Ask Not..

Posted by Cutler on September 02, 2006

As a new academic year begins on college campuses in the US, the time may be right for a discussion of the changing state of “anti-war activism.”

The old anti-war activism is gone; long live the “new isolationism.”

On August 31, 2006, Andrew Rosenthal published a provocative New York Times essay entitled, “There Is Silence in the Streets; Where Have All the Protesters Gone?

I suppose the most obvious answer is “long time passing.”

Indeed, nostalgia for the “real” anti-war movement–the one against war in Vietnam–has haunted every subsequent US military action. Nothing has measured up. (Just ask the boomers.)

Kennedy spoke for the Vietnam generation: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.

Those were the days, I guess.

Rosenthal’s most basic observation is this:

Student protesters helped drive Lyndon Johnson — in so many ways a powerful, progressive president — out of office because of his war. In 2004, George W. Bush — in so many ways a weak, regressive president — was re-elected despite his war. And the campuses were silent.

No doubt.

Although there have been a couple of small, awkward “rallies” at Wesleyan University–the infamously “progressive” campus where I work–the place has been very quiet since the US invasion of Iraq.

There was a brief burst of protest when America first invaded Iraq. But if there is a college movement against the war, it’s hiding pretty well.

Right again on timing. There were protests at Wesleyan at the start of the “War on Terror.” Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when popular sentiment was strongly supportive of military action, there were protests at Wesleyan. Not only against war in Iraq, but even against war in Afghanistan.

And for many students, the February 15, 2003 global protests against the war seemed pretty intense, inspiring, and powerful.

Then came the actual invasion of Iraq, and everything fell silent.

(A subsequent letter to the New York Times correctly notes, in response to Rosenthal, that there have been many anti-war protests. Notwithstanding the tireless efforts of organizers, I wonder if even they would think of this as a time of significant mobilization? No complaints about abathy and indifference within the US?)

Some students seem to have been surprised, demoralized, and demobilized when the US went to war anyway, even though they had protested.

This is surely an unintended consequence of overly romanticized 60’s nostalgia: a few good protests and you stop a war. Maybe it would help if we started noticing that most of the best, most powerful elements of the ’60s–from anti-war activism to feminism and gay liberation took root in the 70’s.

Nevertheless, I do not begrudge contemporary students their demand for instant gratification. The “problem”–if there is one–is not that college students are too demanding but they are not quite demanding enough.

And I don’t entirely buy the “demoralized and demobilized” story.

Rosenthal raises the issue of “moral clarity.”

Vietnam never had the moral clarity that the 9/11 attacks provided to this generation’s war. But in Iraq that proved to be a false clarity…

Of course, this explains nothing, since the largest protests came between the (presumably pro-war) “moral clarity” of 9/11 and the recognition of the “false clarity” in Iraq after post-invasion revelations regarding WMDs, etc.

It seems to me that campus protests stopped because many students knew that they favored peaceful negotiations, etc. over military action.

But once the US was in Iraq, many students adopted a position that echoes Colin Powell’s famous invocation of the (false) Potter Barn rule: you break it, you own it.

Students at elite private colleges–the same ones that generated much of the early anti-war sentiment in the 60s–are often encouraged embrace a notion of responsibility for the world. Part of preparing for power, I suppose.

To students ready to inherit the mantle of responsibility, the rush to military action and the neglect of legitimate international channels for conflict resolution surely seemed irresponsible. Hence the protests.

On the other hand, post-invasion “help” (i.e., occupation) seems–to such students–more responsible than withdrawal. Hence the awkwardness at poorly attended rallies.

After the invasion, such students replaced their anti-war protest hats with their imperial peace corps, caring hats.

It is on the issue of caring that the Rosenthal essay falters.

This, perhaps, is the ultimate difference between the Vietnam generation and the Iraq generation: When you hear Young and Company sing of “four dead in Ohio,” their Kent State anthem, it’s hard to imagine anyone on today’s campuses willing to face armed troops. Is there anything they care about that much?

Unfortunately, “caring”–about Iraq, at least in the abstract–helps explain why campuses are silent. The students who “care” the most are the ones least likely to protest and demand US withdrawal. Even as the Bush administration’s occupation looks like a disaster, it is a disaster that those who care most want to inherit and improve. As Thomas Friedman says, “We’ll take it from here.”

Rosenthal also mentions the draft as a crucial difference and he is surely right about this one:

But because there is no draft… no young person has to fear being conscripted into the fight.

This is surely true on the campuses of elite private liberal arts colleges. But the point actually goes to the heart of the issue of caring.

In the Vietnam era, protesters gave a lot of lip service to caring about the Vietnamese, but Rosenthal is probably right to imply that much of the movement was enormously self-interested in a very narrow but very potent way: students did not want to sacrifice their lives.

The movement never depended on caring. Today, with no draft on campus, caring is all we have. And it curbs enthusiasm for US withdrawal.

At the same time, Rosenthal totally conflates campus life with popular sentiment in the United States and assumes that real power and influence may come from the former rather than the latter. This is a very big mistake.

Rosenthal acknowledges,

a majority of Americans now say they oppose the war and no longer trust Mr. Bush’s leadership of it.

But he never explores possible implications–politically, for the Bush administration, or militarily, for the execution of the war.

Rosenthal says,

It is hard to escape the conclusion that Americans find it much easier to stay silent when there is no shared sacrifice.

I would propose the opposite: because there is no notion of “shared sacrifice” for this war (Bush has repeatedly been attacked from the Right and Left for refusing to sound the call…), American public opinion has been highly intolerant of US casualties.

And there is no notion of “shared sacrifice” because Karl Rove is afraid that there is no appetite for sacrifice in the land.

The campuses are silent. But “Americans” are not. They speak against the war–at least not when the pollsters call.

Surely there is something far less communitarian and collectivist about polling sentiment, relative to mass rallies. A pity for those who seek, in an anti-war movement, the kernal of a collective and transcendent spirit.

For those who wish to obstruct war, however: are we sure that popular sentiment–in an age of commodified politics where politicians pander to polls–is less powerful than campus protest rallies?

Americans–and not primarily the ones on elite liberal arts campuses–do not “care” enough about Iraq to sacrifice lives for it.

And as for Iraqis, I trust that many surely “care” enough about the US occupation to tell us how they are feeling. The word is “insurgency.”

One can be disgusted with carnage in Iraq and still recognize that, given the number of US soldiers killed, the popular threshold of tolerance for U.S. casualties is much lower than it was in previous wars.

And the refusal to “take casualties” has almost certainly influenced political and military decisions to send fewer troops than the Generals wanted.

“Force Protection” is the name of the game in Rumsfeld’s world of military transformation.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can do for you.

The new isolationism recognizes sacrifice, but like Bartleby, the Scrivener, it would “prefer not to.”

For all that, one would be mistaken to confuse it with powerlessness.

What is the power of indifference, especially in relation to fighting and dying?

5 Comments to Ask Not..

  • I think this is a strong analysis, and something that you and I have talked about at times. I vividly remember the ineffectual, and uninspiring attempts to organize the campus – standing together at that “awkward” rally at Wesleyan, frustrated at listening to the organizers sing 60s peace songs. These attempts were more akin to a history class about 60s politics than a contemporary critique of current US Foreign Policy. But I would posit another factor that has contributed to the lack of campus mobilization around a powerful anti-war movement – the media.

    Media: I think it is important that we recognize the powerful impact that the media has on mass political mobilization. This is most evident in terms of concrete political biases and “spin” that is hard to escape in a world in which we are subject to a constant barrage of media. But more importantly, the low grade political/sexual/cultural stimulation produced by the media acts as a political laxative – we don’t need to protest in the streets, because we can “participate” in High Definition, Dolby Surround Sound, from the comfort of our living rooms. Media is a very powerful tool – unfortunately, the anti-war movement seems unable to understand the media, or how to use it. This misunderstanding of the media (which frustrated-ly lead to categorical critiques of the media as a negative entity) are signs that the deeply rooted ideological pillars of the 60s social movements (read: oppose big business and big institutions) are deeply rooted in contemporary politics. Applying political logic that is almost a half-century-old to contemporary society is a bankrupt strategy.

  • Agreed, on both accounts(Jonathan’s and David’s). David, you know that I agree with most of what you say. Here’s something to think about though. Could it be that on top of bankrupt media strategies from the left, there is the issue of…ideology? Does ideology exist any more? Well, not in the same way that we are used to using it in the Cold war. Fukuyama and Huntington thought that we were not post-ideological, very much in the line of their neoconservative predecessor Danie Bell, with the end fo the Cold war. Ideology now, as Zizek once wrote, is a sublime object. Even your political laxative joke references Zizek’s famous line about ideology today: “They are doing it, but they do not know it.” This is actually a line from Marx, but hey, who’s keeping track? Zizek identifies ideology today as the need for wanting something without the key ingredient. He cites one intriguing example in contemporary culture: decaffeinated coffee. Another good one: a diet without dieting(the Atkins, where one can eat all the steak that they want). Touche Slavoj, touche. Ideology has become this twisted version of itself connected to psychosocial desires that have become ever more unclear and difficult to decipher(at least in conscious life).

    So what am I saying? Well, there’s no good or easy way to mobilize or even appeal to the masses. That’s why Hardt and Negri’s deeply flawed ‘strategy,’ if we can even call it that, outlined in Empire and Multitude was so popular among people our age. The Ineffected Yout(h). But who wants to act or, in other words, be political? Any sort of discussion like this presumes a general desire to be political but does that necessarily mean “taking the streets and causing hell,” as Fran Piven says? Well, that’s a limited scope I think. And we can go into a deep discussion about “politics” as opposed to “ethics” which I think Jonathan’s post is really getting to the heart of. How can one’s moral outrage be channeled? Well, it can’t, especially when there is absolutely no left party in the US. See Stanley Aronowitz on the lack of a left party in the US here.

  • What a lot of long-winded, way off the mark claptrap. There’s a much simpler and more accurate explanation for the disenchantment with peaceful protest. In the 21st Century, it doesn’t work. Bush and the neocons don’t listen. Decent people of all stripes and flavours are beginning to realise that the only way to get rid of Bush is to get their hands dirty. It takes time to adjust to realities as uncomfortable and disturbing as this. It’s not what democracy was supposed to be about.

  • Perhaps the most amazing thing about the public reaction to the Iraq war is, as you write, that
    given the number of US soldiers killed, the popular threshold of tolerance for U.S. casualties is much lower than it was in previous wars.

    Making the Vietnam comparison is de rigueur for war critics at this point, yet comparing this to Vietnam the death toll is much much lower. It would seem that the body politic is still infected with “Vietnam syndrome” and a low tolerance for casualties. Many thought that Gulf War I was the end of that. If that wasn’t the case then the War on Terror could be America’s “next great war” as Rosenthal’s “moral clarity” would change the political logic of mobilizing the nation in the post 9/11 world. That hasn’t been the case; the need for national sacrifice has sent the administration’s numbers into the tank. Over the last 30 years, the dislike of US casualties has been, and continues to be, the greatest single domestic obstacle to US imperialism.

    Whether it was Kerry attacking Bush for “outsourcing” the nation’s responsibilities to the Northern Alliance, college liberals bristling at the consumerist “America: Open for Business” sloganeering or those students’ parents concern for maintaining “stability” in the region, the political sense of the American “left” has run precisely counter to the political logic of populist anti-imperialism.

Leave a Reply