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The tide turns

Not since the anti-Vietnam protests has the United States seen such an upsurge of opposition to war. While those involved are aware that they may not succeed in stopping war with Iraq, they are determined to keep up the pressure from within. LATA MANI surveys the progress of the peace brigade.

THE Bush administration is facing mounting domestic opposition to its ambitions for global domination, as a multi-platform social justice movement gathers serious momentum, challenging war and repression within and beyond the borders of the U.S. In the wake of September 11, it would have been impossible to predict this turn of events. For although organising against the inevitable war of reprisal began without delay in the aftermath of the airliner crashes (an estimated 12,000 people marched in protest in New York City the day the bombing commenced in Afghanistan) it seemed as if, though vital, the resistance movement represented a minor current. This is no longer the case.

A number of factors have contributed to the turning of the political tide, with promising implications for those committed to peace and to a progressive vision for humanity. Among these one may note the following: an economy imploding under the weight of corporate greed and recession, a Government intent on cutting social spending while inflating military expenditure, and the insistence on corporate tax cuts alongside the refusal to intervene on behalf of those systematically defrauded of their savings and pensions by the `kleptocrats' of the Big Five, Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Global Crossing and Tyco. Add to this the decimation of the constitution and Bill of Rights in the name of anti-terrorism and the disregard of the United Nations and of international law, and you have the basis for growing unease among an increasingly broad cross-section of the public.

Even to those who see themselves as moderates, the Government appears to represent narrow interests and seemingly to care as little for the welfare of its own citizens as it does for those of other countries. In this context, the insistence on declaring war on the world sounds to increasing numbers of people like a drum beat for an impossible battle in which innocents on all sides of the conflict will die in violence waged by unprincipled men. The conviction has grown that the current posture of the U.S. will harvest more hate, more insecurity and more terror.

If this sounds unlike the U.S. as brought to viewers by CNN and reported on by major media, it is because these have, by and large, paid no attention to these developments, so accustomed have they become to representing the perspective from inside the Washington beltway. The role of the media in massively underreporting popular opposition to the 1992 Gulf War is now well known. But what has changed this time around is the availability of the Internet. This has made it possible for nationwide communication to take place despite what is effectively an unspoken blockade on dissenting views, broken only by the occasional report or op ed piece presenting a contrasting perspective.

The new mood in the country was forcefully expressed in context of the resolution giving President Bush the unilateral authority to go it alone vis--vis Iraq. Barring the 23 Democrats who came out against the Bush resolution prior to the debate, the Democratic party had hoped to rush the measure through Congress so that it could concentrate on its strong suit, `domestic issues'. Leaving aside the question of how war can possibly be considered as `not a domestic issue', what was remarkable was the unprecedented pressure representatives faced from constituents, who occupied their offices and phoned and e-mailed them in thousands, asking that the resolution be voted down. For instance, Robert Byrd (Democrat from West Virginia) stated that in the week leading up to the vote, he received nearly 20,000 phone calls and 50,000 e-mails from across the country, supporting his fight against the resolution in the senate. And MoveOn, (a political advocacy group "committed to broadening citizen participation") reported that in response to its call for action, 143,000 phone calls had been made to Congress opposing war and the Iraq resolution, in addition to the submission of a petition signed by over 200,000 individuals.

Equally significant are the growing numbers who are joining in national and local demonstrations, peace vigils and pickets against the domestic and foreign policy of the current administration. Such actions are being reported not merely in large urban centres with a history of social activism, but also in rural small towns and in the conservative heartland. Cincinnati, Ohio, is a case in point. Chosen by Bush as a safe city from which to make his televised case for the war against Iraq to an invited audience hand-picked by the local Chamber of Commerce, he was met by over 5,000 protesters chanting, singing and waving banners. Organised in less than a week through e-mail, leaflets and word of mouth, the protest highlights many of the features of the current political upwelling.

The rally was multi-racial and brought together labour, anti-globalisation, and anti-racist activists, with environmentalists, pacifists, religious groups and large numbers of people, including high school students, who had never before demonstrated. Such a multi-racial turnout in a city known for its economic apartheid and police racism expressed not only the success of recent attempts to build coalitions between groups, but also a growing disenchantment with the current administration and with the political system, more generally.

Given the economic downturn and spiralling health care costs, the Bush administration and its largely non-existent Democratic opposition is being seen to evince a general lack of concern for all its citizens. This indifference, which had been reserved primarily for the underclass in the U.S. and the disenfranchised abroad, is now being seen to extend to the population as a whole. This sense is uniting a wide spectrum of individuals and groups in asking questions not just about the so-called war on terrorism, but also about the nature of U.S. democracy. Ergo the current popularity of the sarcastic slogan taken from the Seattle anti-globalisation protests, "This is what democracy looks like!"

In this context, it is no surprise that the language of protest systematically turns the Bush administration's claims on their head, asking for `regime change in Washington,' noting that the U.S. is the country with the biggest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and a demonstrable record of their use. Even the representativeness of Bush (like that of Saddam Hussein) is being debated, as evidence of suspicious irregularities, voter purges and police intimidation in Florida in the hotly contested Presidential elections of 2000 have become more widely known. Bush is now frequently referred to as the `President Select' who came to office by a judicial vote, and bumper stickers ask for the `re-election' of Al Gore.

It would not be surprising if those who had long opposed the policies of the U.S. were the ones expressing such sentiments. What is noteworthy, however, is that this kind of critique is crossing over into a broader domain. And current events only enhance the credibility of such views. To cite only one example, as a result of persistent electoral improprieties in South Florida, the Washington based Center for Democracy will be observing the elections there on November 5. In the past, the Center for Democracy has been called in to monitor elections in `fledgling democracies' like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Russia!

If Bush had hoped that war against Iraq would provide a diversion from the sorry state of the economy, and if the Democrats had hoped to keep the focus only on the economy, they are clearly mistaken. The pro-peace, social justice movement that is daily gathering force is insisting on joining the dots. And the broader the coalition gets, the more complex the links being made, for instance, between the war on terror and the so-called war on drugs launched in the African-American and Latino communities in the 1980s. One speaker at a 10,000 strong rally in San Francisco on October 6 likened the elimination of Saddam Hussein to the arrest of a street corner cocaine dealer; picking on a minor player while permitting the international drug and arms trade to continue unimpeded. Environmentalists are challenging the `war for oil strategy' which has propelled U.S. economic and military policy and underwritten its lifestyle, linking it with the absence of government funding for renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.

Likewise, media activists are dubbing the mainstream media `weapons of mass deception,' and making readily accessible information about media consolidation and fact manipulation. For example, the day after Bush's televised pro-war October 8 speech, the website of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting posted a point-by-point rebuttal of his inaccuracies and misstatements. And, even as Congress debated the Iraq resolution, the issue of domestic democracy was dramatised in a protest outside its walls, as activists for campaign finance reform linked `yes' votes to the amounts received by elected representatives from weapons manufacturers who are set to profit from any war effort.

Not since the anti-Vietnam war protests has such an upsurge of opposition been witnessed. And unlike that earlier period, the breadth and depth of opposition has manifested relatively early in the process. Those involved are fully aware that they may not succeed in stopping an all out war with Iraq. But they are bound and determined to keep up the pressure from within. And given the range of concerns being raised and addressed (including a two state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict) and the links being made between the economic, the political, the ecological, and the moral health of the U.S. and the world, it is unlikely that these voices will fade away into the wilderness any time soon.

The writer is a historian and cultural critic and is the author of Interleaves: Ruminations on Illness and Spiritual Life.

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