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First Person: Hell no, I won't go

A fundamental deception lies at the core of the peace & justice movement

Saturday, March 15, 2003

By Brian Connelly

Call me a chastened peacenik. For the first Gulf war, I made every vigil and demonstration in Pittsburgh (10 years before that, I was at peace rallies in Italy against American missiles coming to Europe). I think I was wrong.

   Brian Connelly is a writer living in Squirrel Hill (bc1z@andrew.cmu.edu).  

Watching people march again to give Saddam Hussein a longer lease on life, I wonder about 1991. Perhaps if people like me hadn't been in the streets, Bush Senior would have had the support to destroy Saddam's regime. Lots of Iraqis would still be alive and the world would be talking about something else. In my community, the largely liberal and prosperous 14th ward in the city's East End, I am getting funny looks saying these things to old acquaintances.

The first Gulf war taught me some lessons about the peace movement. For many actors and musicians, the concerts and demonstrations are basically self-promotion. A perfect example was last week's worldwide reading of Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata." Two little-known actors created and promoted the idea of the reading as a protest of the war. The two actors are now much better known.

Peace events are good gigs for sympathetic audiences. Gets your name around. Hollywood folk are so uniformly against Bush that the actor Harrison Ford took to the gossip columns to squelch a rumor that he might support him.

At the time of the Gulf war, I was friendly with members of the neo-hippie house band for the peace movement, Rusted Root. They played every demonstration, vigil and fund-raiser in Pittsburgh. At a rally marking the start of the bombing, the usual activists led the solemnities before the band turned it all into a very good party. At the time, smoking pot and dancing to greet death and destruction seemed life-affirming rather than sacrilegious. The war made the band's career: They emerged as Pittsburgh's most popular group (they're still popular) and the region's only platinum seller before Christina Aguilera came along.

Peace movement events can confer righteousness and seriousness on people who are not very righteous or serious. The idea that anyone's career suffers by being seen as unpatriotic is absurd. Anti-war credentials are fine entrees to the cultural and university community in Pittsburgh.

Creative hustlers are the most accessible face of the peace movement, but committed activists organize the events. They are good organizers because they are always organizing for a cause; the organizing seems more important than the cause itself. A looming war just gives them a cause that other people are actually thinking about.

I chewed over my Gulf war experience with activists while meeting the same people covering subsequent campaigns. At the core of the peace and justice movement, I believe there is a fundamental deception: Activists don't actually want to stop any war or get justice. If marches did stop a war, it would show that the government was listening. The purpose of peace and justice activism is to show that the power structure can never listen or change. Sincere and conflicted people become united in the idea that America is cruel and undemocratic.

This feeling is known as solidarity, and creating solidarity is what activism is all about. Join the struggle. And the struggle goes on: la lucha continua, win, lose or draw, por siempre. The idea that the struggle ought to accomplish something is not the point. The causes are place names, and allies come and go: Iraq, Chiapas, Palestine. The baleful power of America remains the eternal issue.

Like Christopher Hitchens, I have friends who passionately believe that John Ashcroft is more of a threat than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. (Ashcroft is a domestic obsession: Europeans tell pollsters that Bush is the real threat.) Ask how many people John Ashcroft has killed and they say that is not the point.

A lot of friends see no conceivable rationale for this war other than taking Iraq's oil. The idea that there even could be other reasons -- like that Saddam Hussein is a dangerous and uniquely ambitious dictator with a long record of killing people -- strikes them as unbelievable.

Likewise Afghanistan. At the beginning of the attack on the Taliban, some friends couldn't see why on earth we were bombing Afghanistan. "Why not bomb Hamburg?" they said, reasoning that the hijackers had also lived in Hamburg. Afghanistan too was surely about oil. Point out that something like 2 million people have since returned home to Afghanistan -- the U.N.'s estimate, not Bush's -- and they say that is also not the point. I don't see what else the point could be.

My friends I love. Bush I never liked and didn't help elect. I can't wholeheartedly cheer for a war against Iraq, right now. Few people can. But I'm wholeheartedly against the idea that there are no compelling reasons to end Saddam's reign before long.

Mine seems to be a minority opinion in the 14th ward. Civil conversation is becoming a struggle. The better-paid professionals don't demonstrate; they tell duct-tape and Bush-is-so-stupid jokes while finding the whole "evil" thing really uncool. Genteel ladies married to retired professors express disappointment in Colin Powell, who seemed like such a nice man. The only place around here to find three people who support Bush is among Orthodox Jews.

Whatever comes next, I am keeping my head low and many thoughts to myself. Hunkering down at home, I sympathize with the long-suffering Iraqis waiting to see what will happen over their heads. May the suffering end soon.

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