The other day I was stuck in traffic behind a car with a bumper sticker that simply read, “Kennedy-Johnson.” With its primary colors and declarative block letters, the vintage sticker was cute in the way of most retro ephemera. Perhaps, though, it was a distress signal to the past — not the sentimental past of caramel apples and maple-leaf bonfires, but a time when the White House didn’t regard every American as a potential enemy. And, on the other hand, a time when Americans themselves braved police dogs and fire hoses to express their outrage over a seemingly endless range of injustices.
Outrage has been conspicuously missing in the American conversation for a long time. Even the motherless mass of disaffected citizens who are variously described as “progressives” or “the left” often seem to have lost their voices — and the will to brave nothing worse than the June sun. A peace march earlier this month through downtown L.A. was small compared to the massive rally that was held in a hammering rain days before the war began.
Two days earlier, I spoke with Art Goldberg and his wife, Susan Philips, both of whom came of political age during the upheavals of the 1960s and who helped found Neighbors for Peace and Justice, whose sign-waving members you see standing at intersections during Friday rush hours. Why, I wanted to know, has the peace movement shrunk when American casualties in Iraq are increasing and amid revelations of the torture of Iraqi prisoners? For that matter, why did the protests fall off as soon the war began?
“I think a lot of people who lived through the Vietnam War,” Philips says, “were convinced that they could not speak out against [Iraq] because they were vulnerable to charges that they were putting down the troops — because of the myth that people spat on veterans.”
Goldberg, who had been active in the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, notes the difference in outlook between the youth of two generations.
“We thought we were just gods of this new period,” he recalls of the ’60s. “That kind of spiritual feeling allows you to spend 12 hours a day handing out leaflets. But the young people today have no political culture of struggle or analysis whatsoever — there has been no political unrest in this country for the past 25 or 30 years.”
Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that election-year politics are tying the peace movement’s philosophy to two words, “No War” — at a time when the U.S. is already fighting a pair of them. Perhaps American politics have become too complex — and paranoid — to summarize on a button or bumper sticker. Or perhaps protesters are tied to another pair of words: John Kerry.
“Had this not been an election year, it would be different,” Philips says. “The anti-war movement is pinning its hopes on Kerry, and he is not asking for a withdrawal of the troops — which would be the logical thing to ask for. The position is that if we strongly articulate withdrawing from Iraq, this will make Kerry look bad and help Bush. It’s stifling the debate over what we should do, and that really worries me because that’s a discussion the country really needs to have.”
But why should a peace movement gear itself to a man who isn’t a peace
“Several months ago,” Philips continues, “our group took the position that our goal is to defeat Bush. That is primarily the reason for our work, and we won’t do anything that will not work toward that end. I think that’s what’s happening all over the country, including those people who in their heart of hearts believe we should withdraw the troops.”
“We had a terrible fight in our group — the worst fight we’ve ever had,” Goldberg says. “Because some people don’t want to be that anti-war because they’re afraid we’ll embarrass Kerry.”
What lies at the bottom of this, of course, is a fear factor among progressives — and not only of the possibility of a second Bush term.
“People are very fearful of the government because of the Patriot Act in a way we weren’t,” Philips says. “People know people who have been picked up. My father is a Roosevelt Democrat and not prone to hysterics, but he believes this is as close to fascism this country has been in his lifetime.”
Today Goldberg and Philips think the peace movement is roughly where it was just before the war began. I remind Goldberg of just that time, when he told me he believed America would be in for a prolonged occupation of Iraq and that after six months anti-war protests would begin spreading again across the country. (The early June march would suggest otherwise.) What would they have done differently?
“I think we were too decentralized,” Goldberg says. “We should have established a bigger peace network throughout Southern California — with people on the Westside, with Muslims and with the ANSWER people.”
Which brings us to the ongoing criticism of groups like ANSWER (Act Now To Stop War and Racism) and Not in Our Name, whose rallies tend to pack in long lists of angry speakers for a variety of “anti-imperialist” causes.
“There is less yuckiness now than in the ’60s,” Philips says, “but as the [Iraq] war came closer and closer, the speeches got more strident, and I found the numbers became fewer. Although Palestine and Israel are very relevant to the issue of Iraq, the rhetoric of the Palestinian-Israeli issue does turn people off. I was involved in the New Jewish Agenda for many years, and the Palestinian-Israeli issue destroyed that organization completely. The most important thing we can do as a progressive community is to draw in as many people into this tent as possible, but I would like to see us link the movement up more to domestic issues.”
“Books not bombs,” Goldberg says.
“I work in the schools,” agrees Philips, “and can tell you that half the bathrooms in the city’s schools are locked, kids don’t have books to take home, and that’s all directly related to war spending. But I don’t have a clue where the anti-war movement’s going, post the election.”