March 18, 2003

Put away your puppets

I want to be very careful about avoiding the blog echo-chamber effect with what I put up here, where I’m just doing an elaborate version of “me too” on something that fifty other web pages have already noted.

But here comes a “me too”: Justin Raimondo’s essay on the right and wrong kind of antiwar protests, which I found via Electrolite, is vitally important. Anyone who is planning to oppose the war needs to read it, print it, staple it to their clothes, memorize it. Put it in a waterproof bag and take it into the shower with you.

This is not the time for the usual self-indulgent let-a-thousand-flowers bloom, let the nutty Spartacist have his turn at the podium, let Sheryl Crow talk about how war is bad for flowers and other living things, approach to political action. This is not a festival or a be-in or a happening. It’s not a space for creative frolics and really cool paper-mache puppets.

The war is coming, unless Saddam Hussein blinks in the next 24 hours. None of us can stop it. Give that up right now: you cannot stop the war. Don’t even try. Don’t even fantasize that you can.

You can only prepare to exact a political price from the people who led us so poorly to this point, and to do that, you need to make the war a bigger issue than the antiwar.

Raimondo nails it perfectly: all the plans for direct action that involve “no business as usual” gimmicks like blocking traffic, chaining oneself to fences and the like are pure, unadulterated narcissism. They’re about anointing yourself a virtuous, righteous person and performing your virtue on the public stage. You want that, come by my office and I'll give you a little "I'm a Good Person Because I'm Against the War" badge to pin on your shirt and we'll applaud you every time we see you walk by. The "direct action" visions circulating out there now are not about building the largest possible coalition of opposition to the Bush Administration, not about building a political consensus, not about laying the groundwork for 2004.

If you really care about opposing the war, you need to put your own selfish needs to proclaim your virtuousness aside and keep your eyes on the prize. Large public gatherings that are respectful, quiet and rhetorically modest would be a good thing, sure, but for the moment, little more than that. Raimondo's "Lincoln-Douglas Debates" are a good idea, too.

It’s not about stopping the war. It’s about what comes afterwards. For the moment, we might as well sit tight. Anybody who leaps in on day one with stuff like spilling red paint on the steps of City Hall or lying down in front of military trucks runs the risk of looking like a tremendous doofus depending on what happens in the first week of the war, and will probably alienate many potential supporters even if the actual unfolding of the war does little to improve Bush's standing or credibility.

Let’s say that Saddam Hussein’s troops use chemical or biological weapons, or there are significant terrorist attacks within the domestic United States. For reasons of public image alone, that would be a bad time to be pursuing silly little direct actions or be caught on tape screaming "Down With Running Dog American Imperialism! Up With the Virtuous Multitude!".

More importantly, if something dire happens involving chemical weapons or terrorism it means that an antiwar movement is going to have to be generous in conceding some of its own faults and errors, because it’s going to mean that Bush had some legitimate reasons to go to war. At that point, we would need to make it clear that the issue is not war itself, but the incompetence of the way the run-up to war was handled, and the lack of vision about how to handle its aftermath. If antiwar activists spend that first week chaining themselves to fences and burning American flags, they will have already lost the antiwar struggle should at least some of Bush’s reasoning be vindicated by the course of events.

Prudence, patience and planning are what’s needed now. That’s what has worked for the Republican grassroots: ever since Barry Goldwater’s defeat, they’ve been organizing steadily, laying down deep connections with actually existing communities, thinking about what kinds of rhetoric carries water in the public sphere, and disciplining or ignoring errant nutcases and fringe elements. If you want to exact a price for this war, led in the way that it has been, you’re going to have to be similarly focused.