Saturday, January 20, 2007

America in protest

Todd Gitlin weighs in from Sundance on a movie about the Chicago protests of 1968:

In Park City, Utah, an audience of some 1500 cheered. That was Sundance's third sold-out auditorium in a row for Chicago 10, which opened the festival out here where the crisp air ought to concentrate the mind. This morning, the Salt Lake Tribune fronted this: "'I made the movie because it was the kind of movie I wanted to go see, to mobilize the youth of this country to get out there and stop this f---ing war,' yelled filmmaker Brett Morgen."

One thing the frigid air ought to concentrate the mind on is that a majority of the people in 1968 who watched the awful Chicago riot coverage in their living rooms sided with the police who were smashing the demonstrators' heads.

But you won't learn this from the film. Nor will you learn that a bit more than two months after these stirring events, the American electorate went to the polls and chose Richard Nixon president of the United States--and he proceeded to wage that horrible war in and on Vietnam for several years, and millions of casualties, more.

It's the black magic of movies--your viscera get a workout because emotion lacks consequence. You watch the streets fill up with angry, brave, sometimes funny, sometimes creative, sometimes merely provocative crowds (and the agents provocateurs among them, well represented in Morgen's selections from the trial transcripts) without being invited to reflect on how wild confrontations backfire.

As the American public was turning against the Vietnam war, it was also revolted by the antiwar movement. And the public's acrimonious turn not only helped Richard Nixon reap the whirlwind, it helped the right win the post-war recriminations...whereupon you can flash forward to George W. Bush and his awful, unending, crackpot war.

That’s quite a fast forward. In it, you might have missed the 20 years or so in which we didn’t start any wars, and the ten years in which we waged a couple of wars that had widespread international support. That’s nothing to snort at, given our record during the past 5 years.

The reason I'm taking your time for this stroll down memory lane, in case you were wondering, is that today's antiwar movement is about to accelerate. The discipline that kept it brilliantly focused on defeating the war party in '04 and '06 finally paid off in the Democratic Congress that is just beginning to strut its stuff. It would not at all be surprising if 2007 turned out to be a big year for antiwar demonstrations. The focus will be off Congress and onto the streets. I would guess that the January 27 march in Washington will be big.

The netroots have been much savvier, if less colorful, than the '68ers. They are not inviting a backlash. Those who go to the streets now ought to tread just that carefully, too.

An objection to Gitlin’s warning: the antiwar protests in 2003 had this in common with MLK’s marches: they were nonviolent. Mainstream America in the ‘60s was unsettled by many things about the protesters then, one of which was their sometimes violent methods. From what I’ve seen, violent protests of the kind seen at Seattle in 1999 have been absent in today’s antiwar movement. The marchers I saw in 2003 were boomers with families, professionals, veterans, and yes, students as well. They looked like people you’d see on the subway—a pretty good cross-section of middle-class New York City. I don’t see this crowd clashing in the streets with police and raising fears of the dissolution of society.

1 comment:

Karla said...

One other thing I object to about his article was the overgeneralized use of "The American Public." Some of the American public was turned off by the protests (including perhaps the Republicans in power from Reagan through Bushes I and II, but plenty were not. I was only ten years old during the Chicago police riots, but I remember watching and hearing about them with interest. My parents were and are Republicans, but by the time McGovern came along I was a confirmed leftist. My consciousness raising was no doubt mostly due to innate early-teen rebelliousness, but some because there was actually an alternative. The publicized left gave my natural concern with justice, equality, and compassion a place to be. I'm glad I didn't come of age in the 50s, when there were no protesters, no counterculture, no alternative to "normalcy."