Friday, February 02, 2007

On Marching and Politics

I haven't posted about politics as much as I expected to when I started this blog. This is because, in part, when I think of something to write about, all too often I imagine far-ranging, link-heavy, essay-length productions, and I've rarely had the time to devote to bringing something like that together. And frankly, there's much to write about, and others do an excellent job as it is, so that it often doesn't seem crucial that I add my own voice to the din.

For what it's worth, we did indeed attend the anti-war rally/march last Saturday. There were a lot of people there, though nothing like the 500,000 organizers were hoping for. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day and rather warm, given these finally semi-frosty mid-winter days. Like most such events, there's a certain element of boredom, standing around, waiting for the things to start. The speeches we heard were unremarkable. Among others, we heard Susan Sarandon, Medea Benjamin, Jesse Jackson (whose ability to string together cliches in barely intelligible sing-song fashion remains unmatched), and Jane Fonda (who was actually mildly interesting, as she addressed her reluctance to speak at such Iraq War-related events because of all the crap that's been said about her since Vietnam; she also noted how much longer it took veterans to come out against Vietnam, as opposed to Iraq).

I have some ambivalence about marches. Any given march, of course, doesn't do anything, if by do we mean, you know, "stop the war". But I still feel like I ought to go to them, and to more of them than I do. It's not like it's hard, especially when the event is in DC--I live in Baltimore, after all. My wife, Aimée, has a long history of going to these sorts of events, and loves to shout and sing the songs and get into it. I, generally, do not. I'm not much of a shouter of slogans, and I tend to, alas, treat them cynically. At least that's my default position. We went down on one of several school buses rented for the occasion by the Baltimore Nonviolence Center. We found ourselves on the bus with an old activist, dressed as Santa Claus, trying to teach the bus several songs he'd written to the tune of Christmas carols. My groan-ometer went off, and I got reflexively irritated when he propped his ass right in front of my face as he tried to lead the singing. But I want to get more involved, even if I think certain protest practices are ossified relics of an earlier time.

At Long Sunday, Jodi Dean asked "What's the use of marching.... again?" She's marched in the past, and was set to march this time, but her bus was cancelled. Still, she wants to know what good it does. I think we all ask this question, if we're not simply dismissing them out of hand. She says:
Some want to say that peace marches helped end the war in Viet Nam. Better analyses emphasize that it took congressional balls, the willingness to stop funding the war. "Ending" segregation (or at least legal segregation for a short time) also had more to do with the Supreme Court and with Johnson's push for the Voting Rights Acts--not demonstrations.
I'm not sure what these "better analyses" are. I haven't looked into it closely, but this paragraph seems to dismiss the role of the public--in the form of demonstrations and other activities--in creating the environment in which "congressional balls" and "Johnson's push" might have been politically more likely. That said, there is a sense in which marching seems especially impotent. Millions marched against the start of the War against Iraq, and the war still happened, didn't it?

Jodi goes on:
Some will emphasize the good it does for the protesters--really, it's about them, their feel good moments, their ability to see themselves as part of the solution, their connecting with others, face to face. I admit, this isn't nothing. This is something; something that matters. But, weirdly, it requires the conceit that this be denied, that the actual purpose be something else. So, the most valuable aspect of the march is not what can be openly stated as its most valuable aspect.
In many ways, this is the purpose of these events: to get people together who share a common cause. There is some joy in this, in recognizing that one is not isolated in one's opposition. Some take issue with this, as blandly and clearly articulated through Henry Perowne, the main character of Ian McEwan's "neoliberal polemic" of a novel, Saturday:
All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think – and they could be right – that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view.
Aside from the stupidity it takes to think that the binary posed here is what was at stake, McEwan (given his personal statements about the war, I'm going to go right ahead and ascribe this view to the him) is simply unable to recognize that, though the cause be difficult and the enemy horrific, there truly is joy to be had in working together, in collective action. Anyway, he clucks his disapproval. This same point about marching is made well in Foreign Policy in Focus, in a piece on "The Point of Protest" (link via the comments the Long Sunday thread):
We know from the poll numbers and the voting patterns that the U.S. public is against the Iraq War. But to stand on the Mall and see the great mass of people in all its kaleidoscopic diversity—anarchists, grandmothers, active-duty military, veterans, students, religious groups—is to feel an authentic surge (for peace). The protesters walked around the Capitol to remind Congress that we have their backs. If in their weakness they slip backward, if their newfound resolve to end the war falters, we will help them find their balance again.

FPIF's youth and activism editor Saif Rahman received a lot of responses to his article on why to march against the war. A minority argued that demonstrations are pointless because they haven't changed U.S. policy. The truth is, it's never easy to change a state's foreign policy. Ending the Vietnam War took a decade. Preventing the U.S. government from entering a full-scale war in Central America took up virtually all of the 1980s. The battle of Seattle is still ongoing. Shouting in the streets is only one tactic alongside whispering into the ears of legislators, organizing in various communities, developing a media strategy, and so on.

So marching and demonstrations and the like are merely parts of a strategy of action, and the gathering of people in and of itself can be a joyous and empowering activity.

At the end of Jodi's post, she writes "this may be the worst part of all: the protesters confirm the fiction of democracy, the fiction of a responsive political system, when we know full well that this is lacking." I think there is some truth to this, certainly among the speakers at such events, and among liberals in the crowd. I harbor no such illusions, but still find the events worth attending and participating in.

I mentioned some of the speakers last week. Not appearing were any of the Congressional Democratic leadership. This is because Democrats have not as yet followed through on the apparent promise of the last election, are not calling for troops to be pulled out of Iraq on any kind of useful timetable, have taken "impeachment off the table", are utterly Zionist in perspective on Israel, and generally agree with the prevailing Bush line on Iran--that it is a threat, that it can't be trusted, that the United States has the right to tell it what to do. There hasn't been more movement from the Democrats on Iraq, because they're not just "in a rough spot" because they happened to have voted for the war, due to so-called intelligence failures. They are directly implicated in the imperial project and always have been. They just disagree with how the current war's been conducted.

I could write at length about this, and maybe I will, but this particular post has already gone on long enough. I do want to refer you to some excellent posts by Arthur Silber, over at his blog Once Upon a Time. Silber and his blog are new to me (I just came across it via this post at This Modern World), though it appears that he's fairly widely known in blogland. Everything I've read of his so far has been just fantastic. His recent, not yet finished, series called “Dominion Over the World” can found here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V. Part I addresses the point I made above, how Iraq is "the Democrats' War, too". In Part IV, he discusses "corporatism"--the entanglement of big business with government, and the subsequent creation of policy. In the course of reading that post in particular, I was reminded of Gabriel Kolko's book, The Triumph of Conservatism, in which the Progressive Era is revealed to be nothing of the kind (I hate when liberals in their ignorance approvingly mention Teddy Roosevelt and trust-busting), and then he actually refers to Kolko's book! I was already impressed, but this definitely caught my attention. Silber writes:
In its most critical respects, the Progressive movement (from 1900 up to World War I) was a nationalist movement, and that nationalism fed directly into overseas expansionism and militarism. These are not separate issues, but the same issue, as we shall explore. Moreover, contrary to many people's views (including many of today's liberals and progressives, who appear to be woefully ignorant of this period in our history, which allows them to bestow undeserved praise upon its achievements, that is, praise from the perspective of their own policy preferences), the Progressive movement in many ways culminated in the triumph of already-vested big business interests. It was, as Gabriel Kolko titled his pathbreaking book, The Triumph of Conservatism, not "progressivism."
Go read the whole series, as well as his year-old series on "walking into the Iran trap", catalogued here, and which concludes here, as far as I can tell. In the first post of that series, he writes about the unimportance of intelligence for the creation of policy--he doesn't argue that intelligence is unnecessary, but that it has nothing to do with the policy pursued:
It may indeed be comforting to think that decisions of war and peace are made on the basis of facts, cold, clear logic, and "secret information" (information that is accurate, I hasten to add) -- but history, including our most recent history, does not support that view. We might think that is the correct method that should be utilized in pondering the fates of many thousands of soldiers and innocent civilians -- and indeed, it is the right procedure, if leaders were amenable to being directed solely by facts and what is in their nations' best long-term interests. But if leaders were ultimately moved by such factors, World War I would not have witnessed years of endless slaughter, it would not have lasted as long as it did, and it might not have begun at all. And if our own political and military leaders focused on those factors that ought to serve as their lodestar to the exclusion of all else, we would not have had the nightmare of Vietnam then -- or the nightmare of Iraq now.

The opposition conclusion [. . .] is that "irrational motives" impel foreign policy decisions.
This is a major theme running through Kolko's work, especially his monumental study, Century of War (some passages of which I quoted here).

So far everything I've read of Silber's at Once Upon a Time as been well worth reading.

(Interestingly, I was doing some Googling, and I saw references to Silber as an Objectivist of some kind or Libertarian, and an earlier blog called Light of Reason--not, it would appear, to be confused with other blogs with the same name. I was confused, because few Libertarians I know of would discuss American "corporatism" in the manner in which he does. Some further research suggested to me that he might be loosely described as a "free market, anarchist, anti-interventionist, libertarian"--the part that confuses me there is definitely the "free market" modifier. I don't quite know what all that means, or if it's accurate, and I haven't yet read anything by him that isn't about American foreign policy in some way. I can say that what he does write about American foreign policy is comprehensive, systematic, and, minor quibbles aside, fucking right on.)

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