It has been 10 years of dormancy for the peace movement: a full decade since the thriving demonstrations of the early Bush years gave way to liberal demands that the focus shift to defeating the president at the ballot box. This fixation remained through the two ensuing presidential elections, which have demonstrated, beyond a reasonable doubt, the futility of this approach to altering American foreign policy. The vibrant and young foot soldiers of Obama’s first election are now seven years older, jaded and frustrated. Most of them are underemployed, over-indebted, and increasingly hopeless about their lot in life. Meanwhile, the elders responsible for luring them into the charade of electoral politics are seeing their safety net whittle away at the hands of an ever-avaricious power elite. This farce of democratic engagement has provided zero dividends, as Americans are worse off than they were a decade ago, and our military posture remains as imperialist and expansive as ever. Some of us resolutely warned against straying off into the electoral forest in 2004, but now is not the time for finger wagging or “I told you so” pronouncements. With the latest vicious bombardment of Palestinians by the Israeli war machine, the concurrent conflagration in Iraq, the rise of a U.S.-backed oligarchy in Ukraine, and continued drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, the time is nigh for a revival of the peace movement.
This isn’t to minimize the significance of other pressing issues, such as wealth inequality, but rather to recognize the immediacy of militarism, together with its encompassing nature. So long as the United States maintains an aggressive military posture, there is little room for social expenditure at the federal level. For now, these battles are best focused in states and municipalities, where gains have slowly been made in recent months. At the national level, all we have seen is Obama’s platitudinous pronouncements in the 2012 State of the Union address. Nothing concrete. No mention has been made of taxing wealth, inheritance or financial transactions, nor of investing in a broad based Green New Deal to jump start the economy in a more efficacious way than the risky bond-buying program at the Federal Reserve, which has done little but prop up the stock market and create the illusion of positive growth.
Let’s give credit: the Occupy movement did a remarkable job at setting the nation’s discourse on inequality, but lacked the capacity to move from there. If anything, its value was that it pointed the finger at the prime culprits: the villains of Wall Street. The corrective action would have to be taken in individual states and cities. Indeed, the impacts of Occupy’s consciousness-raising have been felt via the ensuing Chicago Teachers’ Union strike and the election of Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council and subsequent passing of the $15/hr minimum wage, to provide just a few examples.
These local battles ought continue, by all means. In fact, it appears that Chicago Teachers’ Union president Karen Lewis is on the verge of officially announcing her campaign for mayor against Rahm Emanuel, with an initial poll giving her a 9-point advantage. If she were to prevail, the result would be a substantial victory against the scourge of inequality, and the decades-long attack on public sector workers in the nation’s third largest city. It would also be a blow to the mainstream of the Democratic Party that has been the primary enabler of the charter school movement, which the Chicago Teachers’ Union has campaigned so steadfastly against. This is a vital issue that needs to be addressed, and is best done through local organizing.
However, our national focus must return to the peace movement. We must recognize our unique position in the world to affect change in Israel/Palestine, as Noam Chomsky notes in a recent piece in the Nation: “As long as the United States supports Israel’s expansionist policies, there is no reason to expect them to cease. Tactics have to be designed accordingly.” He argues, to the frustration of many progressives, that popular opinion in the United States is not yet adequately aligned for BDS to be as effective as its proponents hope. His judgment seems accurate to these eyes, which is precisely why it is so important to focus energies on resurrecting the peace movement from its moribund state. Already, there have been Palestinian solidarity marches in major metropolitan centers throughout the country, which is encouraging. However, these need to be accompanied with teach-ins, lectures, and leafleting activities. Let us see this ongoing tragedy as an opening to excite moral outrage and encourage a new generation of anti-war activists.
In addition to addressing the U.S.’s role in legitimizing Israeli war crimes, a revived peace movement should speak to the ongoing and increasing use of extralegal drone warfare, which poses the terrifying prospect of perpetual robot wars in our future. Even former Obama administration officials admitted in a recent study that drones could lead us down a “slippery slope to wider war.”
We should further address continued clandestine war and influence peddling used to destabilize certain governments in favor of American puppets. We should illuminate the American role in propping up an oligarchy in Ukraine with fascist elements that have engaged in repeated political assassinations, including the sadistic incineration of 42 pro-Russian activists in Odessa. We can identify this as part of a broader push to expand American military power up to Russia’s doorstep, in violation of the promise of the post-Cold War peace dividend.
This renewed movement should also draw connections between imperial adventure abroad and increasing militarization at home. Indeed, the ACLU has done precisely that with a recent report documenting the sharp rise in SWAT and other war zone tactics by police departments throughout the country. Between the 1980s and 2005, the overall number of these raids increased from 3,000 a year to 45,000. The report found that only 7% were for “hostage, barricade, or active shooter scenarios”; i.e., those situations for which SWAT techniques were originally established, while a full 62% were used to apprehend suspected drug offenders.
Meanwhile, a military ethos has captured the American psyche, resulting in the rise of a crude and caustic brand of masculinity: all brawn, no sensitivity. This mirrors imperial hubris abroad and is rooted in a sense of male entitlement. From teenage kids gang-raping a helpless girl in Steubenville to George Zimmerman’s vigilantism and the recurrent spree killings in public buildings throughout the nation, the disease of American militarism does not only ravage innocents abroad. Through decades of disproportionate spending on armaments and the concomitant glorification of war and the warrior, violence has been turned into virtue. How can we pretend to criticize the jihadist abroad when it is precisely this sort of fatalism that we have nurtured at home?
And this is what is so unique about the U.S. compared to empires past. We are at war with ourselves. The spoils of conquest are not returned home and invested in extravagant displays of grandeur like in London, Paris or Moscow. Our cities are ratty shitholes by comparison. Our treasury has been plundered by war-makers for decades, leaving our infrastructure dated and decrepit. We lack the social democratic provisions of any of our industrialized counterparts. We are left with inadequate health care, terribly unequal school systems, and primitive levels of workers’ rights and protections. We are one of only a few nations to not provide maternity leave, likewise with not guaranteeing paid vacation time. While most of our European counterparts are now preparing for their annual 4-6 weeks of summer rest, we’ll plod on through the scorching summer heat, not an end in sight.
How many indignities is the American prepared to suffer before he does something about it? We need the peace movement now because it will enliven and animate all of the aforementioned issues. The repeated assaults on the Palestinian people will not end until Americans take action. The drones in the Middle East and the clandestine warfare in Eastern Europe will not cease until Americans demand it. The permanent posture of war will continue unencumbered until brave Americans stand up and show another way. Our treasury will continue to be looted by the war makers until we pry what is rightfully ours from their dirty, little hands. The path forward is clear: we diligently organize until we are back to the levels of engagement seen during the first few years of this millennium, when millions lined the streets throughout the world in protest, and the New York Times declared us to be the “Second Superpower.” If we can sustain the pressure for years on end, history tells us that we can fundamentally alter foreign policy through public pressure. Hopefully, liberals have learned their lesson about the uselessness of hoping for change from above, and won’t abscond again.