January 21, 2003

A more direct activism

A more direct activism

Some 300,000 people, among them a cadre of University of Chicago students who commuted in vans and cars, arrived in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to protest the proposed war in Iraq. They drew various prominent public figures to support what has increasingly become a public cause. The event looks to be some kind of culmination of numerous months of smaller-scale rumblings.

While the goals of that protest (and others) are laudable, we are concerned that noble goals are not enough to make a cogent public argument. They are noble in their abstraction--war is an incomprehensible tragedy--but their abstraction itself is the greatest failing of these goals. Floating above the heavy foundation of history, the sentiments of the anti-war protesters lack weight and substance.

Much of the anti-war rhetoric is just that--anti-war, not specifically anti-invasion-of-Iraq. Such a viewpoint must battle not only the direction of the administration but also the direction of history. These battles are much less easily won. A member of Britain's Parliament is quoted in today's story on the protest as saying that "a world of peace can only be achieved if we are a world built on social justice." Such a comment, directed against war in general, ignores the social justice that can be found in, say, Britain, as a result of war--World War II.

Similarly, James L. Lawson's defense of non-violent protest at Rockefeller Chapel on Martin Luther King Day--a defense that resonates with current anti-war sentiment--offers a similarly idealized view of history. "Wars have not advanced freedom for the American people" is a statement that ignores the fact that our current national peace arises from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Non-violence is effective only when the opponent is receptive to the tactic. Gandhi succeeded in British India but would not have achieved more than a moral victory in the absence of certain key circumstances. The aims of non-violent dissenters would be best served in answering the question of whether social injustice in Iraq can realistically be overturned through non-violent means.

Certainly, not all wars are just; for every war that has established good in its wake, there are more that have lead only to more violence and injustice. Dissent over an absurd maelstrom such as Vietnam was not only justified but necessary as well. Yet these protests were often directed against the specifics of the war, something that protesters of an invasion of Iraq have failed to do in any compelling way. The future is directed by the past, and the most effective way to prevent war in general is to prevent specific conflicts. To prevent specific conflicts, protests must have specific and targeted goals, a lesson of Dr. King that has been lost by the American left. Right now, the message of the anti-war protests has been spread thin, making it all the easier for hawks to run their lances through.