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Building on the antiwar majority

October 19, 2007 | Page 2

HOW CAN they still be getting away with it?

That question comes to mind constantly these days--every time we hear about a new poll showing a vast majority against the Iraq war, and then see a news report about the latest retreat by Democrats from any challenge to the Bush White House.

After showing signs when they first took control of Congress that they would stand up to the administration, the Democrats are back in surrender mode on any issue related to the "war on terror."

Instead, party leaders are already battening down the hatches against anything that might rock the boat for the 2008 elections--and essentially telling supporters not to expect much for the next year and a half.

"We have to make responsible decisions in the Congress that are not driven by the dissatisfaction of anybody who wants the war to end tomorrow," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sniffed to one reporter.

Pelosi's contemptuous comment was one of several not-so-veiled warnings recently from Democratic leaders that the party's base needs to lower its expectations. But equally frustrating to activists is the willingness of liberal leaders to do just that.

For example, the strategy of the national antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) of allying with a "peace bloc in Congress" has failed to deliver any progress in stopping the war. But rather than reevaluate, UFPJ retreated from calling a fall national demonstration in Washington to pressure Congress to act. Instead, it is repeating a plan for regional mobilizations--with one motivation for attending from two leading members highlighting the "physical and mental health" benefits of protesting.

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NO WONDER many antiwar activists worry that the movement is at an impasse. There is a huge antiwar majority in the U.S., but it has no expression in mainstream politics--and the liberal leaders of the movement appear to have acquiesced to the situation.

This frustration has given rise to a sense among some that the "same old protests" won't have any effect--and therefore small groups of determined activists need to do something to shake up the seeming passivity about the war, within the movement in particular and in the public generally.

The argument is that anyone who really cares about stopping the war needs to "put their bodies on the line"--and carry out actions, typically civil disobedience, that demand attention and can't be ignored.

But this is wrong. The actions of a small group, however well intentioned, can be dismissed if they aren't connected to a growing and confident movement. Without a way to motivate wider layers of people to get involved, such protests wear out those who participate in them, without really taking the struggle forward.

In the worst cases, the whole movement can be discredited by the foolish actions of a few individuals. This was the case with the stunt carried out by antiwar activists at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. last week.

With right-winger David Horowitz's anti-Muslim "Islamofascism Awareness Week" crusade coming to campus at the end of the month, the activists plastered the campus with a fake racist leaflet--headlined "Hate Muslims? So do we!!!"--attributed to the right-wing student group sponsoring Horowitz's tour.

The leaflets, of course, caused an uproar, and stoked fear and anger among Muslim students. Right-wingers took the lead in denouncing the racist leaflets, with the full support of Muslim student groups.

When the activists finally owned up to posting the leaflets, they made matters worse by complaining that everyone had missed their satirical point. Their "apology" amounted to saying they were sorry for everyone else who was too stupid to get the joke.

There was nothing at all funny about the leaflets--or politically educational, even for those who realized the authors weren't serious. On the contrary, the posters fed, rather than challenged, a climate of more and more openly expressed bigotry toward Muslims.

And the vile David Horowitz came out smelling like a rose. He played the victim, justly claiming that the left was attacking him for things he never said--when it would have been easy to expose him as a bigot by quoting the actual statements he and allies like Ann Coulter have made. Meanwhile, though the activists claimed they were acting as individuals, their actions tarnished the reputation of the groups they belong to, the Campus Antiwar Network and Iraq Veterans Against the War.

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THE VAST majority of antiwar activists, no matter how frustrated, wouldn't stoop to such an ignorant and insulting stunt.

But the sense among opponents of the war that "bolder" or "more imaginative" tactics are needed to overcome the problems of the movement needs to be discussed.

At one level, there is a correct impulse involved--recognition that antiwar opinion hasn't been matched by antiwar action, and that something more than demonstrations, no matter how large, will be needed to stop the war.

But the problem comes when activists--either in the hopes of "waking up" a passive public, or as a gesture of despair that nothing can be done--substitute their personal willingness to act for a strategy that can connect with and mobilize wider forces.

The movement against the Vietnam War went through the same developments, especially at moments when antiwar activity hit a lull and future prospects seemed uncertain.

For example, on the eve of the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, the national office of Students for a Democratic Society issued a statement declaring, "We feel that these large demonstrations--which are just public expressions of belief--can have no significant effect on American policy in Vietnam. Further, they delude many participants into thinking that the 'democratic' process in America functions in a meaningful way."

Various factions of the 1960s movement made a principle of this attitude, concluding that only more extreme actions by the individuals most dedicated to the cause could make a difference. Both the pranksterism of Jerry Rubin's Yippies and the terrorist bombings of the Weather Underground were justified on these grounds.

What these seemingly different groups shared was a thorough lack of confidence that large numbers of ordinary people would ever make anything more than a symbolic stand against the war. "If you're convinced that the mass is hopeless, you hardly need to worry about raising mass consciousness," socialist Kit Lyons wrote at the time in a critique of what he called "anarcho-cynicism."

In the end, the activists who descended into adventurism weren't any more effective in stopping the war. On the contrary, their worst mistakes became the pretext for the authorities to crack heads and smear the movement as a whole.

Meanwhile, they marginalized themselves just as opposition to the Vietnam War at long last became the majority sentiment by the 1970s. The growing radicalization of U.S. society as a whole made it possible to shift the center of the struggle off college campuses and into workplaces and communities, but the former leaders of the movement had moved on.

Today's antiwar struggle is less developed than the movement of the late 1960s, but there are lessons to draw.

The conclusion that new tactics and more militant action--including forms of protest that don't stay within the bounds of legal restrictions imposed on demonstrations--will be needed to stop the war is correct. The question, though, is the character of that action.

The first question to ask about any proposal is whether it helps the movement to reach out to greater numbers of people who oppose the war, but are not yet active, and give them confidence to get involved in the struggle--or if it isolates existing groups of already committed activists.

Such a focus on building outward from the grassroots--on campuses, in neighborhoods, on army bases and in workplaces--is the key to strengthening a movement that can force an end to the U.S. war on Iraq and beyond.

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