There is good news and bad news for America’s anti-war movement. The good news is that more Americans than ever oppose the Iraq War. The bad news is that fewer Americans are willing to stand up and say so in public. The recent demonstrations, consisting of two September protests in Washington D.C. and the 11 regional demonstrations this past Saturday (October 27) had fewer total participants than either the 2005 Washington D.C. protest or the 2006 New York City protest. Perhaps now is the time to ask ourselves some hard questions.
There are two possibilities for the bad news. Either the lack of turnout is a reflection on the demonstrations or it is a reflection on the American people. Most likely it is both.
It is not that the demonstrations were horrible. ANSWER’s September 15th protest had the best beginning of any of the protests. You had the choice of visiting the different groups and drum circles or you could listen to an array of good speakers, including Ralph Nader, Ramsey Lewis and the Iraq Veterans Against The War. These speakers inspired us by being informative. The Troops Out Now rally on September 29th had the most creative march as it weaved through D.C., occasionally stopping for both short speeches by those who were riding in a truck at the head of the march and the playing of recorded anti-war music. Finally, the eleven regional protests sponsored by United For Peace And Justice was a great approach to getting the whole country involved.
But there were negatives to these demonstrations as well. The September 15th and 29th protests finished with outdated acts of civil disobedience that ended the protests on a note of confusion. The Troops Out Now protest as well as the United For Peace And Justice protest in Philly had far too many speakers who screamed. Their yelling did more to irritate than to inspire. In addition, outside of marching, the protesters are put in a passive role which could lead to boredom. Finally, conservatives who oppose the war are not represented by protest speakers.
Are these negatives the only reasons why fewer Americans are protesting today? No. If we compare the Iraq War protests to the Vietnam War protests, we see that it was the Vietnam War protests that continued to grow until the war ended. Why? Because as the war continued, more and more Americans were immediately impacted by the war via the draft. As deferments were being eliminated, middle and upper class people became more vulnerable to combat. Thus the protests not only became more popular, they became more intense as well. Protesters acted with a sense of urgency that we do not see today.
Thus we need to ask what do the shrinking anti-war protests say about Americans? Are we engaged in our democracy only when we are directly affected by our government’s policies?
Unfortunately, it seems so. American participation in democracy today is limited by two principles: comfort and conformity. Americans’ penchant for comfort was observed by Fundamentalist social commentator Francis Schaeffer in the 20th century. According to Schaeffer, rejection of moral absolutes results in adherence to “personal peace and prosperity” (http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=WT05A01). Is this a possible explanation as to why the Vietnam War protests grew because the draft for the War threatened the comfort of a significant portion of the American public: college-age men and their families? If so, then we could make two observations. First, if war protest participation is determined by how the war directly affects the American public, there is no significant difference between Americans then and Americans now despite the difference in protest attendance. That is back then, the loss of comfort prompted protests. Today, the presence of comfort robs us of the urgency to act and speak out. Second, the government has eliminated a source of domestic opposition to its policies by not resorting to the draft.
But as Americans from both yesteryear and today share a quest for comfort, they differ with regards to conformity. While Americans who protested the Vietnam War celebrated being free-spirits and rebellious, today’s Americans crave conformity. During the 60’s and 70’s, comfort was obtained by dropping out. Today, we find comfort by fitting in. We can see this penchant for uniformity in the clothes we wear. When buying clothes, we seem more concerned with the corporate logos they display than with their quality. Thus our compliance here is not only with our peers but with corporations that we depend on for our comfort. If this is an accurate assessment, then perhaps it is an important reason why Iraq War protests are shrinking rather than growing. Most protests not only include a colorful cast of characters who would be celebrated during the Vietnam era only, the protests also carry strong anti-corporate and strong socialistic messages. Thus those who wish to follow the conventions set by corporate benefactors might feel that participating in protests is biting the hand that feeds them.
Certainly we could further speculate as to why the Iraq War protests are decreasing in size; what is more important is to engage the American public in its own democracy. This is necessary not only because of the vigilance necessary to maintain a democracy, it is essential because of the direction our democracy is taking. Our democracy is rapidly spiraling downward because of the delusions of grandeur our leaders delight in. These fantasies result in attempts to expand an already global empire. And as historian Chalmers Johnson has firmly shown about the past, no country has kept both a foreign empire and a domestic democracy.
The key to changing the course of our country is to move our passive American public to action. The American public must demand that our government change its policies. But currently, this same public is shying away from this responsibility. We in the anti-war movement must now choose between living in the past by relying on ancient protest practices or finding new ways to inspire our fellow citizens to speak out. We can continue to enjoy our demonstrations but we must think outside the box of the 60's and 70's if we are to be joined by more people.