Wartime Depression

by Geov Parrish

Dissident Voice

April 12, 2003


Now is when it really hits.


After the initial wave of 24/7 news coverage and demonstrations in the streets, the reality remains. The bastards are getting away with it.


The Bush Administration defied logic, international law, and the wishes of virtually all humanity, and launched an unprovoked and unnecessary military invasion of a country halfway around the world. Their rationales have all been proven ridiculous -- there's been no weapons of mass destruction, no Al Qaeda counter-attacks, and for damn sure no Iraqis welcoming the Americans as liberators -- and nobody seems to care. The shock, horror, grief, rage, sputtering impotence all finally echo away into silence. And still the pundits chatter and the bombs fall.


What to do?


For me, in many ways, the U.S. street demonstrations of the first week were nearly as depressing as the invasion itself. They were primal screams, by definition unsustainable, when what is desperately needed is sustainable responses. They were expressions of what protesters have felt they need to say, rather that what protesters felt other Americans needed to see or hear.


They have been reactions to what has been done, rather than demands for what should be done now. They were the shopworn tactics, iconography, and slogans of 40 years of left street protest. They have turned their backs on the far broader segment of Americans who have in recent months also been alarmed by this government's direction, but who have over a matter of decades expressed quite clearly that they find the activist left's tactics, iconography, and slogans to be profoundly unappealing.


This is what powerlessness does. Primal screams happen when there is nothing else left, when citizens feel not only that they have not been heard, but that by definition we will never be heard. It's barely removed from simply giving up and tuning out -- which is what more people in America than in any other Western democracy choose to do, and what many current activists, in this war as in past ones, will also choose to do.


The thing is, I don't want to be heard. I want the policies to change, the killing to stop, the living to start. If going mute would do that, I'd happily go mute. Policy change isn't simply a function of decibel level or of number of heads counted at a march; it's also a function of having clear policy alternatives, and putting into power people willing to enact those alternatives. Chanting "no justice, no peace! (Until we go home in an hour)" is easy; building long term change is much harder. And "The People" know it.


Until about a week before the invasion began, there was a clear alternative to war: the inspection process, which at minimum bought time, at best was a path out of an artificially induced, but nonetheless real, crisis. When that was lost, so, too, were many members of the new anti-war movement, because there was no "next step," no contingency plans in the peace movement's demands beyond lame and hypocritical calls to "support the troops."


Possibilities abound, from a movement to have the U.N., rather than United States, take part or all of the post-invasion administration of Iraq -- something Europeans are demanding -- to a concerted push to unseat Bush in 2004. Yet at the moment more protesters are trying to impeach Bush (which is not, repeat not, repeat NOT going to happen) than to elect a Democratic president in less than 19 months.


This isn't simply a matter of pragmatism; it's also earning, in the public's eyes, the legitimacy to make moral as well as pragmatic demands. In modern American politics, the messenger is as important as the message, and one does not gain moral legitimacy simply by having one's policy preferences ignored. I guarantee, for example, that a thousand people registering new anti-war voters would get far more attention and respect, with more lasting impact, than last week's protests -- from the public, from decision-makers, and from those numbers opposed to the war and to freeway blockades.


You're an anarchist and hate electoral politics? Fine. Don't just sit down in front of cars because we're waging a war to feed our SUVs and everyone should abandon theirs, and then wonder why people who could be on your side but need to get to work are angry at you and vote for Bush next year. Resist taxes, and teach others to do the same (locally, the Nonviolent Action Community of Cascadia, at 206-547-0952 or www.nacc.info, has tons of resources and counseling on how to do it.) Teach tax resistance (and redirection). Start some alternative community institutions that meet a need other than your own.


The socialist and anarchist movements of a century ago had some traction because they started with the community's needs, not their own ideas. Take some risks that mean something to other people, not just to you and your friends. For goodness sakes, even take some time to study something about political science, military science, communication, mass psychology, something, anything more goal-oriented than what most of the protest left has over the past 30 years ossified as.


Long-term or even short-term organizing is not as much fun as marching on a freeway, but then, the people on the front lines waging this war probably aren't having much fun, either. A lot of them probably don't want to be there; some probably don't even like the orders they're getting. But they signed on to do what was necessary, up to and possibly including death, for a larger cause. That's a major reason why virtually every segment of American society gives them respect. Religious figures, until proven otherwise, command the same respect for much the same reason.


In the public's eyes, the average demonstrator, and the theoretically moral movement he or she represents, has done nothing within light-years of that level of moral legitimacy. Protesters may disagree, but if we want to change policy in this country, whose opinion is more important -- that of the advocate, or the advocate's audience?


The United States, at the moment, is careening away wildly from all but one country -- Israel -- in terms of how its public views the world. For those of us who do want to challenge it, there's much we can't control. Barriers to such changes in U.S. public perception are formidable. The military complex in this country has enormous money behind it, enough to employ millions of people earning (except for the soldiers) a comfortable living building pieces of a repugnantly employed whole. Mass media is currently dominated by a range of political opinion that makes Genghis Khan a centrist, and that acknowledges dissent usually only in the course of ridiculing it. Both major political parties are corrupted by corporate money almost beyond redemption.


But what we can control is what we say (and hear), how we act, who we appeal to and work with, and to what ends. Much of the political rhetoric in this country, from both the rabid right and progressive activists -- with or without a war in progress -- is so over the top and intolerant as to be anathema to a secular democracy, and many Americans yearn for something better. What is lacking is a coherent, appealing alternative. Times of crisis and maximum dissent are precisely when those alternatives should be on display -- not when they should be abandoned for the protest equivalent of comfort food.


Many of us who have opposed this war feel frustrated and powerless; it is an emotionally charged time. Remember this sensation. Remember how unpleasant it is. Then resolve to do what you can to ensure that neither you nor future generations of people who care about their world will be put in this place again. And start -- or continue -- working to do something about it.


It's a long, sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating process, but somebody's gotta destroy this system and build something new, before it destroys all of us. It might as well be us. Consider the alternative.


Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for the Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! This article first appeared in Eat The State!



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