The New York Times and the Peace Movement

I’m a professor of communication, but I want to admit something: I hate talking or writing about the media. Also, I agree with what Jell-O Biafra said here on-campus at the Universoty of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a few weeks ago: that instead of deploring the sad state of the print and broadcast media, we should BE the media. But I’m breaking my usual rule. Today, I’ll talk about the media. I want to take a recent article from the New York Times and try to look at how the conventional wisdom about the current antiwar movement is wrong — about 97 percent wrong. The New York Times and its conventional wisdom exemplify the attempt to redefine and contain the antiwar movement in United States. I want to finish with some reasons why I think it is very important to resist that containment.

These have been very sad and somber weeks. Those of us in the antiwar movement knew that the war would probably happen, and in the past days our dire predictions about humanitarian catastrophes and civilian casualties are being confirmed. We also have had our fears about an intensified public climate of reaction and repression here at home reconfirmed. We worked very hard, and many, many people worked their fingers to the bone, so that this might not come to pass. It has come to pass, and it is bitter. We also know with bitterness that the moment is revolutionary — probably as big a change in our world as the explosion of the atom bomb in 1945. And it is increasingly feeling out of control. We feel, whether we are activists or not, that our children’s future will be — I was going to say unrecognizable — but perhaps I mean recognizable to us in some very unpleasant ways, familiar from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s as well as unfolding new horrors. So it is hard to be optimistic, but I want to offer grounds for optimism and bravery and moving forward.

One thing is clear in all the swirl of war news around us: A very small group of unelected man and women are making new rules for the world. These rules state that the United States will use force and coercion and bribery to get its way. It will make every effort to suspend our legal and constitutional rights here at home, beginning with attacks on the most vulnerable, to help make sure that it encounters only minimal resistance to what can only be seen as a gigantically risky global gamble. It’s a very frightening moment, because the Bush administration is willing to risk millions of human lives, the world economy, the health of the environment and peaceful future on some very shaky propositions. Obviously, they think if they win this roll of the dice there’s a great deal to be gained in terms of global dominance. I’ve been thinking for while that their strategic plan can be summed up as “this just might work, so let’s roll ’em!”

It’s in this context that we need to remember that the antiwar movement has done something, and become something, remarkable. It has held that the tumbling dice. It’s an international movement that has made it impossible for many otherwise supportive governments to join the coalition of the “bribed and the bullied.” It brought much of the world to a halt on the day the bombing began, in huge demonstrations, strikes, school walkouts and civil disobedience. It’s also time to recognize that the Bush administration has a great deal at stake in containing and isolating the domestic influence the antiwar movement.

So let’s take a look at the New York Times article. There it was, on Saturday March 29, below the fold on the first page of section B., it was titled “Antiwar Movement morphs from Wild -Eyed To Civil” by Kate Zernike and Dean E. Murphy. This is not the worst article, not the best article but it was a major piece of reporting, and one of the few, by mainstream media that in general has frozen the antiwar movement out of serious coverage until recently.
Here are five major points.

A first piece of conventional wisdom: the antiwar movement failed, because it failed to stop the war.

Second point: the antiwar movement is relatively recent, mobilized, at its earliest, after Sept. 11, 2001. Therefore, it is wider than it is deep.

A third pillar of wisdom: anti-war movements are protest movements — and limited to protest only. In the politest formulations. Protest is an entitlement in a democracy, as long as it doesn’t threaten to change anything.

Fourth wisdom, encapsulated in the headline: the antiwar movement was wild-eyed, has been mainstreamed. — a threat to good manners has been contained, because a sensible antiwar movement will try not to offend anyone. In order to appeal to the majority, you must not offend anyone.

Fifth wisdom: the antiwar movement is now being run from the top, down (big sigh of relief), once again by responsible people. It’s made up of mostly white peaceniks, guided by large organizations with public relations consultants, and it only connects tangentially with other so-called “interest groups” like the religious, organized labor, and civil rights groups.

Now, I think it’s a great error to consider the movement thus far a failure. We have done something remarkable. We have built an international movement that has made it much harder than it might have been for the Bush administration to act militarily. We built a prewar, anti-war movement before the local and national media took very much notice at all. And this was in spite of insistent mass media celebration — on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, to name only television — that for fully six months made war seem inevitable. It is true that the attack on Iraq had been planned long before Sept. 11, 2001, but it was never inevitable. Popular pressure from below delayed and delayed the attack, forced more and more spin-doctoring and manufactured evidence, and brow -beating and arm-twisting. As a result, the shifting and specious arguments for the war became more and more implausible, and the war’s real, if mixed rationale became more naked. The international antiwar resistance and mobilizations gave voice to skepticism and sentiment that already existed, and it fanned those sentiments. It may very well have held back, and may still hold back, a further push into Iran.

The lack of cooperation from Turkey is an example. So are the resignations of labor MPs and cabinet ministers in Great Britain. The premier of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, told George W. Bush that this adventure was a very, very bad idea, and George W. Bush had to listen. There are many more examples, all of them unprecedented, and largely unrecognized by the official voices that we have almost always to listen to.

Second: that the antiwar movement emerged in the last year, or at most two. It is true that following September 11, 2001, peace activists and citizens began to meet to discuss what might happen, and then to think through what it war in Afghanistan might mean in terms of future U.S. policies, and the prospects for peace. Teach-ins, panels at universities, began immediately following September 11, and vigils as well. These were reinvigorated in the last year.

But there’s been a long continuity of activism to draw on in the last decade, again largely under the radar of the mainstream media. The networks of independent media and Internet activism that the antiwar movement draws on grew out of the anti-globalization movements that became visible in Seattle. But they also drew on the knowledge and activism of the Anti-Nafta campaigns of the early 1990s, the movement for redress for the veterans of the first Gulf War, the American victims of which may number as many as 100,000 sick men, the anti sweatshop movement, the living wage movement. These movements — and future historians will have to argue about the size and connections ­ have educated a generation of young people about the United States’ political and economic relationship to the world.. The last time this happened was with the Central American solidarity movement in the 1980s. And then there are the efforts of pacifists like Voices in the Wilderness — which have been part of a movement protesting the sanctions on Iraq for years. It’s notable in the New York Times recent coverage of piece demonstrations that the name of Voices in the Wilderness cannot be mentioned. It’s because they’re pacifist radicalism is deep and continuous. A base was there to draw on, and it usually spoke from deeply moral positions, rather than strategic or tactical positions..

Third -point — and really my most important point. Conventional wisdom would like the antiwar movement to be just protest, just disagreement, safely cordoned off. It’s not just protest as important as visible dissent is. One of the big successes of the antiwar movement is that it has been able to influence the media — in the face of unrelenting propaganda blitzes from the official sources, in the face of an enormous effort to make the war seem inevitable.

How has it done this? Certainly the Internet has been important — but without all the networks laid down, there would be nothing so powerfully informational to put on the Internet except for the same old stories. The Internet has absolutely been key, but so have the hundreds, maybe thousands of small groups meeting around the country to talk about the war and its meaning for the future of United States. Talking about it, sharing information about it, digesting the news, and especially digesting the news from foreign press which gives a much different perspective than the U.S. press. In that way antiwar groups have been the media.

But also by writing position papers, flyering, cracking open the editorial pages of the local conglomerate chain media — forcing the local paper to cover them at the same time that they are working hard to produce real local media — organizing and faithfully attending demonstrations — these local activists have made the antiwar position news.

They also worked hard to make the connections clear between the war and terrorism at home, with its repressive apparatus embodied in the USA Patriot act, and the assault on Iraq. Taking up the space both physical, with demonstrations, and informational with letter writing and editorial writing, the antiwar movement has become a movement for re-democratization of American society.

The fact that all over the country and here in Urbana we’ve been responded to by a corporate sponsored pro war campaign, orchestrated by radio station chains like clear channel and sponsored by Coca-Cola, , means that we really forced ourselves into the picture. This is serious business.

More wisdom from the New York Times: the movement has become mainstream. It has broken with International Answer and its sectarian original organizers (who were not the movement’s original organizers, let’s make the distinction, but were organizers of mass demonstrations). The problem according to the Times — and certainly the leaders of Win Without War — was that the antiwar movement connected the impending attack on Iraq with supposedly unrelated domestic issues like the death penalty, the case of Mumia Abu Jamal and racism, and other international crises, such as the war underway in Palestine. In other words, the smaller, more radical and less generously funded antiwar groups insisted on connecting state violence, government authoritarianism, and the Israeli war on the Palestinians, racism at home and abroad, with the assault on Iraq.

But more importantly, the rest of the world sees these issues as connected — they see the war on Iraq as a racist war, they continuously point out its connections to the United States support for Israel, they see the connection between barbaric practices at home, such as the death penalty, and barbaric histories abroad.

This is what the pro-war party means when it since the peace movement is “anti-American”: it means it is willing to consider the war in light of the broader picture of American relations abroad, many of which have been moral outrages. It is infuriating to many in the so-called mainstream that the heart of the antiwar movement of recognizes Arab rage over the nuclear arming of Israel and U.S. support for its policies toward Palestine. I think it is infuriating to the so-called political mainstream that American pacifists acknowledge and want to speak about about the Israeli peace movement, and fears among the Israeli people aroused by this war. In the past, these were words that could not be spoken, and thoughts that could not be thought. But should not the antiwar movement in United States continue to make these connections? Undoubtedly given its origins and the work it has already done, it will make them, and perhaps pay the cost of being “mainstream.”

Or perhaps the mainstream has moved just a little bit, just a little bit — and perhaps the antiwar movement has moved it. It is just possible that mobilization against this particular, latest war is causing cracks in the American consciousness of foreign policy. It’s very hard work, but some of the antiwar activists I know have simply refused to be intimidated by charges of anti-Semitism. That simple refusal, so hard, so painful, is so important. And so offensive.

Fifth point — that — big sigh of relief — it’s being run from the top-down by responsible people. They are using corporate style public relations techniques to keep everybody on message. The New York Times writes: “protest has become routine. It is no longer seen as an assault on the country’s values.” Groups like the Sierra Club now find they can take an antiwar position. Well, that’s a relief. Just a few months ago the Sierra Club was trying to expel local chapters for taking public antiwar positions. But this can happen because of the formulation linking antiwar sentiment to patriotism. Responsible people support the troops — they may be antiwar but they support the troops. Peace is patriotic. Carl Pope is patriotic

While the patriotism of pacifists has always been an argument, it really got wheeled out in the big demonstrations after Christmas, and as groups like Win without War, and Moveon.org, which the New York Times especially approves of, stepped to the forefront to help organize the enormous national demonstrations of January and February and March. These were very useful and very threatening demonstrations. But in Win without War’s formulations, and I think arguably MoveOn.org’s approach, the United States policy towards Iraq before the war was fundamentally acceptable. That’s a problem. Groups like Voices in the Wilderness have worked for years to undermine the acceptability of so-called containment, which Jeff Gunsel of Voices points out, is really just another word for sanctions — but sanctions were becoming politically unacceptable. If you look today at Moveon.org’s call for letters to the editor about the management of postwar Iraq there isn’t a single critical connection made — the argument is simply back to the status quo of European nations managing what will be Middle Eastern occupied territory.

Let me just wind up by saying that there should be some limits on how responsible we want to be. There should be some limits, given the scale of mass death, the violation of the Nuremberg and Geneva conventions by our own country, the scale of impoverishment of an already brutalized country — there should be some limits on how polite we want to be about this. If “peace is patriotic” and “support the troops” mean we will back off from these questions of illegality and atrocity —- illegality and atrocities that are transparent to hundreds of millions of people around the world, then I strongly argue that we continue to have bad manners.

For after all, if we support the troops, do we really want our young men and women to have to say they were “just following orders” as they move from one theater of war to what I am pretty certain will be the next?

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is the author of Spectacular Nature.

She can be reached at sgdavis@uiuc.edu


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