Manufacturing our Dissent, p. 3

III. Some Complications

There are at least two important objections to these seemingly basic strategies for activism.

First is that by tailoring our message too much, we may do a disservice to our core beliefs. For example, following the strategy above when speaking against a war on Iraq would mean focusing on American troops and potential American causalities in a war that is likely unnecessary. This is a highly effective tactic -- "Don't put our boys in harm's way!" - and it may yet carry the day in the public debate.

And yet, many Leftists are really more concerned about the harm done to innocent Iraqi civilians. They/we want to talk about the Iraqis, who they are, what their grim reality has consisted of for the last 12 years, and what they have in common with Americans. Our nation has a history of violent foreign policy, and this is due in no small part, to an ignorance of other nations and cultures: Talking about the Iraqi people and using associations that force Americans to think about "equality" and "freedom" for people other than themselves (something Americans have quite a hard time doing) may not be as immediately effective as pointing out American casualties, but is an important step in changing the cultural logic.

Likewise, maybe the 'real issue' here really is capitalism, imperialism, or corporate plutocracy. Maybe Iraq is just a symptom of a much larger disease, and we would be fools to run after symptoms while letting the patient get sicker and sicker.

So which is right - the strategy that wins this particular battle (i.e. stopping the Iraq war) or the strategy that might, eventually, win the war (i.e. stopping the system that creates eruptions like the Iraq war)?

The answer depends on the goals of protest. My view is that every American has a right to know about the Iraqi people, and that the Left should help them exercise this right. But I admit that talking about our boys in uniform might be more effective in the short term. Really, there is no easy answer.

The second objection to the strategy above is to claim that no tactic on our part will escape sabotage by right wing corporate media, that our agenda will be discredited regardless of the strategies we devise. I share this fear. In fact, it is the basic premise for the strategies I have outlined: we are going to be reduced to sound bites, so let's carefully regulate what bites we provide.

But let's also give Americans some credit. Some of them can see through the biases of the corporate media - biases not in the conventional Left/Right sense, but always towards providing the most cheap and titillating images of "protesters" or "radicals": always the Anarchist pulling a Spike Lee on a Starbucks, never a thoughtful anti-globalization speaker talking about wealth distribution. Many people are starting to understand this, and many more are starting to get their news from other media channels. Maybe there isn't any hope for American mass culture, but then again, maybe there is.

The point of the strategy articulated here is that there is a difference between a public rally and a cocktail party discussion, just as there is a difference between an academic discussion of "death" and the real death likely to be visited on Iraqis and Americans later this month. In public speech which has as its context the possibility of real violence, the standards are different from those of a three-hour graduate seminar. What affects the violence is what matters most, not the niceties of ideology. If the Left could stop the war by selling Anna Kournikova pictures with subliminal messages, wouldn't it be worth it? Maybe tactics of engaging with the mainstream alienate some college kids carrying Marcuse in their messenger bags. But which is more important - the sophomore's angst or saving an Iraqi family from dying as part of "collateral damage"?

This is not a discussion among friends and rivals. This is the American mainstream, an armed and dangerous mob. And if you haven't noticed, our voices are absent.

[1]       [2]     3
Images: CNN & ABC

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