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Democracy in the Streets

by HOWARD LISNOFF

Several months before the 2008 general election, I stood with two other antiwar demonstrators outside of the town hall of a small town in Massachusetts. One of the other two demonstrators had demonstrated for peace there each Saturday at noon since just prior to the inception of the war in Afghanistan. We were in the habit of exchanging both small talk and substantive talk about issues of war and peace during the hour-long vigil.

I was hardly ready for the response I received from the longtime protester when I brought up my reservations about voting for Barack Obama. His frontal attack came seemingly out of nowhere, but reflected the long quadrennial tradition of substantial numbers of leftists supporting the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee as the lesser of two evils or the only alternative in a general election. “Keep your thoughts to yourself about Obama and his commitment to continue the war in Afghanistan! Look at the alternative! Do you want passersby to hear you?” Of course, the result of the election of Obama was the expansion of the war (and the defection of masses of so-called antiwar Democrats from the peace movement); the complete disregard for the union movement: jettisoning of millions of those who lost trillions of dollars of equity in their homes in the housing debacle; the neglect of pressing environmental issues; and finally, the expansion of the national security state with its attendant erosion of civil liberties.

Just a few days ago I listened to a segment of The Thom Hartmann Program on Free Speech TV. I paid special attention as Hartmann explained that both the voices of protest on the streets of America and traditional political activists had a home in the Democratic Party and could work together to support the President for reelection. The conclusion, I gathered, would result in Obama being given the opportunity to bring his agenda for hope and change to fruition. The latter, of course, was the same bill of goods that the electorate had been sold four years earlier. Common wisdom and history tell a different story for leftists to pay attention to. Whenever a politician does not have demands placed on him or her, then activists can expect nothing in return for their efforts. In other words, power concedes nothing without a struggle as so many Occupy movement activists have painfully and brutally learned on the militarized streets of America!

My own experiences as an antiwar activist and war resister during the Vietnam War speak loudly and clearly about change and maintaining a spirit of hopefulness. It was only through years of concerted effort on the streets that forced the political establishment to realize that the Vietnam War was too costly in political capital for the war to continue. There definitely existed a measure of self-interest on the part of many demonstrators during the Vietnam era, but the sacrifices of millions of people on the streets added up to a force that the Democrat Lyndon Johnson and the Republican Richard Nixon could not ignore.

When it’s suggested that organizations such as MoveOn (which allows for no correspondence among its members and is a hierarchical, top-down group) and the Occupy movement can together bring about the change necessary to alter the course of US domestic and foreign policy, I have to laugh. The only voice that power will listen and respond to in a right of center political system, bankrolled by the wealth of individuals and giant corporations, is the voice that comes from the demands of those who put the soles of their shoes on the streets (like the Occupy movement) of this nation and demand change in the oligarchic elite that now controls the government.

And when it finally comes time to vote in November, Ralph Nader had prescient words on what those disaffected by the two-party system of high-finance capitalism can do with their votes: “…in order to tell him (Obama) that they do have a place to go: they can stay home. And that’s what hurt the Democrats in 2010. People can just stay home.” (Democracy Now, January 25, 2012)

In the movie Sunrise at Campobello (1960), Ralph Bellamy, the actor who portrays Franklin D. Roosevelt observes, speaking of what interests voters in the US identify with, that once in a great while when social conditions are right, voters will temporarily turn away from materialism and vote for democratic principles. But, I doubt if the act of voting in a dog and pony show will change the oligarchy that governs the US in any measurable or meaningful way, especially since the common wisdom dictates that voter behavior can be heavily influenced by political advertising, which has been unleashed to an exponential degree by the Citizens United case (2010).

I don’t know if contemporary activists possess the wherewithal to change the entrenched system of extreme wealth and militarism. The stark brutality at the street level is breathtaking in its viciousness. Not many can stand that kind of long-term abuse and stay the course of activism, but what happens both on the streets and in the halls of government over the next few years in the US will determine the fate of this planet!

Meanwhile, The Los Angeles Times published photos of US troops posing with dead Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan (“U.S. troops posed with body parts of Afghan bombers,” April 18, 2012). These gruesome photographs come on the heels of other pictured atrocities from Afghanistan committed by U.S. troops. Not only a violation of both international, U.S., and U.S. military law, the photos go to the heart of the dehumanization that takes place during military training and war. My memoir, Notes of a Military Resister: Looking Back From a Time of Endless War(2011) depicts the dehumanization of the so-called enemy that took place in basic training during the Vietnam War. Combined with the attack on individualism that is part and parcel of military training, it is a simple leap of the imagination to recognize how these two forces combine to create the environment for the committing of atrocities in war. Even the secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, was seen squirming in great discomfort at the news conference held just after the publication of the photographs as he offered his own tortured account of the incident while attempting to explain away these latest in a long line of U.S. atrocities.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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