempt of citizens of all political persuasions to stop the war. It was conceived, if you will, as a preventive blow against a war that people instinctively knew was based on a heap of lies. The day when the war really began, antiwar mobilizations began to die. Citizens, demoralized by their own failure, could no longer find the strength to take to the streets in great numbers. ...There is no solidarity with the Iraqis. They are Arabs, largely Muslims, and the wave of Islamophobia that has swept the West has brought with it the dehumanization of those who were murdered....the movements of workers and progressives in general in Western Europe, increasingly in crisis, are indifferent to their destiny -- just as they are indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians....a majority of the North American and European citizens are still in favor of the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq: however, their voices are not being heard by the political establishment. There is a growing crisis of political representation in the West. Democracy is becoming hollow. In the US electoral campaign, both the Democratic candidates publicly say they are in favor of a withdrawal from Iraq, but privately they reassure the military that they do not seriously intend to withdraw despite being forced to say so because people are discontent. In the end, the fact that there is no draft in the US means that most Americans are not directly affected by the war. Military families opposed to the war constitute the only important pressure group. As a substitute for the draft, the US has recruited mercenaries from all over the world: there are 50,000 Ugandans, thousands of Central Americans, South Africans, and others who are paid the market price to fight in Iraq. Who cares if they die? It's a risk that they assume, in exchange for wages and US citizenship. A grim picture, which should make Westerners think.
There's obviously a lot to digest here, but probably the scariest thing for those of us who see political activism as part of our being is the very real possibility that protest doesn't matter in the least: Those of us without massive financial influence already live in a virtually totalitarian society where debate is managed to the point of ineffectiveness, and our leaders' true power-sources are insulated to the point of inaccessibility. This was a possibility posited by Tom Engelhardt last October in a piece entitled, what else, "Where have all the protesters gone?"

However, over the years, unlike in the Vietnam era, the demonstrations shrank, and somehow the anxiety, the anger -- though it remained suspended somewhere in the American ether -- stopped manifesting itself so publicly, even as the war went on and on. Or put another way, perhaps the anger went deeper and turned inward, like a scouring agent. Perhaps it went all the
way into what was left of an American belief system, into despair about the unresponsiveness of the government -- with paralyzing effect. As another potentially more disastrous war with Iran edges into sight, the response has been limited largely to what might be called the professional demonstrators. The surge of hope, of visual creativity, of spontaneous interaction, of the urge to turn out, that arose in those prewar demonstrations now seemed so long gone, replaced by a far more powerful sense that nothing anyone could do mattered in the least.

This is the most damning indictment of all--both of the system, and the way we can approach resisting it. It indicts mass protest, but also indicts the poststructuralist concepts of culture-jamming or other media-engaged theories of subversive theatrics. It indicts politics for all but a wealthy few, who will never have to personally face the consequences of deploying large numbers of soldiers and weapons and bombs from one place to another for the sake of geostrategic and resource gain.

...That is, until the only remaining possible resistance and transcendence is complete, total, violent system collapse, which will rain down fire and death on the innocent and culpable alike.

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