Wednesday, February 26, 2003

The Trib, whose site requires a free registration, has a fascinating piece on the difference between protestors and their tactics during the Vietnam era, and those of today. It confirms what I've been suspecting about the old and new "peace" movements lately:

In the heady days of Students for a Democratic Society, Robert J.S. Ross held collating parties with fellow anti-war protesters at the University of Chicago. Fueled by pizza and beer, they churned out fliers that might reach 5,000 people thanks to that wonderful machine, the mimeograph.

Ross took pride in the fact that in 1965 he was able to help organize five busloads of people from Chicago, then a city of more than 3 million, to travel to a march on Washington and join about 25,000 others to protest the war in Vietnam.

When he looks at today's movement against war in Iraq, Ross is struck not by how few protesters there are but by how many; not by how disparate the activist groups are but by how coordinated; and not by how little impact they have but by how much.

Stoked by the power of the Internet, fanned by the tactics of high-priced public-relations firms, burnished by celebrities, the current anti-war movement has a decidedly different cast from protests past. Activists connect around the world through Web sites such as protest.net and are able to turn out impressive numbers--by the millions in Europe and by the hundreds of thousands in the United States.

I think this is key: the Internet has enabled the far-left groups to organize more efficiently and more effectively, than they ever could before. Instead of a few university extremists standing around, using their limited funds to pass a few poorly-written leaflets to a few passers-by, they can now publish via some known medium such as Protest.net or Indymedia, and have the message reach thousands (and hundreds of thousands) of like-minded people. No longer do their meager resources constrain them to concentrating on one topic, either; instead, those in the radical left whose primary concern is gentrification can also find information on the "oppression of the Palestinians," or the American "war crimes" in Iraq, or the Zapatistas' fight against the Mexican government. Moreover, the safety of the web-based common medium allows cooperation, or at the very least, the pooling of resources, amongst groups who in, in all likelihood, would come to a violent confrontation within 15 minutes of being put in the same room.

We thus get PETA and the ACLU, the antiglobos, the Greens and the Libertarians, and the Communists and the fundamentalist Muslims and the Queers and the Quakers and the lefty Catholics and the radical Palestinians and the Socialist Jews and the KKK and the Black Panthers, all being able to get together and plan out a demonstration against the war, and then get their respective groups to participate. It's a way to bump up the numbers on a single issue, when before the groups were limited to fighting for only their primary concerns. Causes can also be combined and conflated, such that an "anti-war" protest is also an "anti-Ashcroft" protest, even though Ashcroft has no input into U.S. foreign policy, as well as an environmental protest and an anti-Israel protest (which, of course, is never anti-Jewish). No longer do you need to be in a group to reach the members of that group; you can scale your message and get matching response across a wide spectrum of radicals. Inconvenient principles can be shoved aside, letting would-be liberals carry water for fans of Soviet-style mass murder.

Let's not forget the regular folks who don't often visit rooms with Che Guevara posters on the wall, or even subscribe to The Nation. Normally, whatever opposition they have to the war would likely be silent, and quite likely unsolidified -- just an uneasy feeling, and the thought "war is terrible" in the back of their mind. With the Internet, however, they are likewise able to not only access anti-war literature (which can give them concrete talking points to coalesce their emotions around), but also inform them of the protest venues, without the need to spend time talking to unwashed hippies or bandana-clad "activists" who shove each word through their mouth with venomous earnestness that is just this side of raving lunacy. The smarter anti-war organizations will stay away from shrill "Bush is Hitler!!" rhetoric, and concentrate instead on positive messages that borrow from respected, reasonable-sounding concepts, such as "respect for international law and the opinion of the UN." They'll even use those most evil excretions of capitalism, advertising agencies:

Fenton Communications, a Washington-based public-relations firm, is serving as the consultant and clearinghouse for Win Without War, a coalition of anti-war groups. The firm helps stage media events and put anti-war activists before the public. Win Without War's national director, former Rep. Tom Andrews (D-Maine), makes no apologies for the approach.

And when that doesn't work, they bring out the celebrities.

After trying to get coverage with testimony from former Clinton administration officials and even some from the first Bush administration, Andrews said that Win Without War had to concede that celebrity is a more powerful magnet for coverage. "When we [had] the same kind of presentation with Martin Sheen or Janeane Garofalo or Angelica Huston, there were 32 television cameras.

Like it or not, "celebrities" who were once expected to read the script and then go away, are now routinely peddling various causes, from AIDS to having your pets spayed and neutered. It is therefore only natural that they will likewise seek to give their opinion on world politics, including this war, and given the predominant culture they stew in, it's likewise unsurprising that most of them will lean far to the left, and be "against war and killing." The public will usually give them a pass on this: fairly or not, no one expects actors and musicians to be rocket scientists, and if they are "for peace," they at least "mean well," and that's "nice." (It's sad that our standards towards fully grown adults can fall so low, but that's a whole other topic.) At any rate, actors and other celebrities are just as entitled to state their opinion as I am, though of course I don't expect a slew of cameras and reporters to hang on my every word. Ultimately, what's annoying about actors is not their opinions on the war, but that the coverage they receive belies their complete irrelevance (not to mention frequent imbecility -- see Sheryl Crow). No one would be stupid enough to ask for George Clooney's medical advice; why should anyone give a rat's ass what he thinks of Bush's policies? But some people do, and even some of those that don't will at least pause and listen to Clooney or Martin Sheen, simply because of who they are. And if they already agree with the message, then having a big-time celebrity deliver it may just give them the boost they need to listen further, and maybe spend a Saturday marching for "the cause." The organizers understand this well, and use it to their advantage, just as they use everything else.

So I think the story of the protests is not one of how much opposition there is to the war, but rather how much more skillful and efficient the radical left's organizing has become. It's not that the opposition to a U.S. strike on Iraq is somehow greater than the opposition to the first Gulf War, or to the Vietnam War, or, for that matter, to World War II. (If anything, opposition to France and Britain attacking Germany was greater. Memories of the ruinously bloody World War I were still fresh, Hitler's politics had many backers outside Germany, no one had heard of the concentration camps and mass murders, and many felt that Germany got the raw deal from the Treaty of Versailles -- which was true. The worldwide Depression gave Socialists -- including National Socialists -- a great political boost and a good base, and many actually felt that they were witnessing the unraveling of capitalism predicted by Marx, to be replaced either by democratic socialism or fascism, which weren't all that different. Those who were not on the side of fascism were strongly anti-militaristic, and eager to surrender the authority of "nationalist" governments to the League of Nations. Add to this the overwhelming isolationism of the United States, and you had one massively strong peace movement, which, given the resources of today, could have organized marches and boycotts and "direct actions" that would make the February 15th events look like campfire circles.) Not that any of that really matters -- policies are not and should not be decided by the number of people carrying signs in protest. Still, it's important to realize what the overhyped numbers don't mean.

Update: RHJunior writes:
In other words, modern technology has enabled larger numbers of people than ever before to be stupid [together].

Well, it's not just the stupid, but yes, they benefited immensely from the Net in terms of getting themselves into the spotlight, for better or worse. Tim Blair once quipped that all the world's idiocies are becoming one giant, useless force. They are using the Internet to do this. As for their undoing, perhaps, but we should always keep this advice in mind.

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