Monday, March 21, 2011

This week's episode: "Misc. Rally Reflections" or "MONEY FOR JOBS AND EDUCATION / NOT FOR WAR AND OCCUPATION!"

On Saturday morning my friend James and I sped down to Washington, DC to catch an anti-war demonstration at the White House. The aspiring shutterbug James wanted to take pictures, while I was just looking for an excuse to drive ten hours in one day. Not that I'm unsympathetic to the cause -- but there's no surer way to end up a pessimist than to have been an idealist in youth.

The demo was held in Lafayette Square, just across the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 200-300 people showed up by my reckoning, though I should not be relied on in any matter concerning numbers. This approximation takes both groups into account, since there were two demonstrations occurring simultaneously. One was the anti-war rally that James and I came for, while the other was a "DOWN WITH QADDAFI" gathering occupying a stage toward the other end of the park. Standing between the two and opening both ears, you could hear and appreciate why the traditionally Democratic constituencies have such trouble getting their shit together long enough to effectively concentrate on a single target. While the anti-war group chanted "LIBYA IS THE NEW IRAQ / PEOPLE UNITE, STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!" the Libyan crowd was shouting "FREE, FREE, LEEB-YAH!" To the south, a potbellied kid with a beard lambasted America and its imperialist intentions masquerading as humanitarianism, and breathlessly listed every conceivable parallel between 2003 Iraq and 2011 Libya (including the ones that didn't make sense when you thought about them). To the north, a professional-looking middle aged woman speaking into microphone thanked and praised Sarkozy for having the stones to spearhead the military operation against the insane dictator massacring his own people to cheers and flourishes of the Libyan and French flags.
Despite the dissimilarities between the crowds and the dissonance in their messages, one could infer an awful lot about the demonstrators and the broader situation by looking back and forth between them.

Let's start with the anti-war faction. The heavy majority of the demonstrators could be sorted into one of two generational brackets: the 18 to 29-year-old college kids, graduate students, or career activists/couch-sleepers, and the 45 to 60-year-olds upon whom the Vietnam years had stamped an indelible brand. Most of them were white.

The most intense and dedicated demonstrators formed a cluster in front of the police barricade on the sidewalk, leading hoarse chants over bullhorns and delivering extemporaneous addresses about the military industrial complex and how American pretenses of altruism are never to be trusted. In this pocket were six or so ringleaders and their two-dozen followers; they contributed about 90% of the event's noise and enthusiasm. But once you went outside the activist nucleus, you saw a rapid decline in the crowd's density and energy. Demonstrators stood around like they had come to watch a show in the park. The organizers chanted slogans on and off for hours, but there were rarely more than 15-30 voices joining in. People let their "FREE BRADLEY MANNING!" and "STOP OCCUPATIONS AND TORTURE FOR EMPIRE!" signs falls onto the grass and didn't bother picking them up. Every now and then, some of the ballsier protesters (mostly middle-aged folks) who had parked themselves by the White House fence got put in handcuffs by the police and ushered into a police van or public transit bus. Some of the demonstrators closest to the police barricade cheered them as they passed. Most of us just watched.

Before long it occurred to me that James and I weren't the only people who had come to check out the scene and take some snapshots. Looking through the crowd, it seemed that most of the people beyond the primary noisemakers and activists hadn't come here for a strenuous exercise of their First Amendment right: they were to watch, just like us.

Kneejerk observation: holy shit -- this is exactly the problem. We are a generation of observers. OH MY GOD I'M DOING IT EVEN NOW

That might be the most easiest answer to produce and accept. But I am not totally sure if it is the most accurate.

Let's consider this. We have a demonstration organized for the purpose of making a twofold statement: 

A.) We need to end America's foreign wars and 

B.) redirect the billions we spend on military occupations toward repairing our busted economy, educational system, infrastructure, etc.

Next: who are the beneficiaries of this event? Which branches of the population theoretically stand the most to gain from what this group proposes? 

1.) The battered working class and crumbling middle class, who could use a little help in the form of government initiatives, which we can't afford. Our national finances arrived at this sorry state from a slew of causes, but spending billions upon billions to maintain two military occupations for nearly a decade is one of the main culprits. 

2.) The servicemen and veterans of the United States armed forces. Since this is a volunteer army, we can safely presume that most of these folks come from families belonging to the first category.
But there were relatively few anti-war demonstrators that fit either profile. Several veterans (of various ages and wars) attended the rally, and a few working-class slobs (such as James and myself) showed up. But the anti-war, anti-imperialist, pro-Wikileaks crowd overwhelmingly consisted of white college students and middle-aged folks who clearly had families and jobs. Should we try to guess why this might be? 

Guess #1: It is hard to spur oneself into a righteous frenzy over the indirect and abstract. The Tea Partiers can channel their outrage toward liberalism, multiculturalism, intellectualism, gun control, etc. toward Barack Obama. Osama Bin Laden's goat-face became the symbolic purpose for American's initial invasion of Afghanistan. But the military industrial complex and disaster capitalism are not sentient entities that can be recognizably depicted on homemade placards, nor are they ideas we can easily tether to a familiar figure. There are a hundred thousand reasons why these things are hurting America, but the human mind has a harder time recognizing and responding to threats it can't attribute to a singular, physical source. A particular ideology can indirectly kill hundreds of thousands more people than a tiger might maul by itself, but evolution has made us a whole lot better at responding to the tiger. Side B of this guess is that students likely have more time, inclination, and energy to express their outrage toward concepts and descriptions than the rest of the general populace. 

Guess #2: The people most harmed by the war economy (not to mention the Right's all but declared siege on the lower and middle classes) probably don't have the time or money to spend hauling themselves to DC to spend their Saturday afternoon chanting slogans toward Barack Obama's empty, unresponsive windows. They've got shit to do. Second jobs to work. Bills to pay. Families to feed. Want ads to search. Ironically, the people most affected by the subject of the protest are also those with the least ability to participate. 

Guess #3: It is very easy to become desensitized to war when it's been in the news nonstop for the last decade, especially when nobody you know personally has been affected by it. This is the huge difference between the most recent American wars and Vietnam. When you have an all-volunteer military, most of its members will be coming from the lower-income, less-educated brackets of the populace. (Let's be honest here -- you don't see many NYU sophomores deciding to put their Art History degrees on hold to serve their country's interests in Afghanistan for the sake of patriotism.) The people suffering most from the war are largely members of an isolated economic class. During Vietnam, everyone was fair game. If it were the sons, brothers, and husbands of the bankers, board members, doctors, and lawyers getting conscripted at random to have their limbs blown off in the Middle East, you can bet your ass the post-2003 anti-war movement would have more traction. Look at the clique of yuppie tourists walking down the sidewalk, bemusedly snickering at the scene and whipping out their cell phone cameras. If one of their boyfriends or buddies had his number called last year and his guts pumped full of shrapnel last month, I doubt they'd approach a war protest with a "hey check out these freaks" attitude.

But let's look at the Libyan demonstrators for a moment. Most of them seemed to be Libyan immigrants or first-generation Americans. Though its numbers were fewer than the anti-war group, its members exhibited a far more conviction and solidarity. They clustered tightly together, participated in every chant, listened raptly to every speaker while they cheered and raised their Libyan flags. Entire families had come out for this -- husbands, wives, children. While their parents participated in singing (what I presume was) the Libyan national anthem, their kids played soccer off to the side.

Why such a difference? Three more guesses... 

Guess #1: Their countrymen -- friends, neighbors, relatives -- are actively being slaughtered. The situation isn't matter of people being indirectly harmed as the result of government policy; it's a matter of people being directly blown the fuck up as the result of government policy. 

Guess #2: Qaddafi. Unlike the anti-war crowd, the Libyans demonstrators had a singular, assailable human being at which they could direct their anger and blame. 

Guess #3: Their problem has (or had) a seemingly viable, realistic solution: U.S. military intervention in Libya. The anti-war demonstrators wanted nothing less than a total overhaul of America's economic and foreign policy -- something that is easy to demand, but not so easy to do. Not only was the Libyan crowd addressing a problem with a much clearer solution, the solution was already likely to happen. People are more willing to focus their time and energy toward reasonably feasible purposes than pipe dreams.

But that last guess brings us to the most curious and noticeable thing about the idealists and young liberals representing the anti-war crowd. It seems like they're waiting for something -- for a solution or a savior. All of them believe that America is in need of seismic social and political changes -- a sentiment certainly shared by far, far many more people than just the kids distributing socialist literature and protest flyers. The people James and I talked to all talked about revolutions. They want a revolution to happen, but nobody's sure how to strike the match as a certain Tunisian youth did last December (both figuratively and literally).

Or maybe they're just not willing to do it. They aren't desperate enough. Revolution is a risky venture -- the only ones who can afford it are either those with too little to lose or too much to worry.
Uncertainty. Unwillingness. One's as good as the other, really. If you were to ask Count Tolstoy (hey remember that guy?), he would say that it's not so much a matter of desire or will: it will only happen when the circumstances become such that nothing else is possible.

Coincidentally, as I thought about all this on Sunday morning and sat down to read the next chapter of The Doll, I turned the page and had this statement leap out at me: 

For human nature is odd: the less we tend to martyrdom ourselves, the more we require it of our neighbours. 

But I do go on in my old age.

What say we cap the verbiage and I show you some souvenirs? First, a few of the snapshots James took. (He has a Shutterfly page you can visit; several friends and well-wishers are trying to convince him to switch to Flickr instead.) Click to enlarge!
And now for a sampling of the literature we collected! Again, click to enlarge.

Tune in next week for a discussion about the magical properties of skunk cabbage!


  1. "the magical properties of skunk cabbage" ...has to mean either 1) its snow melting abilities or 2) that the stuff *still* stinks horribly as it rots over the winter. Running past where some grows at the park I'm always hit by a subtle, but noticeable, invisible sulfurous wall.

    I had actually heard about the anti-war rally and wanted to go, but was unable (gas and toll costs mostly). Its nice to see there's at least some on the Left who have stuck to principle despite "their guy" being in the Oval Office.

    It's also why I'll have nothing to do with the Tea Party despite a decent chunk of it wanting to end the empire and constant foreign interventions and rein in federal spending at home. Things I'd like to see happen. But these are largely the same idiots who were all about "homeland security", murdering the hell out of brown people, and pissing away trillions of dollars in corporate bailouts when a Republican was doing it. But a black guy who doesn't have an "(R)" in front of his name do the exact same things? Why he's clearly channelling Adolph Hitler if not the Anti-Christ (or whatever nonsense). Sorry, but eight years of being called a traitor by those morons won't have me taking them back anytime soon or viewing them as anything other than useful idiots.

    For the anti-war movement to actually be anything resembling a movement I think we're going to need to see a broad coalition of the principled groups within Left, Right, Center, and wherever else they're hiding. Ending the insane, evil, bankrupting foreign policies that have been going on for decades is something a lot of people can agree on. We can all argue our heads off about whether the federal government should be subsidizing sugar cane growers or dental insurance for poor people later when the bombs have stopped dropping.

  2. Man, in the old days when you started a war you kept the territory afterwards.

  3. Paul: YOU RUINED THE SURPRISE. I'll respond to the rest of your comment after the tears stop.

    Spriteless: I remember hearing that some of the first American troops arriving in Baghdad in 2003 hoisted the American flag -- then VERY QUICKLY pulled it down and replaced it with the Iraqi flag.

  4. Paul:

    Sorry, but eight years of being called a traitor by those morons won't have me taking them back anytime soon or viewing them as anything other than useful idiots.

    I think "useful" is giving them too much credit.

    For the anti-war movement to actually be anything resembling a movement I think we're going to need to see a broad coalition of the principled groups within Left, Right, Center, and wherever else they're hiding. Ending the insane, evil, bankrupting foreign policies that have been going on for decades is something a lot of people can agree on. We can all argue our heads off about whether the federal government should be subsidizing sugar cane growers or dental insurance for poor people later when the bombs have stopped dropping.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, it's too often the case that a person's integrity is inversely proportionate to their political influence.

    Again, I think the element that you describe -- the principled, intelligent, far-sighted folks -- need someone to incite, unify, and/or lead them. Someone has to step up. They're too disorganized and disparate otherwise.