Wednesday, March 19, 2008
During the lunch hour, I, along with my young son, attended a protest to mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war on the north side of the capital here in Sacramento. The crowd numbered 75 to 100 people, and I recognized a number of them from past instances of activism related to peace issues, immigration, Chiapas and the environment. Unlike, say, the Bay Area, which has a social history of confrontational left activism (as shown by Act Against Torture today, to the left), antiwar activism in Sacramento is predominately influenced by progressive liberalism, by people who share a sincere belief that you can eventually persuade the government to do the right thing if you pressure it enough.
After holding up signs at the 11th and L Street intersection (an intersection where lobbyists for corporations, labor unions, non-profits and local government entities go back and forth between their offices and the legislature), the crowd walked to the north steps of the capitol building and listened to several dedicated, long time activists speak about their dismay over the inability to persuade Congress to end the war, the horrible consequences of the war for both Iraq and the United States and, frankly, the burnout that some of them had experienced. Towards the end, I was surprised when one of the organizers walked up to me and asked if I wanted to speak. I thought about it for a moment, and accepted the invitation.
With my son playfully trying to take the microphone out of my hands, I briefly highlighted the relationship between the global neoliberal policies of the US and the war in Iraq, suggesting that the war itself was part of a profound challenge, one that requires a more socially aware approach than communicating with elected officials. Afterward, I wondered why it is so difficult to mobilize opposition to the war, and decided to write my Blogswarm post on the subject. After all, I doubt that there are very many blogs that have published more posts on the subject of the catastrophic consequences of the war and occupation, especially for the Iraqis, than this one. An examination of the label, Occupation of Iraq, reveals 108 posts, while a more specific subject subsumed within it, Iraqi Deaths, has 37. Both labels can be found at the end of this post, so please click on them if you are willing to educate yourself about the more brutal aspects of the conflict.
So, again, the question, why is it so difficult to mobilize opposition to the war? Of course, we know some of the reasons. For example, the extent to which the execution of the war and its adverse impact upon the US has been compartimentalized is well known, although we often overlook it. Since Vietnam, the military relies upon volunteers, so no one is forced to fight in Iraq if they don't want to do so, or, at least, very few are, when one accounts for conscientous objectors, like Lt. Ehren Watada. It is very easy to live in the US and have little or no contact with the war, except for the random encounter with someone who has enlisted, or someone with a relative who has done so. It is a sad thing to say, but it increasingly seems that many relate to such people as people who have an incurable disease or have been exposed to one. In other words, shikata ga nai, it can't be helped, a topic that induces some expressions of empathy at dinner, along with a more relieved, thank G-d it's not us, but not much else.
We are also aware of the economic consequences, but they have been compartmentalized as effectively as the social ones. A declining currency, signalling a lesser standard of living in comparison with others around the world, a rapidly growing budget deficit, a credit crunch, making it difficult for millions of Americans to escape foreclosure on their homes, and the high price of oil, all can be traced to the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq. Despite the efforts of people like Joseph Stiglitz, Linda Blimes and Justin Raimondo, it is not something that can be easily explained, although there was a recent glimmer of hope when Americans, in a recent poll, selected getting out of Iraq as the best proposal for getting out of the recession.
Then, there are the interwined elements of ambivalence and powerlessness. In the parts of the country where the war has disrupted the lives of people the most, where units have been sent to Iraq for 3, 4 and 5 tours of duty, leaving behind emotionally and financially broken families, there is still a hesitancy about immediately ending the war. One can speculate on the causes, a desire to retain the belief that the sacrifice meant something, a fear that it might be a mistake, a deference to people in positions of authority, but we shouldn't ignore the possibility that there is a deeply ingrained feeling of powerlessness. Many of these same people experienced the social dislocations that resulted from NAFTA, deregulation and the elimination of pension plans and affordable health care. The sacrifices of the war are just the culmination of a long list of them inflicted upon these people in the last two decades. Faced with such economic insecurity, and a political system that is tone deaf to their needs, why would they believe that anyone would listen to them if they demanded an end to the war?
It is a hard question to answer. If the US political system is so unresponsive to conventional forms of activism, such as petitions, marches, communication with elected representatives, the election of new representatives aligned with our beliefs, in short, strategies based upon the notion that the empowerment of the Democratic Party, while simultaneously trying to push it in a progressive direction, then isn't it time to seriously start investigating alternatives? If the political parties, and the activists connected to them, such as MoveON.org, have proven themselves incapable of bringing the war to an end, as they did after the Democrats took over Congress in the 2006 election, doesn't that tend to prove that we need to do something different?
Of course it does. Within the past week, I have published two posts about Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW), one here and the other one here. By practicing a decentralized form of direct action politics, one that encourages people to empower themselves by protesting the war in ways that conform to their values and abilities, it inspires individuals to reconstitute a collective participation in social life that has been forgotten. It additionally motivates people to recognize and understand the socioeconomic forces that promote and benefit from the war in Iraq. As DASW flyers and postcards in 2003 said, resist the war and the empire and uproot the system behind them.
It is this emphasis upon the underlying system of militarism and global economic exploitation that makes the DASW approach so essential. With such an emphasis, we begin to identify the corporations aligned with the war in Iraq, with US imperial policies generally, thus making it possible to educate the public about them, and subject them to political and economic pressure. For example, DASW, influenced by the work of people like Pratap Chatterjee of CorpWatch, protested Bechtel and Halliburton as especially flagrant corporate miscreants in Iraq before they were commonly exposed as such by the mainstream media. Bechtel was no surprise as DASW was already familiar with what it had attempted to do in Bolivia. Such an emphasis further opens the door towards the delicate task of persuading people to open their minds to considering whether the needs of people would be better satisfied by a society structured along lines very different than the US. In the meantime, a targeted boycott of US corporations that profit from the war in Iraq, with an emphasis upon ones dependent upon retail consumers, might be a good idea.