The weekend before the war I walked up Massachusetts Avenue from Boston across the Charles River into Cambridge, past groups of protestors who packed major intersections in spirited opposition to the war we all knew was coming. Passing drivers honked and smiled and held thumbs up. Energy was high.
Four weeks later, at another Mass Ave protest, our numbers were way down. In Central Square, my friends looked like I felt: more obligated than energized. This time, amid the honks and smiles, there were more hostile drivers. “The war’s over!” one smirked. “We won!” Another rode a bicycle up and back singing God Bless America, waving an American flag in our faces. Triumph filled the air in one of the nation’s anti-establishment hotbeds. The next day, the Bush administration declared the war all but over.
I’m not sure what to do next, and I know I’m not alone.
A few days into the war I read that this latest anti-war movement, unlike that against the Vietnam War, isn’t a counterculture. New York Times reporter John Leland suggested that most protestors appreciate rather than reject American culture. He cited observers who see this as a strength — we finally drew in ordinary Americans, not just the usual suspects. We were leftists and liberals and even conservatives, pacifists and sectarians and veterans, middle America on the march. All we wanted was to stop this war and get back to our normal lives — no societal critique implied or required.
The movement’s early start and quick expansion into mainstream America does offer hope that we can do better next time, maybe even prevent this war’s spread to Syria and Iran. Still, many of us understand that war doesn’t appear out of nowhere, spawned by whim or paranoia. It stems from policy reflecting institutional goals. To counter war, we must not only show up when bombs drop but, in between the gap between one war and the next, we must counter the forces that make war inevitable.
Fortunately, although today’s counterculture is less obvious, it still exists. Some issues have receded, old battles won, or so we like to think. After past cultural rebellions, it’s now often easier to escape conformity and obedience. But sometimes choice is more apparent than real, and once again we fight battles we thought we won long ago. Less obvious to the corporate media, perhaps, values resonate today that motivated so many in earlier periods of ferment and reflection — community and solidarity, spontaneity and openness, avoidance of materialism and consumerism, the search for meaning in relationships and jobs and all of everyday life.
The Bush administration aims to reverse not just cultural changes we associate with the Sixties but political, economic, and legal advances institutionalized in the Thirties. Conservatives try to dilute New Deal victories ranging from Social Security to protections for workers to state limitations on corporate excess. Indeed, the administration’s embrace of the New American Century — the intention to remodel the world to American specifications — harkens back to an even earlier age, when individual nations could aim for global empire.
War’s origins create a practical dilemma: how do we apportion our limited time, energy, and attention? When do we attack the war itself, and when the morass of institutions, traditions, and assumptions that let political policymakers get their way — corporate power, superficial democracy, persistent racism and economic inequality, indoctrination in patriotism and capitalism, political and religious conservatism, a corporate-owned media, and much more?
Comprehensive radical critiques are out of favor these days, burdened by media lampooning, liberal attack, self-defeating turf and ideological battles, and the vestiges of sectarian dogma. But that doesn’t make them wrong. There really is something rotten in the superbully’s kingdom, easy to overlook once the shooting starts.
We have to prevent the next war, and we have to change everything else, too. Not just because our institutions and traditions lead us to kill others — a reason sufficient in itself — but also because, quite apart from their link to war, injustice and oppression and inequality stunt the lives of those they don’t kill, routinely, quietly, relentlessly. Without comprehensive change, transformative change, we’ll stumble from crisis to crisis, at best with mixed success while the empire expands into all spheres of life in all corners of the globe.
Transformation may seem impossible, but what are our alternatives? Repeated wars, perhaps culminating in the use of planet-destroying weapons of mass destruction? Or the other extreme, gradual perfection of cleaner, more sanitized technological coercion until mere threat hardens inequality and injustice into permanence?
Will war’s opponents still come to Massachusetts Avenue or find other ways to generate change if American power no longer generates uncomfortable images of death? Those in power think not. Our challenge is to prove them wrong.
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