'Cause in this sleepy London town
There's just no place for a street fighting man
No!- Mick Jagger
We have recently seen people take to the streets in Kiev, in Mexico City, in Bishkek, in Tashkent, in Beirut. Sometimes they have been effective. More often, they have not. Whether the demonstrations aimed to overthrow a tyrant or merely attempted to question the legitimacy of a recent election, they had one thing in common: they terrified the powers that be. Americans, liberal bloggers most certainly included, tend to see street protests through the lens of the Vietnam era demonstrations. There seems to be something emerging, almost a consensus among bloggers like Jane Hamsher, Chris Bowers, and Markos Moulitsas, that street protests no longer have the same impact that they had in the Vietnam era.
There is a surface merit to this analysis. For example, it's impossible to picture George W. Bush inviting student radicals into the White House, as Nixon did on August 5, 1970. It's impossible to picture Bush going down to the Lincoln Memorial to talk to the protesters, as Nixon did after Kent State. And it's true that the media expends very little energy covering street protests, downplays the numbers, emphasizes the most unpopular participants, and prefers to cover non-stories like Terri Schiavo or Lindsay Lohan. But this analysis only holds on the surface. Things today are not really that different from the way they were when our soldiers were bogged down in Indochina.
Take, for starters, Chris Bowers' complaint about the lack of message discipline in modern protests (this one, from Chicago in March 2004).
First, the speakers were extremely disorganized, self-contradictory, far more radical than the crowd itself, and totally lacking in message discipline. They ranged from Jesse Jackson stirring the crowd in a speech about how the 2000 election was stolen, to an old militant who promised a violent overthrow of the government, to a woman who harangued the crowd for the racism of the anti-war movement (she was part of the program, not someone who broke onto stage), to another speaker who told us we were not really opposed to the war unless we actively helped the Iraqi insurgency. Can there be anything less motivating than holding an anti-war march where the speakers tell those in attendance that they are not really opposed to the war?
I don't dispute that this lack of message discipline is frustrating and counterproductive. But it isn't new.
Hunter S. Thompson talked about the emerging campus radical movement in a 1965 article for The Nation.
The new campus radical has a cause, a multipronged attack on as many fronts as necessary: if not civil rights, then foreign policy or structural deprivation in domestic poverty pockets. Injustice is the demon, and the idea is to bust it.
We call it the 'Sixties protest movement' for a reason. Protest was in the air and Vietnam was but one of many grievances. Hunter tried to capture the flavor of the era in his famous wave speech:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
If there is a distinction between the protests of the Vietnam era and the protests of today, it isn't so much that the message is different or less disciplined, or that the media is less hospitable. The distinction is that this generation has not come to 'a head in a long line flash'. For many if not most on the left today, they have not been radicalized by the civil rights movement, or the women's rights movement, or poverty, or rival ideologies like communism. They have been radicalized by the administration's reaction to 9/11. Therefore, the (new) New Left tends to bristle when Iraq War protests are co-opted by people with side issues. They don't feel themselves as part of a truly revolutionary movement. Things don't seem all that out of whack. If we could, say, just get back to the policies of the Clinton era, end torture, restore habeas corpus, amend the Patriot Act, and pull our troops out of Iraq...then the job would be mostly done.
Again, this is a surface kind of analysis that fails to take into account the fundamental similarities between Clinton's and Bush's foreign policies. It also badly underestimates the damage to America's Empire done by the Bush era. It doesn't understand that Clinton's policies led to the blowback the 'Global War on Terror' was launched to quell. And it doesn't ask whether it is either possible or desirable to go back to those policies.
It's easy to overestimate the reforming effect of the netroots and online activism generally. But I will say that online activism is to the early 21st century what campus radicalism was to the 1960's and early 1970's. Except, the netroots doesn't want to get too far out in front of the public. Rather than pushing a radical platform, the netroots seems bogged down in the mechanics of elections. How do we 'frame' things? How do we get more progressives elected? How do we win in the south?
We don't see calls for impeachment. We don't see calls for a palace revolution. This is, again, a distinction, a generational distinction.
Hey! Think the time is right for a palace revolution
'Cause where I live the game to play is compromise solution. -Mick Jagger
The people that took to the streets over the bombing of Cambodia and Kent State didn't win in 1972. But they won in 1974. And it is the Battle of 1974, once thought to have been decided in our favor, that is being waged anew today. Take a look at Dick Cheney's comments yesterday on precisely this point.
Wolffe: President Ford, his recent funeral—did it put you in a reflective mood about that period? Do you draw any parallels to now?
Cheney: I was delighted to see the outpouring of tributes to his leadership ... and praise for the tough, tough decisions he made—in particular, for example, the pardon. I reflected back on where we'd been 30 years ago when he made those decisions and, obviously, suffered for it in the public-opinion polls and the press, and how history judged him 30 years later very, very favorably because of what he'd done. He had displayed those qualities of leadership and decisiveness, steadfastness, if you will, in the face of political opposition.
Cheney has waged an unremitting war against all of the post-Watergate reforms. And it is this war, more than the specific war in Iraq, that really distinguishes this administration from Clinton, Poppy Bush, and Reagan. And for the (new) New Left, this assault on the reforms we grew up taking for granted is truly galvanizing. But we don't seem to understand that we have been charged with re-fighting the war of our mothers and fathers. We resent seeing those tired faces (Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Jesse Jackson, etc.) co-opting our message. We are tired of them and we are tired of their tactics. But the new leaders, the new spokespeople, are not visible. They're hiding behind screens and screen names. They think they can blog their way to revolution and they think they can gather the critical mass for their limited reforms without associating with unsavory radicals that step on the reasonable message, the majority sentiment.
As evidence for this, they look at the November elections. They certainly were effective and, therefore, our tactics must be working. And if Bush is not persuaded by the drubbing of the midterms, what good can street demonstrations do?
How will these protests serve as a means of changing US policy in Iraq? If the answer is "not at all," which it very well might be, then you can count me out. I am not interested in protesting for the sake of protesting anymore--that is, simply letting my personal dissent on the war be known far and wide.- Chris Bowers.
Let me respond this, first, with something of an obvious point. If one of the reasons street protests are ineffective is that the media doesn't give them fair and properly amplified coverage, it would seem counterintuitive for bloggers to add to the problem by being dismissive and refusing to amplify the message. Second, the real power of street protests was never the coverage they received in the press. The real power was the fear induced by an assembled mob on the steps of Congress or the White House. It's the same power that led to the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, or that led to the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the Berlin Wall, at the end of the Cold War. Protests may be peaceful, but they have the potential for revolution. The more revolutionary the rhetoric, the more fear inspiring the protests are.
There is another very important reason to assemble en masse in the capitol. The rest of the world is watching. They have seen Mexicans in the street. They have seen Lebanese in the street. But they haven't seen enough Americans in the street. And they take that silence as assent. It's true that the world can find plenty of evidence of dissent by surfing the liberal blogs, but the reach of the liberal blogs is limited. The people of the world need to see a visible manifestation of our dissent. They need to see more than clever snark and sagging poll numbers. The world sees Guantanamo and extraordinary renditions and Haditha and Abu Ghraib and they don't see Americans doing much of anything besides voting to set things right. We owe it to our image and our legacy to make our dissent known, and to make it known in a way the rest of world understands. Liberal bloggers may have concluded that mass protests are ineffective, but the rest of the world knows that mass protests are the absolute prerequisite to revolutionary change.
And this gets me back to where I always seem to wind up. This administration cannot be allowed to take us into a war under false pretenses, lose that war, and then preside over the aftermath. No country has ever allowed something like that to happen. If you went to the protest in Washington DC this past Saturday, and you got down into the crowd and asked them what they thought of impeachment...you would have found near unanimous support. In fact, a plurality would probably have said impeachment is an insufficient corrective. But you would never know how powerful the consensus on impeachment has become in the anti-war movement if all you did was read the liberal blogosphere.
Hunter Thompson talked about San Francisco in the late 1960's:
You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...
That sentiment is lacking today. We have been winning ever since we lost in November 2004. But there is no universal sense that whatever we are doing is right. Instead, there is a sense that we should not push too far, too fast. There is a sense that we can win the 2008 election, perhaps with a Clinton restoration, and that things will be hunky-dory. Perhaps this attitude is a legacy of the failure of the highest aspirations of the 60's generation. Perhaps we are too cynical to fall for the same false hopes. Hunter looked back at the dying dream in 1972.
And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
I don't want to look back five years from now and see the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back was in December 2006, when we realized we had won great victories and decided to consolidate rather than push on for greater and more meaningful change.
If all we wanted was power and a restoration of some kind of pre-Bush normalcy, then we would embrace Obama and Hillary Clinton with open arms. But, we are seeing instead, a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the Clinton/Obama twin-headed media created beast. They have no flavor. We need to add salt. The netroots movement is a like a shark...it needs to move forward or it will die. Rather than trying to calibrate a message that will get us 50+1 in the 2008 elections, we need to push the wave out. We need impeachment, we need to cut off funds for the war, we need to roll back the imperial executive, we need to get the intelligence agencies under control. This is what our mothers and fathers accomplished. We should aim for nothing less.