THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING ANTIWAR MOVEMENT
Today's protester, lacking guts, gets no gloryBy Rex W. Huppke
a Tribune staff reporter
June 3, 2007
That shrill sound you're hearing isn't coming from the cicadas. It's the cackle of conservatives reveling in war protester Cindy Sheehan's abrupt decision to leave the anti-war movement and return home to California.
Typical liberal, they're saying. Cut and run.
Apparently, Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, was withering from the heat of public activism and grew disillusioned with the apathy of her fellow modern-day peaceniks. She embarked on her crusade two years ago and willingly became the face of the anti-war movement -- a movement that now appears to lack a face and guts.
Despite a rising tide of public discontentment with the war, turnouts at protest rallies nationwide have shrunk precipitously. The Democratic Congress, swept into office on a wave of anti-war sentiment, showed the timidity of a neurotic deer mouse as it handed President Bush the war funding he requested without any stipulation for troop withdrawal.
One would expect at least a smidge of public outrage.
"I think what's extraordinary right now is how there hasn't been a major street presence at any point during the war," said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of the book "Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente."
"If anything, that presence has declined in the past months, even as the public outcry against the war has been increasing."
Sheehan's departure and the flaccidity of America's anti-war movement raise deep questions about this country's moral fortitude. Unlike the protesting icons of the 1960s and '70s, members of today's "anti" crowd struggle to maintain momentum.
During the first major Iraq war protest in Chicago in 2003, 10,000 people turned out. This year, on the fourth anniversary of the war, hot on the heels of President Bush's controversial troop surge, only 3,500 Chicagoans took to the streets.
And this lack of follow-through isn't unique to war protesters.
Chicago's first immigration rally last May drew 400,000 people, but the second rally this May brought in only 150,000. In the immediate wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in April, there was considerable hue and cry over gun control -- what happened to that?
Today's activists seem easily bored and distracted, content to simply blog away their angst and then move on to the next issue that flares up. One has to imagine Abbie Hoffman -- Vietnam War protester and proud member of the Chicago Seven -- writhing in his grave.
So what's keeping people from raising hell? Where is the fervor and esprit de corps of the American protester? Why were the rabble-rousers of the '60s and '70s so potent, while those of today are so, to put it politely, "non-potent"?
There are likely several reasons.
For one, there's no military draft. That means fewer opponents are frontline stakeholders in the war. Nothing incites passion quite like fear, and as long as we have a volunteer military, the butts on the line won't be those of the anti-war contingent.
Outlook is another factor. The youthful idealism of generations past has largely given way to a cynical view of politics and life in general. It's harder to get into a good college. It's harder to get a good job. Politicians seem increasingly disingenuous.
"People really feel like they lack efficacy today," said Rachel Einwohner, a Purdue University sociologist who studies protests and social movements. "Despite what lots of people around the world think, despite opposition, this administration just proceeds with a particular agenda. Maybe activists look at that and say, 'What could we possibly do?' They're forced to wonder how they can stop it."
In 1962, a group of college students meeting in Michigan created a manifesto called the Port Huron Statement, which laid out a path for a near-Utopian democracy. Those young men and women truly believed they could change the world, and their fervor carried on through the sweeping civil rights and Vietnam War protests of that generation.
Now when Suri, the Wisconsin professor, shows a copy of the Port Huron Statement to his students, they laugh out loud, mystified that anyone could ever have been so naive.
"It's not that they don't care; it's that they don't believe they can make a difference," he said. "Students have become very risk-averse. They care, but they're afraid that if they go out and get involved in something they might not get into law school or get the job they want."
Indeed, since camera phones and YouTube, would-be rebels engage in sit-ins and other forms of civil disobedience at their own peril, knowing that images some might deem incriminating could easily come back to haunt them.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, better communication technology may actually be taking a bit of oomph out of political activism. People once had to come together in smoke-filled coffeehouses to plan demonstrations. Now they just stay home and hammer out mass e-mails, expanding their reach but eliminating the close personal bonds that were the glue of past protest movements.
"People can have these virtual online communities and have all these conversations online without ever coming together," Einwohner said. "That might explain why we have this massive disapproval of the war, but we don't see the visible public mass protest. Maybe all those folks who in another era might have been out on the streets, maybe they're home sharing their ideas and opinions with their best blogging buddies."
And maybe that, in part, is what drove Cindy Sheehan away. It's unlikely there has ever been a mother of a soldier killed in war who has been so publicly pilloried. And by the end of her two-year run, as she aimed her criticism at Democrats as well as Republicans, Sheehan was getting it from the right and the left.
Of course, she put herself out there. She allowed this to happen. But in the end, this Gold Star Mother, who came of age in the '60s and '70s, simply didn't fit in the modern-day world of protest.
She was blogged down by a society that seems incapable of clinging to any cause for too long. And like many of us, she was probably disheartened to learn that what's blowing in the wind these days isn't the answer.
It's just a lot of hot air. ---------- firstname.lastname@example.org
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