Our Streets, Their Telescreens
For two straight nights, we filled the streets of downtown Chicago, tens of thousands for peace, justice and democracy – for life. “What do we want? Peace! When do want it? Now!” “Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.” “One, two, three, four, we don’t want this racist war.” “Whose streets? Our streets!”
We marched and chanted, drums beating and whistles blowing, angry but determined and completely nonviolent. The second night we were closely monitored every step of the way by a giant sullen army of jackbooted gendarmes, metropolitan soldiers in the proposed new century of Permanent Imperial War. Behind and above, office workers peered out of their corporate skyscrapers, curious about this outbreak of passionate mass dissatisfaction in the streets of a leading world city. “Look, that one there, five floors up in the fifth column, she just gave us the peace sign.”
We passed on numerous occasions Friday night beneath the “L,” the city’s famous Elevated Train system. More than once the conductor of a moving train stuck his or her hand out of his window, flashing two fingers in the air. We had seen the same symbol of solidarity from bus drivers marooned the night before by marchers on the city’s Lake Shore Drive.
Writing four days later, I still feel the waves, the rhythm, and the roar of the crowd, which included people from every race, ethnicity, religious and age group in Chicago – far more than the usual white college-educated suspects.
It was a good decision to turn off my computer, leave my office, and attend these marches. I made a critical mistake, however, on Friday night. I turned on my television to watch the local ten o’clock news. I wanted to see what kind of impact we had made in the holy, all-knowing corporate-state media that so powerfully shapes the hearts and minds of my fellow citizens/spectators.
The beginning of the newscast was dedicated to the shocking and appalling pyrotechnics above Baghdad, focusing discussion on the official state targets and deleting the likely consequences for civilians below. We learned that President Bush’s approval ratings were rising in response to the beginning of the barbarism.
The Chicago march was covered ten or so minutes into the broadcast by a smiling anchorwoman whose opening line was “what a difference a day makes!” The hook of her story was the supposed contrast between a terrible Thursday, when 20,000 protestors overwhelmed overmatched police, and a thankfully tamer Friday, when the cops came out in full riot gear to protect the city – from itself. Order restored.
I flipped to the non-news programming that runs on most of my fifty-seven stations. How many people, I wondered, are enjoying basketball, sit-coms, and fitness infomercials as their tax dollars and soldiers are being used to enshrine the imperial rule of sheer force and crumble the governing edifices of a sovereign nation in a cradle of ancient civilization?
Do Mourn, Do Organize
My mind flashed to the woman in an elevator I rode on Thursday. “We lost,” she told me, showing me her “No War” button on the lapel of her coat. Her companion grimaced and stared at the floor. “Time to go home and lick our wounds,” he weakly joked.
I felt their despair. I breathed it in and then…it was gone. We must mourn the lives that have been lost and the many more than will disappear because we have been unable to stop the invasion of Iraq. The grief demands to be felt; otherwise it will fester beneath our rugged public exteriors, poisoning our activism in ways that can only serve the masters of war.
The old Industrial Workers of the World slogan “Don’t Mourn, Organize” is more than just half-wrong. You don’t have to choose. And you’ll organize more effectively if you acknowledge and process the reality of the defeats that you and others have suffered.
Reasons to Resist Despair and Keep Fighting
At the same time, there are a number of sound empirical reasons to think that antiwar activists have already won significant victories and can expect more triumphs. There are other reasons to keep resisting that have nothing to do with past victories or the objective balance of forces. In what follows, I give arguments for Americans who hate the war to resist defeatism and stay energized against Bush foreign policy and for the causes of peace, justice and democracy at home and abroad.
Unprecedented Early Resistance.
The depth, breadth and scale of the domestic, overseas and popular resistance to Bush’s war are remarkable – unprecedented at this stage of an American military campaign. The numbers antiwar activists put in the streets even before the conflict even formally opened were phenomenal. Despite the best jingoistic efforts of the White House and corporate-state media, popular antiwar activism is already at a level peace organizers were unable to attain until many years into the Vietnam War.
Peace demonstrators at home and around the world have already saved Iraqi lives by contributing significantly to the creation of a political climate in which “mass civilian casualties” are feared as “a public relations disaster for Washington” (Reuters).
No Quick and Easy Victory.
A key part of the sales job for this war has been the promise of rapid, total victory. Bush never leveled with the American people regarding projected deaths of Iraq civilians or US soldiers and the length and danger of the war and the occupation. So where are all the grateful, welcoming, self-consciously “liberated” Iraqi civilians predicted by the Bush administration? This Sunday’s CNN coverage acknowledged “unexpectedly strong resistance” from Iraqi forces. Invading Iraq to install a new regime without any real support from other Arab states and other leading world nations may prove to be a long and bloody struggle. The fierce determination of Iraqi leaders is combining with resurgent Iraqi nationalism and Kurdish distrust of US intentions to prevent easy and rapid imperial triumph. This works against the quick disappearance of the peace movement on the model of 1991, when Daddy Bush achieved the basic objective (Iraq our of Kuwait) in short order with a “Nintendo War” and when there was no question of a long and difficult occupation following “regime change.”
Where Are All Those Terrible Weapons of Mass Destruction?
Another key part of the White House’s sales job is the notion that Saddam possesses huge and threatening stockpiles of major, state-of-the-art chemical and biological weapons and the potential to develop nuclear weapons. The Pentagon will pressure the media to play along with the doctrinal requirement that Saddam be shown to have possessed truly fearsome caches of WMD. There is potential for welcome White House embarrassment here, thanks to the monumental deception involved in the claim, well understood by serious investigators.
Soft, Passive and Qualified Support for Bush’s Unnecessary War.
Many Americans express outward support for the president because they think they should “support our troops” in a moment of crisis and have been led to believe that the war will be quickly won and concluded. Privately, however, many Bush supporters don’t get the president’s obsession with Saddam Hussein and his determination to put our soldiers in harm’s way for incredibly murky reasons. Their assent is full of misgivings, reflecting a sneaking and accurate suspicion that they have been fed bad information to convince them that Saddam represents a serious threat to people outside Iraq.
As the struggle extends and costs more American as well as Iraq lives, with the justifications unclear and questionable, some of this outward support will erode. It won’t help the White House that America’s incredibly unequal political economy continues to wallow in pseudo-recovery, its top-heavy torpor furthered by the regressive domestic policies Bush hopes to advance with his imperial agenda.
It is an indication of the soft and passive nature of the president’s support that pro-war rallies only put hundreds in public squares while antiwar activists marshal tens and even hundreds of thousands of passionate marchers.
The “Vietnam Syndrome” is not Dead.
Bush’s father spoke too soon when he claimed that the Persian Gulf War (when the US and its allies dropped 84,200 tons of munitions on Iraq and Kuwait) put the “Vietnam syndrome” to rest. The “Vietnam syndrome” refers to the American population’s reluctance to sustain mass American casualties in overseas conflicts of dubious defensive necessity. The high-altitude bombing of Iraq and the horrific slaughter of Saddam’s defeated troops in 1991 hardly qualified as a serious test of the “syndrome’s” strength.
The father of one of the first US soldiers killed in “Operation Liberate Iraq” accused the president of essentially taking his son’s life for no good reason. This mourning father is rightly unconvinced that Saddam Hussein represents the sort of danger that might justify such a sacrifice. The Bush administration will elicit more such bitterness among grieving families and communities as it wages its unnecessary imperial war of occupation on sullen, un-welcoming, and armed Iraqis.
Domestic Failures and a Peace Movement that is Making the Connections.
Yesterday the White House went to Congress requesting and certain to quickly receive a “supplemental” (on top of a $360 billion “defense” budget) appropriation of $74 billion to pay for the Iraqi war and homeland security. Sixty-three billion will go to the Pentagon and $8 billion to “coalition partners,” leaving just $4 billion for protecting the domestic population from terrorist attack. The extravagantly expensive war of occupation is making the radically regressive essence of the Bush regime more evident than ever. How can American government afford to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on empire while slashing taxes for the super-rich and deepening the crisis of America’s growing number of poor at home? It lacks the money to adequately fund education for all of the country’s children or for universal health coverage, but it can spend more on the military than on all possible enemy states combined many times over. It can spend hundred of billions on the occupation of distant nation that poses minimal risk to the US.
This is an opportune moment to criticize and connect two great paralyzing myths foisted on the American public by “conservative” ideologues, neo-liberal policymakers the corporate-state media and even some segments of the left. The first myth claims that the essential political choices we face are between the supposedly liberating, democratic and “free” market and the supposed dead hand of an inherently authoritarian and hyper-bureaucratic public sector. The second myth claims that the state is too weak and cash-strapped to carry out relevant functions in support of the common good: adequate school funding, drug treatment, national health insurance and much more.
In reality, the really relevant choices are between regressive, authoritarian public policies that serve heavily concentrated and highly bureaucratic corporate power and social-democratic public policies that serve the common good, reduce disparity and advance democracy. In really existing American society, moreover, the public sector is weak and cash-strapped only when it comes to social democracy for the people. Its cup runs over in powerful ways when it comes to serving wealth, and empire and racial disparity at home and abroad.
This great double standard is becoming increasingly evident to the American peace and justice movement. Relating Bush’s dangerous overseas agenda to the White House’s class war against America’s poor and working people (“the War at Home,” as it was called in a recent massive Chicago demonstration), this movement is making the connections between empire abroad and repression (including racially disparate mass incarceration) and inequality at home.
It is worth recalling that Daddy Bush’s high wartime (Dessert Storm) approval ratings fell quickly because of his failure to address deepening domestic economic insecurity. Also meriting remembrance is the fact that American policymakers were forced to scale back and ultimately call off their military crucifixion of Southeast Asia by their realization that the War on Vietnam was significantly feeding a homeland rebellion against hierarchy and injustice at home.
Ruling Class Fractures.
A significant portion of the US business, intellectual and political establishment does not support Bush’s foreign policy. Their opposition is based less on morality than on practical and conservative calculations. For some parts of the ruling-class, including possibly Bush 41, Bush 43 and his neo-fascist “posse” – as the Fundamentalist Cowboy from Crawford likes to call his “team” – are following a reckless and radical path which threatens to destabilize a system that was serving the privileged quite well. This can only be positive for peace and justice activists. Such activists have always exploited divisions among the Masters to win important victories like the legalization of labor unions, the creation and expansion of public family cash assistance, the passage of Civil Rights legislation and the end of the Vietnam War.
The Growing Revolt against Corporate-State Media.
Posters denouncing the warmongering role and related concentrated nature of the corporate-state media are widely visible at recent peace demonstrations. With good reason: Bush would not have been able to whip up enough public American support to go over the head of global allies and a significant component of his own nation’s establishment in attacking Iraq without the complicity of the corporate-state media. Permitting the White House to disseminate frankly preposterous lies about the dangers posed by Iraq and the real nature of US objectives abroad, the owners and managers of that media have emerged as full-fledged Masters of War in the post-9-11 era. The jingoistic performance of the Corporate-State Communications and Information Empire during Operation Dominate Iraq/Global Regime Change should put to rest once and for all the idiotic right-wing myth of the “liberal” and even “left” media. This can only encourage peace and justice activists’ growing propensity to identify and challenge America’s vast corporate-media manufactories of mass consent, diversion, and de-sensitization.
Antiwar activists were naturally insulted by the disturbing propensity of government officials and the media to discuss the invasion of Iraq as a fait accompli before it happened. Now that the invasion is underway, we need to mourn our defeat and realize that the nature of occupied Iraq is also contested terrain. We should demand a decent flow of humanitarian aid for Iraqis; adequate care for the victims; Iraqi oil wealth for Iraqis; elimination of the genocidal US-imposed economic sanctions that have killed more than a half million Iraq children; self-determination and basic human rights and dignity, including a decent welfare state and reconstruction of civilian infrastructure for the Iraqi people and much more.
Beyond Iraq: Against War on the World.
Iraq is the first target for a proposed new global campaign of empire. The Bush administration’s ultimate aim is more grandiose than diverting the America population from domestic inequities or deepening US control over strategic Middle Eastern oil resources. As John Pilger noted weeks before the invasion, “the Bush cabal… believes itself to be embarked on an epochal, world-altering mission, and they are determined this moment not be squandered.” Iraqi oil, Pilger observed, “is important,” but the “real prize” is “nothing less than world domination: all the riches above and below the earth and seas.” If all “goes well” in Iraq, the Bush team and successor imperial regimes will most certainly be targeting other states for “preventive war,” that is, unwarranted imperial invasion.
World Opinion on Our Side.
If “my fellow Americans” is your only reference group, things can get rather depressing in the United States. Switch or broaden your reference group to the human race and you will find some inspiration. The White House’s claim to be backed by “a broad” overseas “coalition” is transparently false. Its leading global partner is the pathetic Tony Blair, whose early enlistment in the war on Iraq is opposed by the preponderant majority of England’s citizens. Blair has been compelled to justify his position with the insistence that he would move Bush towards moderation and multilateralism – a claim that Washington has undermined with impunity. Beyond Blair, Bush’s international support is unenthusiastic and obviously purchased with US taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. The great majority of the world’s people, including those in “coalition” states, oppose Bush’s war. That opposition is hardly irrelevant.
Beyond the Crystal Ball.
The most compelling case for staying positively energized and organized against the global gang-bangers in the White House does not rest on our sense of the alignment of forces and chances for success. It does not rest on speculation – on what the crystal ball predicts for our causes. It is a matter of moral commitment and faith-based determination rather than objective assessment and practical calculation. It rests on the heartfelt knowledge that the Bush administration and its allies and enablers are doing something terribly, tragically wrong and dangerous to humanity. It is based on concerns that should remain intact even if 95 percent of the US population were solidly behind the self-infatuated Masters of War.
The Larger War
Those Masters and their subordinates worship the ancient authoritarian doctrine that political power grows out the barrel of a gun. They see the people of the Middle East as irritating sub-human sideshows on the petroleum-soaked road to a doctrinally mandated New World Order of permanent unilateral US military supremacy. At home their perverse moral calculus elevates bombs above books and makes them more willing to cut taxes for the unimaginably rich than to provide basic social protections for millions of very disproportionately non-white poor and working-class children. There is more than a tinge of fascism in the currently reigning masters’ way of looking at themselves, their own society and indeed the world.
We can be certain, however, that many more innocent people would have been slaughtered by the likes of Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle and other modern-day Mussolinis but for the activism of people turning out en masse even here in the eye of the imperial hurricane. We American resisters of empire owe it to the people of the world and to ourselves not to go home now, tragically despondent because the bullies in the White House have won an early battle in their projected endless war on the world. As Bush is telling us just today, the war is only beginning. It will not be fought in our name.
Paul Street ([email protected] ) writes and teaches in Chicago, Illinois.