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Anti-War America
Todd Gitlin
August 30, 2005
Todd Gitlin (toddgitlin.net) contributes regularly to TPMcafe.com and is the author of The Intellectuals and the Flag, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

There come moments in the course of all movements when they go mainstream, despite the best efforts of their enemies to demonize them and of their most radical elements to purify them. Such a moment has probably arrived in the case of the current anti-war effort. But pitfalls also loom.
You cannot trade on certainties in such elusive matters, because events intrude. But a probable turning point arrived the evening of Wednesday, August 17, when (according to Moveon.org) some hundreds of thousands around the country turned out for more than 1,600 candlelight vigils to express solidarity with Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey outside Crawford, Texas. In White Plains, N.Y., the more than 100 who gathered included, I was told by a correspondent, "loads of soccer moms, Little League dads and plenty of their kids." In Indianapolis, 400 turned out. A few days later, it was 2,000 in Salt Lake City, addressed by the Democratic mayor . Elizabeth Edwards wrote a piece supporting the vigils, though not necessarily total withdrawal. Most Democrats continue to duck anti-war demonstrations, though ex-Senator Gary Hart has urged them to come out of hiding. But the growing anti-war base is unlikely to let them rest easy in silence.

This is, by and large, not a movement of "extremists," as casually charged (August 22) by MSNBC's White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell in an interview with former FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley, now a Democratic candidate for a House seat in Minnesota. Rowley had paid a visit to Sheehan's "Camp Casey" in Crawford, and told O'Donnell: "The majority of the people I saw down in Crawford were actually veterans groups. There were military families andó" At that point, O'Donnell cut her off.

It won't be the last time a journalist cuts off a mainstream war protester in mid-description. The heat is rising. As the American Legion condemned all public anti-war protests, an AP-Ipsos poll said 87 percent of Americans thought protests legitimate. But the White House and its surrogates will surely continue tarring Sheehan and her supporters and anyone else they can find with the gaudiest brushes they can find. And some on the left's margins will step forward to play their assigned role.

The historical analogy game is as irresistible as it is tricky, so here goes. The Sheehan vigils are reminiscent of a moment in the fall of 1969 when the anti-Vietnam-war Moratorium organized thousands of events across the country. There were big demonstrations in the usual locations, but the striking thing was the turnout in small and medium locales and places not noted for hippies or cosmopolitanism. Then too, the media caught on to the scale and diversity of the turnout. The demonstrations were in synch with public opinion. Around that time, according to Gallup, 49 percent supported some troop withdrawal, and 78 percent wanted it faster than Nixon's pace.
Now too, as with Vietnam, the public has long since concluded that the Iraq war was a blunder in the first place. Moreover, now the hawkish side of the spectrum is much weaker than the withdrawal side. But this doesn't mean the public knows what it wants done. In polls, a lot depends on the question asked, and the results, though not splendid for Bush, are not automatically running toward withdrawal. According to last week's AP-Ipsos poll, 60 percent say "American troops should remain until Iraq is stable," as against 37 percent who preferred immediate withdrawal. (Foolishly, Ipsos offered only these two choices.) Early in August, Gallup found 56 percent for either total or partial withdrawal (as against maintenance or increase), with the largest single bloc, 33 percent, going for total withdrawal.

Here's the rub about 1969: As the war became less popular, so did the anti-war movement. It was hated, in factóby the end of the decade, the most hated entity in America. In the 1969 Gallup poll I just cited, as Harold Meyerson reminded his Washington Post readers in June, "77 percent disapproved of the antiwar demonstrations, which were then at their height." To what degree this was because the movement was reputed to be against the troops, to what degree because of confrontational revelries and symbolic anti-Americanism on the left, to what degree because of psychic projection, who can tell? But all this was a gift to Nixon, and it has been the gift to the right that keeps on giving.

Perhaps mindful of this inauspicious history, one unnamed correspondent during a recent Washington Post chat wrote the following:

The anti-war movement really has to learn about behavior. The candlelight vigil thing was great. That's the sort of action that makes sense, actually makes for good PR, and draws in the mainstream... .But sadly, too much of this has been run by the 'Giant Puppet,' 'Bongo circles for peace,' and 'Street Theatre' crowd. For example, the upcoming 'United for Peace and Justice' rally is going to protest the war, the World Bank, Israel, and demand unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. All accompanied by Trustafarians with bongos and Giant Puppets.

When the mainstream sees that idiocy, they start considering that the pro-war side may have a point. I opposed this joke in Iraq from day one, and I find these folks silly and counterproductive. The anti-war movement needs more adults in charge, not folks trying to pretend it's 1968 all over again, without all the drugs.

The September 24 Washington rally referred to above is co-sponsored by International ANSWER, which along with "Stop the War in Iraq" offers these slogans: "Support the Palestinian People's Right of Return," "U.S. out of the Philippines," and "U.S. out of Puerto Rico." (Somehow help for Darfur is missing. That must not be anti-imperialist enough.)

Cindy Sheehan has already been Swift-Boated, and there's probably more coming. With their poll numbers sinking, Bush and Karl Rove need reinforcements. They'll go down and dirty, as usual. Those who rightly want to dissent from the whole awful Bush war will have to decide, once again, how to do so in such a way as to increase their leverage and avoid getting painted into a corner.

homepage: homepage: http://www.tompaine.com/articles/20050830/antiwar_america.php

lseo 30.Aug.2005 14:51


An insulting editorial for all the people who have been out on the streets protesting the war for the past few years. Yeah right, they are all trustafarian bongo players. Maybe the author should be praising them being on the streets while the 'adults' are all busy making more money and moving up the social ladder!

To refrain from taking a clear stand against U.S. imperialism in order to appeal to the 'mainstream' is to insure defeat. Such strategy plays into the hands of the elite.

uhhh 30.Aug.2005 15:05


I do agree however, that people should leave their own message behind sometimes and focus on one thing. Having a thousand signs of all sorts of issues loses the power of a clear focus

Unless 30.Aug.2005 17:11


The focus we lack is a common understanding of how our "issues" are really one issue. The focus we lack is on the fundamental shift in power. The focus we lack is a common focus on revolution.
The system of government we have is a federalized, centralized system, that robs communities of power, and brutalizes us when we get "too" active about it.
The predominate number of democrats and republicans support it. Because we haven't built and and fought for something else. Begging the government to change isn't enough. A system that allows the publics resources to be used up by corperations without regard to our common good, is evil. Corperations use the wealth they've co-erced from us to pit us against eachother. Corperations like Enron/PGE that stole power from the communities grid, cycled it through it's network so it could jack up prices, then told the community of Klamath Oregon that the community of Portland Oregon was an enemy to thier way of life,
that ENRON/PGE didn't have enough power for our city, the salmon, and the farmers of Klamath, that we were bent on supporting "salmon over farmers."
Regardless of the fact that ENRON/PGE had been stealing everyones power to pad it's banrolls. The state government chose to co-operate with this fucked up "debate" cause doing justice to corperate persons is harder than scapegoat politics.

Passivists are trying to ride this womans story into some semblance of a cohesive movement. Todd Gitlin is a government intellectual trying to define anyone that isn't a white middleclass passivist soccermom as an "extremist."
A movement based on one tactic, one approach to the very real problems of our time is a movement that goes nowhere. If people are only violent then no one will see peace as an option. If the movement is only peacefull then there is no politicly "politicly correct" to defend our communities from state violence. Physicly dismantiling and destroying or otherwise obstructing the tools of violence against communities and the earth then becomes defined as extremist.
Resisting attacks on your home or village, makes you a terrorist.

This is a scermish in the front of ideas. The question is will we go back to a time when the likes of PPRC dominated the political landscapes of our community and worked with cops to undermine or neutralize anyone that so much as walked through a red light in protest? I've been harrased and intimidated by "peace police" with thier video cameras looking for footage of "criminal" protest action they can sell or give to the police. I know others that have experienced this same sort of intimidation.

The question is will "mainstream" activists allow the broader movement to be defined by respecting the dialogue and terms of a racist, imperialist government that doesn't respect our BROADER STRUGGLE. A struggle that includes not only civil disobediance but people that fought or died for thier community, and social justice. Peaple like john brown, people like Fred Hampton, people like the weathermen, and people like the buddist monks that set them self aflame in protest of the napalming of vietnamise villagers. The "peace" movement has given so much ground in accepting the terms of this racist nation that it has begun to revise it's own past. I've heard the rediculious notion that the peace movement ended the vietnam war, singlehandedly. Or that was the driving force behind the wars end. As if the life and death efforts of vientamise villagers didn't have a damn thing to do with it. As if the efforts of militant activists in America didn't have a thing to do with it. As far as I'm concerned the governments efforts to revise history are wrong. Co-operating with those efforts is wrong. The peace movement has gotten so brainwashed by "leaders" like Todd Gitlin that it doesn't even recognize the power it once had. The power to dis-obey, not co-operate, and clog the gears of the racist system. Hell I've heard passivists describe tactics employed by the sixties "mainstream" peace movement as "violent."

Sounds like PROPOGANDA to me. The question is, whose is it?

Katuu 30.Aug.2005 19:00


Whose is it? It is the propaganda of the status quo.

If you want change, you will drop that crap, if you want a fairly safe way to keep a feeling of moral superiority, you will cling to it.

If we are going to change this corrupt situation we are in, it will not be pretty, or peaceful, or nice. There are many calls for unity from various directions, but unity can only be around an approach that is grounded in a clear understanding. Unity around what are essentially establishment ideas is nothing other than capitulation.

light a candle 30.Aug.2005 19:39


and all carry the same sign. That makes it easier for them to ignore you. A single issue mob is easily handled but a group fed up with everything is more dangerous to them. A group of soccer moms scares nobody but a group of young energetic anarchists can bring a downtown to a stand still (Seattle). It doesn't matter who is in your crowd only that there is a crowd and they DO something other than light a freaking candle.

Whose schools 30.Aug.2005 20:29


Whose schools, whose mass-market paperbacks, whose video fantasies, taught you to value your rights and privileges, to value your little ego strokes, to value your moral superiority, above getting your message across?

the anti-war movement offends hawks 31.Aug.2005 04:32

and reminds doves of their own powerlessness

> The historical analogy game is as irresistible as it is tricky, so here goes. The Sheehan
> vigils are reminiscent of a moment in the fall of 1969 when the anti-Vietnam-war Moratorium
> organized thousands of events across the country.

Great. We'll only be in Iraq for six more years.

and yet... 31.Aug.2005 23:48


despite all of gitlin's insinuations of how harmful the presence of anything non-mainstream is, a withdrawal from vietnam _was_ forced. as well as vastly increased civil rights for blacks, the birth of the modern environmental movement, and moves towards greater economic equality.

since then, the left has basically been doing what gitlin wants: being nice and focusing on making our enemies love us.

since then, the gains made in the sixties have all been chipped away. all of them. young people are being sent once more to die for a war of imperialism based on a pack of lies. civil rights laws are getting undermined. the welfare state has been dismantled. environmental laws are being gutted.

my, outbreaks of radical sentiment are just _so_ damaging to the progressive cause!

as to why the mainstream liberals say they don't support movements dominated by radicals, simple. liberals aren't radicals. different ideology, different premises, different goals.

catch is, liberals like gitlin get ignored unless there's radicals in the mix. liberalism's only effective way of selling itself to the elite is how its reforms undermine the rationale for revolution. saying "do it because it's nice" doen't cut it -- class society is about concentrating power, not dispersing it. dispersals only happen as sacrifices in the name of preserving some degree of concentration.

so gitlin's recommendation is a recipe for failure.

let the liberals make their own movement; myself, i'll participate in the one that's indispensable for success.