Pantaliamon and I spent much of today at the Code Pink anti-war rally at Meridian Hill Park (aka Malcolm X Park) in Washington, D.C., some five blocks from our apartment. Women (and their male allies) turned out all over the globe to rally against the Bush administration’s war plan, and this was one of the major events. As usual with these things, I was glad that I attended, but was left dumbfounded by many of the speakers and attendees.
My main problem with the anti-war movement, of which I am definitely a part, is that so many of its supporters and organizers are incapable of rational discourse. With the exception of some very intelligent people who spoke, a lot of it was just – pardon the generalization – new age hippy bullshit. The great call to arms at the end of the rally invoked the “Mother Goddess” and urged us to remember that we are all part of the “River of Life.” I certainly don’t want do deny anyone their religious beliefs, but forcing it on a secular anti-war rally just seemed … tacky? Irritating? Naive?
Let’s face it, for the anti-war movement to gain any mainstream momentum we desperately need to appeal to the majority of Americans – those people who live in what most coastal elites condescendingly refer to as “flyover country.” I’m not sure invocations of Gaia are really going to play well there.
Nor do I think old anti-Vietnam folks songs are the ticket, either. But one of the speakers sang one for us – clearly to bring back memories of the “Good Old Days” when the baby boomers rallied against the conflict in Southeast Asia. Not that you can’t draw parallels between the two, but I think a focus on the present and not the past is crucial to getting past this crisis. And besides, there’s nothing more embarrassing than an old hippy recalling the Summer of Love. This is a new fight and although history is important, it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation. If only we could pry it from the hands of these lifelong activists …
My other problem lies with the use of the tried-and-true “peace movement” clichés – “make love not war,” “food not bombs,” “give peace a chance,” etc. These don’t play well to middle American, either. For starters, they don’t mean anything to the public, anymore – they only stir the people who are already converted to the cause. Second, the notion that all war is unnecessary is, I think, terribly naïve – so messages to that effect just turn people off.
What the movement needs are more articulate people, such as Janene Garafalo, who have clearly done their homework and can offer a rational reason for why it’s wrong to invade Iraq. This is crucial in winning the PR battle with the conservatives, because – let’s face it – they’re going to just blow-off anything less than a reasoned challenge. Janene, I might add, did a splendid job on CNN’s Crossfire, yesterday – she effectively beat off attacks by both James Carville and Tucker Carlson (why Carville was so hard on her, I can’t begin to guess), and made a case against war that I could look at and say that I respect. I was glad that she participated in today’s rally, although I missed her speech.
I don’t mean to be offensive to the members of this growing movement – I really do respect their convictions and their activism. But if they really want a mainstream movement, they have to avoid resorting to the old standbys – they’re a crutch in this case. No one will ever take the movement seriously if it continues to expound 30-year old clichés without employing the intellectual muscle needed to win the fight.
Looking through the various paraphernalia on sale (oh, excuse me, available in exchange for a “donation”) – buttons, t-shirts, stickers, etc. – it took me some time to find something with a slogan I could actually get behind: “No War for Empire.” This really sums up my feelings about the war, and hints at a greater argument against American global expansion – it’s certainly more thought provoking than say “Imagine World Peace.”
At the end of the event, the protestors amassed on 16th Street and set out for the White House. The huge crowd – literally thousands of people, mostly women – marched down the street, beating drums, waving signs and puppets and chanting against the war. With everyone together – middle class housewives, college students, high school students, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, small children, even dogs, as well as traditional activists – the more radical elements of the movement were blurred out, absorbed in the mass. People stopped in their cars, honked their horns in support and waved at the throng.
It became clear to me at that moment that the peace movement is most effective when it’s in motion – whether it’s Janene Garafalo putting Tucker Carlson in his place, or thousands of people turned out in the streets, marching on the White House. The movement is at its weakest when it stands around and claps, cheering on people who can’t possibly understand the audience they desperately need to attract. Americans respect action more than hollow rhetoric. Only a proactive argument and public demonstrations can turn the tide.