Ed: With Gregg Robinson’s post, we continue the much needed debate on the future direction of the antiwar movement. Gregg originally wrote “Why no mass antiwar movement? The Case of San Diego,” which was followed by Rick Nadeau’s lengthy comment, and then Frank Gormlie’s “The Antiwar Movement Needs This Debate: Why Is there No Mass in Our Mass Movement,” which also looked at Tom Hayden’s very recent article in the Dec. 17th issue of The Nation magazine, “How the Peace Movement Can Win.”
I am grateful for the feedback of so many friends about my article. Thanks to Dan, and Brian for their support. I am particularly appreciative, however, of the in-depth feedback of my old friends Rick Nadeau and Frank Gormlie. Let me honor their contributions to the debate over this crucial issue by responding with a similar degree of seriousness. Rick raises some important theoretical concerns about the origins of the crisis in the antiwar movement, while Frank addresses the strategic issues about what we are to do about this issue.
Rick’s Points: Major Theoretical Concerns
Rick questions my analysis of the origins of the impasse that the peace movement finds itself in, and he raises four major issues: first, he believes that I have ignored the impact of the war on terror, but particularly 9-11, on the organizing environment of the peace movement; second, he maintains that I have failed to recognize that the situation in the Middle East and the Israel/US connection makes organizing more difficult than against the war in Viet Nam.; third, he claims that I have underestimated the role the media have played in suppressing antiwar activism; and fourth, he believes that I have missed the role ideological changes since the 1960s play in suppressing antiwar activism. Before I turn to these issues, however, let me address a general point Rick made: the need to clarify my notion of the “middle mass”.
This is a crucial issue because it is central for understanding my position. The middle mass is a group of people that stands between the highly committed cadre of antiwar activists on the one hand, and the larger (and more passive) mass of the general population on the other. It is composed of people who are willing to show up at demonstrations, but are not willing to plan them. This group is the point of leverage that the cadre uses to change the attitudes of the mass of the population. That is, the middle mass puts the numbers of people in the street that draw the attention of the larger population to the need to end the war.
More specifically, a middle mass consists of the following four elements: 1. it must be large enough to be of political weight; 2. it must have the organizational and communicational resources sufficient to make it’s presence known; 3. it must have a critical understanding of the issue at the source of conflict; 4. finally and most importantly, it must have an immediate and visceral connection to this issue that makes it willing to take action. This group has sometimes been called the “base” of a social movment, and is a political home to which organizers can go and expect a sympathetic hearing. The Civil Rights movement had this middle mass in the black churches of the South, the Black power movement had it in the ghettoes of the north, and the antiwar movement of the 60s had it in the universities across the country.
Let me illustrate the contradictions of our current situation and the importance of the middle mass with an imaginary scenario. If in 1970 an activist had stood on a corner on Broadway in downtown San Diego with a sign saying “STOP THE WAR” s/he could have expected three things from most cars driving by: jeers, the middle finger salute, and a hail of beer cans. But if that same activist had wanted to go someplace where s/he could find a thousand people who were willing to show up for a demonstration there were three major communities that were available: San Diego State, UCSD, and OB (where students and former students lived). Our activist today would find much less hostility on Broadway, but could not find a single place to go to find a hundred, let alone a thousand people willing to take part in a demonstration. That in a nutshell is our contradiction. We have more general sympathy for our cause, but fewer places to go to in order to find that organizable group of people that I am calling the middle mass.
9-11 and the Antiwar Movement
Now on to Rick’s specific points. I find his argument about the impact of 9-11 on antiwar organizing unconvincing. Yes, we were attacked at home in ways that did not happen during Viet Nam, but, as I am sure Rick is aware, 9-11 had nothing to do with Iraq. It is true, that in the heat of the reaction to 9-11 Americans were peculiarly vulnerable to manipulation, but this vulnerability was relatively short lived. It would account for an initial willingness to go into Afghanistan and maybe the initial invasion of Iraq, not the continued quietism in streets since then.
On the other hand, Rick is right that Americans share little culturally with Iraqi Muslims, but can anyone honestly think we shared that much more with Asian Buddhist Communists? I believe that for the mass of the U.S. population the war in Iraq is easier to oppose than the one in Vietnam. The Southeast Asian conflict was part of the campaign against communism, and that struggle did constitute a real threat (both ideologically and militarily) to this country. In the 60s it had only been a few years since the onslaught of McCarthyism when thousands of leftists had lost their jobs, and most Americans were haunted by the specter of nuclear war. The struggle against “Islamo-fascism” is a sideshow in comparison to that earlier period, and is not sufficient to explain the differences in the antiwar movements between the two periods of time.
Israel and Iraq
Unfortunately, I also don’t think Rick’s point about Israel/the Middle East does a much better job explaining our problems than 9-11. In and of itself, there is nothing about Israel that limits opposition to the war in Iraq. You could make a case that by destabilizing the Middle East, the U.S. has undermined Israel. But I get Rick’s point: the antiwar movement can’t explain to Americans why we are hated so much in the Middle East without talking about our history of blind support for Israel against the Palestinians. This problem, however, has to do with the wider issue of the Middle East, not Iraq. However true it may be that our Middle East policy explains the large numbers of Arabs in the streets opposing the U.S., it does not explain the small number of Americans in the streets opposing the Iraq disaster.
The Media and Suppression of Activism
Now on to what I think are Rick’s most substantive criticisms. I agree that much of the mainstream media has become “embedded”. We do not see in the network news today the pictures of the misery of this war that were so common during the latter stages of the conflict in Vietnam. But remember the network news today is much less important than it was forty years ago. The internet did not exist in the 60s, and while we don’t have the large number of “underground newspapers” that existed back then, we do have countless websites, blogs, and zines (e.g. this blog). From John Stewart to Stephen Colbert to Keith Oberman there are critical voices in the mass media that did not exist during the Southeast Asian conflict.
I do agree, however, that there is an important point here. The key is that there are few Americans who have a direct connection to the war. The Bush administration has done everything it can to hide the war and its costs. The bodies coming home are hidden from view, it has refused to raise taxes in order to fight the war, it has stuck returning injured veterans in backwards of hospitals, it has gone out of its way not to keep the cuts in government services (e.g. SChip) from being linked to the war, etc. What is important is not so much the lack of Iraqi victims on TV, but the general insularity of the American public from the conflict in Iraq. What this means is that the fourth ingredient of a middle mass I spoke of above is missing. That is while there is a general disgust with the war, there isn’t a single group or community with a direct and visceral tie to the conflict.
Changes in Political Culture
Finally, I agree that our cultural context is different than it was in the 60s, but that does not necessarily make our job harder than it was then. While it is true that the socialist left has withered, the “post-modernist” left is still in full bloom. Most universities across the country have a large number of what David Horowitz decries as “tenured radicals”. The English, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and political science departments of this nation have a much larger number of critical intellectuals than during Rick, Frank, and my student days. Granted, most of these intellectuals are attached to feminist, gay, and multicultural view points rather than leftist ones, but in spite of this they do contribute to the ideological opposition to the war in Iraq. The irony is that there is more opposition to the war in many universities from behind the lectern than from in front of it.
In addition, the fact that the war in Vietnam happened means that there is a critical infra-structure opposing American foreign policy already in place that did not exist in the 60s. This infrastructure has also meant that there is greater opposition to this war from high level establishment figures than during the conflict in Southeast Asian. There are many people in the State Department, and even the military and CIA who have been vocal critics of the war. When Noam Chomsky not only gets asked to speak to the cadets at West Point (as he was recently), but gets a standing ovation from them, you know things are not all worse today than they were back in the 1960s.
All of this is to say that I do not think that the conditions mentioned by Rick explain the lack of an antiwar movement. While the corporate media, and more importantly the Bush administration, does everything it can to keep the war under the radar, there are too many other media outlets for this to distinguish our time that dramatically from the 1960s. Likewise, while there is no denying the changed ideological circumstances, not all of these ideological changes contrast unfavorably with the Vietnam period. Something else must account for the lack of opposition in the streets.
The 60’s for many of the reasons Rick outlines (the existence of the counter culture, the impact of the civil rights movement, and presence of a leftist culture) made organizing the antiwar movement easier, but it was by way of creating this middle mass. Rick implies that these factors are what is keeping the majority of Americans from opposing the war, but I don’t think that is the issue. In fact, if my scenario about the activist on Broadway is correct, there is much more general opposition to the war today than there was in Vietnam in spite of the media manipulation, lack of leftist culture, etc. What we lack is means to move that general antipathy into concrete action. We lack the leverage supplied by the middle mass.
Frank’s Points: Issues of Strategy
Frank, in contrast to Rick, is concerned with the nuts and bolts of organizing an antiwar movement. I agree with him that this is the crucial question that we face today. Abstract criticisms are empty intellectualizing unless they lead us to concrete action. That is, pontificating on the middle mass without practical results risks falling into what we called in the 60s the “paralysis of analysis”. .
Electoral Politics and Antiwar Activism
Frank begins his strategic discussion by drawing on a recent article in the Nation by Tom Hayden, and then adds his own suggestions to it. Let me first address Hayden’s points, and then I will turn to Frank’s issues. Hayden maintains that the Presidential election cycle that we are now entering presents an opening for antiwar activists. He proposes that the antiwar movement push candidates into taking stronger antiwar positions by using the so-called “527 groups” for antiwar purposes. These 527s are the “independent” political advocacy groups that a loop-hole in election law allows to advocate for a political issue so long as they don’t support a particular candidate. Funded by individuals such as George Soros and organizations such as MoveOn, Hayden believes that antiwar forces can co-opt these groups to both keep the war visible and to push politicians to end the conflict.
While I agree that the election brings real opportunities for the antiwar movement, I also believe that it poses equal risks to it. It is naive to think that the antiwar movement will be able to engage in cooptation of these 527’s (and other electoral groups) without risking cooptation by these same organizations. There is a sucking sound that emanates from any presidential campaign that absorbs huge amounts of time and effort. Even the legitimate concerns of electoral politics (getting out the vote, walking precincts, identifying likely voters, etc.) are enormously expensive and time consuming. It is all too easy for the antiwar movement to find itself sucked up into the minutia of the political “ground game”.
The best example of this risk of co-optation is Tom Hayden himself. We remember today the Hayden of the 1960s, but there was also the Hayden of the 1970s who Gore Vidal once described as “giving opportunism a bad name”. I saw this first hand when I worked with an organization Hayden and Jane Fonda set up in the 1970s. As a member of the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED), I remember the compromises we had to make when Tom ran for assembly from Santa Monica or when he tried to win the Democratic nomination for senator from California. We sucked up to Jerry Brown because he was governor at the time, we de-emphasized our economic populism because we needed donations from business leaders, we avoided issues connected to the Middle East because we didn’t want to alienate Jewish voters. I don’t begrudge this kind of politics. Anyone who seriously enters the electoral arena at this level must come to terms with it. But this is NOT what the antiwar movement is about. Yes, we must use the electoral process, but we must be careful not to be used by it.
The key here is that the antiwar movement should participate in electoral politics in ways that build the middle mass. Yes, the country’s eyes will turn to politics for the next year, but we must be very specific about what we want from this process. As I have indicated, there is a disconnect for most Americans and the war, thus any action that brings the war to the attention to the public is worth supporting. The safest way to do this is from outside the electoral process than from inside it. We should demonstrate against pro-war Republicans when they come to town seeking votes. Wavering Democrats should find their offices full of antiwar activists sitting in. Presidential candidates who claim to be antiwar should be pushed to sign a commitment to get all troops out by the end of 2008. The best example of this is what Code Pink has been doing. Their creativity and willingness to confront elected politicians is a model worth following.
It is more risky to get involved in actual electoral politics from the inside, but it might be worth this risk if it builds the middle mass. Anything that dramatizes the connections between problems in this country (energy policy, healthcare, lack of funding for education, etc.) and the impact on specific constituencies (working class people, the poor, minorities, gays, etc.) builds the middle mass. TV adds, 527’s and the house meetings that both Hayden and Frank mention are worth supporting if they make these kinds of connections.
Students and Activism
I believe that Frank’s own points are headed in a more productive direction than Hayden’s. Frank stresses the importance of direct activism to end the war, and I agree with him. His focus for this activism, however, I find unattractive. Frank believes that the antiwar movement needs to target young people because they will provide the enthusiasm and commitment that is so needed right now. My response to this is don’t tell me, tell them. Maybe it is because I teach them, but I do not find students to be connected to the war in ways that would offer much hope of filling the ranks of demonstrations. We are not back in the 60’s. Students are no longer a single constituency united by a radical youth culture. Equally important, university students in particular are insulated from the war by a volunteer military. Without a draft, today’s university students are more frightened of not getting into graduate school than in fighting in Iraq.
I also don’t think we should be so dismissive of “greyhairs”. I have no problem with seeing demonstrations filled with aging “boomers”, so long as those demonstrators fill the streets. In some ways the elderly and aging baby boomers constitute a possible base for the middle mass that contrasts favorably with students. As people age they become more dependent on government services (Social Security, Medicare, etc.), and if we could make connections between the crises in these services and our military spending, we might provide a more active base to our antiwar movement. In fact, I am thinking of coining a new slogan: “Don’t trust anyone under 50”.
At its worse this hunger for the old days is one of the biggest enemies of antiwar activism, because it risks turning our movement into a political “cargo cult” waiting for the return of student radicals. The changed ideological and economic situations I discussed earlier demand a period of innovation, not repetition. We are desperately in need of the kind of tactical innovations that will build a new middle mass not futilely look for an old one.
Frank’s enthusiasm for activism is well taken, but it is better directed in more productive directions than toward university students. We need a period of “connection demonstrations” that seek to link groups to the issues of the war. We must experiment with looking for the connections between the sacrifices necessitated by the war and the suffering of oppressed groups in our society. Given the realities of a volunteer military we are better off staging demonstrations in working class and minority communities than on university campuses. Because of the dominance of a postmodernist left, our efforts are best served by reaching out to gays and lesbians than students and hippies. As a result of the lowered visibility of this war, we must make its costs obvious by taking demonstrations to veterans’ hospitals, not chancellors’ offices. I am not against going onto college campuses, but we should go to where, because of growing economic inequality, the immediacy of the war is the greatest: community colleges, not universities.
Once again let me thank both Rick and Frank. Their criticisms have helped me to better focus my analysis, but more importantly they have helped to clarify some the major issues facing the antiwar movement. Hopefully these efforts will bring us closer to ending this disastrous conflict.