Todd Gitlin (toddgitlin.net) contributes regularly to TPMcafe.com and is the author of The Intellectuals and the Flag, forthcoming from Columbia University Press.
There come moments in the course of all movements when they go mainstream, despite the best efforts of their enemies to demonize them and of their most radical elements to purify them. Such a moment has probably arrived in the case of the current anti-war effort. But pitfalls also loom.
You cannot trade on certainties in such elusive matters, because events intrude. But a probable turning point arrived the evening of Wednesday, August 17, when (according to Moveon.org) some hundreds of thousands around the country turned out for more than 1,600 candlelight vigils to express solidarity with Cindy Sheehan at Camp Casey outside Crawford, Texas. In White Plains, N.Y., the more than 100 who gathered included, I was told by a correspondent, loads of soccer moms, Little League dads and plenty of their kids. In Indianapolis, 400 turned out. A few days later, it was 2,000 in Salt Lake City, addressed by the Democratic mayor . Elizabeth Edwards wrote a piece supporting the vigils, though not necessarily total withdrawal. Most Democrats continue to duck anti-war demonstrations, though ex-Senator Gary Hart has urged them to come out of hiding. But the growing anti-war base is unlikely to let them rest easy in silence.
This is, by and large, not a movement of extremists, as casually charged (August 22) by MSNBCs White House correspondent Norah ODonnell in an interview with former FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley, now a Democratic candidate for a House seat in Minnesota. Rowley had paid a visit to Sheehans Camp Casey in Crawford, and told ODonnell: The majority of the people I saw down in Crawford were actually veterans groups. There were military families and At that point, ODonnell cut her off.
It wont be the last time a journalist cuts off a mainstream war protester in mid-description. The heat is rising. As the American Legion condemned all public anti-war protests, an AP-Ipsos poll said 87 percent of Americans thought protests legitimate. But the White House and its surrogates will surely continue tarring Sheehan and her supporters and anyone else they can find with the gaudiest brushes they can find. And some on the lefts margins will step forward to play their assigned role.
The historical analogy game is as irresistible as it is tricky, so here goes. The Sheehan vigils are reminiscent of a moment in the fall of 1969 when the anti-Vietnam-war Moratorium organized thousands of events across the country. There were big demonstrations in the usual locations, but the striking thing was the turnout in small and medium locales and places not noted for hippies or cosmopolitanism. Then too, the media caught on to the scale and diversity of the turnout. The demonstrations were in synch with public opinion. Around that time, according to Gallup, 49 percent supported some troop withdrawal, and 78 percent wanted it faster than Nixons pace.
Now too, as with Vietnam, the public has long since concluded that the Iraq war was a blunder in the first place. Moreover, now the hawkish side of the spectrum is much weaker than the withdrawal side. But this doesnt mean the public knows what it wants done. In polls, a lot depends on the question asked, and the results, though not splendid for Bush, are not automatically running toward withdrawal. According to last weeks AP-Ipsos poll, 60 percent say American troops should remain until Iraq is stable, as against 37 percent who preferred immediate withdrawal. (Foolishly, Ipsos offered only these two choices.) Early in August, Gallup found 56 percent for either total or partial withdrawal (as against maintenance or increase), with the largest single bloc, 33 percent, going for total withdrawal.
Heres the rub about 1969: As the war became less popular, so did the anti-war movement. It was hated, in factby the end of the decade, the most hated entity in America. In the 1969 Gallup poll I just cited, as Harold Meyerson reminded his Washington Post readers in June, 77 percent disapproved of the antiwar demonstrations, which were then at their height. To what degree this was because the movement was reputed to be against the troops, to what degree because of confrontational revelries and symbolic anti-Americanism on the left, to what degree because of psychic projection, who can tell? But all this was a gift to Nixon, and it has been the gift to the right that keeps on giving.
Perhaps mindful of this inauspicious history, one unnamed correspondent during a recent Washington Post chat wrote the following:
The anti-war movement really has to learn about behavior. The candlelight vigil thing was great. That's the sort of action that makes sense, actually makes for good PR, and draws in the mainstream .But sadly, too much of this has been run by the Giant Puppet, Bongo circles for peace, and Street Theatre crowd. For example, the upcoming United for Peace and Justice rally is going to protest the war, the World Bank, Israel, and demand unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. All accompanied by Trustafarians with bongos and Giant Puppets.
When the mainstream sees that idiocy, they start considering that the pro-war side may have a point. I opposed this joke in Iraq from day one, and I find these folks silly and counterproductive. The anti-war movement needs more adults in charge, not folks trying to pretend its 1968 all over again, without all the drugs.
The September 24 Washington rally referred to above is co-sponsored by International ANSWER, which along with Stop the War in Iraq offers these slogans: Support the Palestinian Peoples Right of Return, U.S. out of the Philippines, and U.S. out of Puerto Rico. (Somehow help for Darfur is missing. That must not be anti-imperialist enough.)
Cindy Sheehan has already been Swift-Boated, and theres probably more coming. With their poll numbers sinking, Bush and Karl Rove need reinforcements. Theyll go down and dirty, as usual. Those who rightly want to dissent from the whole awful Bush war will have to decide, once again, how to do so in such a way as to increase their leverage and avoid getting painted into a corner.