Thursday, April 16, 2009

Janos v. Kos

Earlier this evening, Kos, founder of DailyKos, one of my favorite sites for several reasons, launched into this misguided screed:
It slams the tea-baggers, which we all know was a tough journalistic assignment, but also totally disses Code Pink and street protesting generally in the process. Why Kos felt compelled to rip apart another aspect of the same broader movement he's part of is beyond me, but my response is below, and cross-posted at DailyKos here:
Why Tirades Against Code Pink Are Wrong and Unhelpful

While I back Kos about 95% of the time, his bizarre screed against Code Pink makes no sense. Kos should not belittle activists who work towards the same causes he does, but if he is going to slam two organizations whose anti-Bush opposition predated DailyKos, I’d like to at least rebut with what street protesting has meant to me, and the specific experiences I’ve had with these organizations.

I’ll start by agreeing with Kos on a couple key points. Street protests often accomplish little individually. They are sometimes poorly run, and the messaging can be very muddled. ANSWER peddles simplistic and trite anti-imperialism lines that no one takes seriously. This much I’ll concede.

In mid-September of 2001, when like most New Yorkers, I was shell-shocked from 9/11, I trudged up to Dartmouth to begin my sophomore year of college. The country was rumbling towards war in Afghanistan. Something in my heart told me that it wasn’t right to bomb a destitute country “back to the stone age” over the actions of terrorists hiding out in caves. With some effort I tracked down a group of students going down to Washington to protest the war. Twenty of us in two vans drove through the night to attend the ANSWER-led protest rally, joining between 10,000 and 15,000. We were a proud part of the 9% that did not support a reckless invasion and a lengthy occupation.
I can speak to the sentiments offered by Cas2 in response to Kos, part of the benefit of the trip was a “feel-good/solidarity” notion. But it was more than that.

When we returned to campus, the core from that trip formed the Dartmouth Progressives. Over the next three years (and beyond, though I graduated), this group published our campus liberal newspaper, hosted speakers, and led efforts in local and national activism. To this day, I can count several close friends from that van ride. Stepping back more generally, protests are a chance for people to see, not just hear, but to see before their own eyes, that there are thousands of people who think like them, who are passionate about the same causes as them (at least!). That was truly eye opening for me at that first rally, and lord knows how many of my friends had similar experiences during the protests leading up to the war in Iraq, which featured thousands of “normal” people marching in the streets.

They felt GOOD at those rallies! And why not? There is an empowering feeling to walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, chanting “whose streets? Our streets!” Sometimes, sorry, almost all the time, America has to be woken out of its slumber. Why did it take Camp Casey to wake people up to the war, Katrina to expose the Bush administration, the AIG bonuses to get people asking questions about bailout money? A good protest is like a strong cup of coffee in the morning.

Would I ever suggest that marching up and down a pre-selected march route will change a policy by itself? Of course not. Neither will blogging. Would I prefer that a different group than ANSWER run these big protests? Probably. And I will show up when well-organized, on message, politically pragmatic people start regularly organizing major demonstrations. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Now on to Code Pink. Kos laid out four principles for protests to live by, based on his vast experience/observations.
1. Be novel or unexpected
2. Have a sympathetic, singular, and media-friendly message
3. Provide great visuals
4. Tap into a hot-button and timely issue

1. How often do you see old women leading a protest movement? Or even women, which is part of their point.
2. Say what you want about Code Pink, but they have a simple message (end the war) delivered by sympathetic (ok, sometimes sympathic) women. Code Pink also delves into other tangents now and then, but war is their bread and butter. No more wars. Simplistic, but right more often than not looking at the past fifty years.
3. Um, they are DRENCHED IN PINK.
4. Even though this answer applies more to ANSWER, any issue that can get thousands of people in the streets is a hot-button and timely issue. And the war in Iraq is a timely issue. People are still there dying. The escalation in Afghanistan is timely- it was just ordered. I actually admire Code Pink, both for taking off Inauguration Day from protesting, and for continuing the protests the next day. It will be untimely for Code Pink to protest war when we don’ have any more war.

In the interest of full disclosure, anyone who clicks on my profile will see that I helped put together weekly events in Union Square, NYC, from February-April called “Make Out Not War”, which were affiliated with CodePink. Though Make Out Not War never garnered many spontaneous make out sessions like we envisioned, we handed out hundreds of Make Out Not War stickers, posed for many photographers, from amateurs to local media, and we spoke to primarily young passerbys about the war. We had regulars who joined us, and of that group, few had any serious activist history. And as far I know, we followed the Four Kos Principles. It wasn’t the best protest ever organized, but if it reminded even a few people that we are still fighting a senseless war, campaign promise or not, then it was worth it.

In closing, I’ll say this- it takes all kinds to make a progressive movement. We all know this. That’s why we donate money to our favorite progressive candidates. That’s why we knock on doors. That’s why we stop work to read a diary post by a blogger we’ve never met or heard of. I’ve been reading DailyKos since 2003, and touting it since I first laid eyes on it. But some people just want to march in the streets. I, for one, think every part of the movement helps it move forward, and at different times have contributed to as many parts as I can. So thank you, Kos, for helping keep this excellent site running, and let’s please not pretend we can get anything done without being in the streets, where all the people are.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the Graveyard of Empires

I have always appreciated the freshness that President Obama brought to a broken, artificial political process. Only a few years removed from anonymity and relative powerlessness himself, Obama understands and fears the power of the mainstream media and special interest groups to shape and drive debate in this country. Throughout the campaign, particularly the more intimate settings of early primary season, I saw Obama plead for us, the Democratic primary voters, the progressive supporters, to hold him accountable once he won. He does not want people like me to support him blindly, he wants us to tug on him to the left, make some noise, and raise some hell, because God knows how many insidious forces will give no quarter in dragging him in the wrong direction.

That is why my honeymoon period with the President is over. Let’s start with the first issue to ever move me to the streets, the senseless war in Afghanistan. From the beginning it was a misguided adventure, where we sent 15 year old boys with pitchforks and rifles as proxies to fight the Taliban on the ground, carpet bombing and incinerating the already devastated countryside with 15,000 pound Daisy Cutters and dropping yellow cluster bombs that looked tragically like yellow food package drops. Children continued to be maimed by cluster bombs that failed to diffuse on impact long after our initial invasion. And despite the death of as many Afghani civilians as died on our soil on September 11th, we had little to show for our effort- most of Al Qaeda’s leadership had escaped, along with one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar. We installed an oil hack, Hamid Karzai, as the glorified mayor of Kabul. Seven years later, the Karzai presidency faces its first serious electoral test, facing Haji Baryalai, whose main platform is reconciling with moderate members of the Taliban. Yeah democracy! That was worth it! Can we leave now?

Unfortunately not. President Obama wants to double-down, sending at least 30,000 more troops to a land that is actually called “the graveyard of empires.” It’s funny, during general elections all candidates are expected to make promises they don’t keep- just part of the game. When Obama would constantly bring up sending more troops to Afghanistan, it seemed like a pretty transparent ploy to make him seem tough, given his very well known (some chicken hawks would call it ‘weak’) position on withdrawing from Iraq. Especially when the recession could have given him an economic excuse, or at least sufficiently distracted the public, it seemed like the Afghanistan troop surge would quietly exit. And yet, here he is, sending more troops without any political demand whatsoever. It’s one of the few campaign promises he’s been able to follow through on. This insistence not only surprised me, but probably our European allies, who probably also thought he had been bluffing all along. When he went to Europe last week to ask him for more troops, the main response was, “No, are you joking?” Italy, France and Germany may send something like 2400 troops to help monitor elections, but then they’ll bounce. No, it will just be us, hanging out, living out a wretched, doomed plan.

Shockingly, the American people may actually come around on Afghanistan faster than the President. A USA Today/Gallup poll released on March 17 showed that 42% of Americans thought the U.S “made a mistake in occupying Afghanistan”, a number so mind-blowing that I did a triple-take when I passed a newsstand that morning and saw it. The recession is clearly a factor- the number was only 30% a year ago, and has been on a steady trajectory since its all-time low of 6% in January of 2002, back when we “won.” Maybe Americans don’t see the point in propping up a corrupt government in a country that exports 75% of the world’s heroin (though not 75% of the world’s heroines). Whatever the reason for the change of heart, I’ll take it, because that’s a number that will only go up.

I’d feel worse about opposing the troop escalation if it had any logical basis to it. Apparently, the current problem in Afghanistan is our troops are too centralized, and when we raid outposts in the countryside, extremist groups/Taliban/Al-Qaeda/local tribes tend to regroup as soon as we leave. Our solution is to send these reinforcements to stay at the outposts, so these enemies can’t regroup. And I imagine that these people, who have lived in the area for thousands of years, will eventually be discouraged by our makeshift barracks and surrender, bringing true democracy to Afghanistan. Assuming our presence in those regions last…forever?
Oh, and how could I leave out the “training”? You know, training the troops and the police officers. The thing we were so good at in Iraq. I’ve actually spoken to someone who had to train cops in Afghanistan, who told me the biggest problem he faced was illiteracy. “You can’t even give them a manual, assuming you had one in their language in the first place.” I understand that Obama is genuinely nervous about that region of the world imploding. After all, Pakistan is a deeply unstable nuclear state, and Waziristan is truly a threat to regional and global security. Sending unmanned drones in to blow up wedding parties and civilian homes isn’t going to solve the terrorist recruitment problem, though. The solution lies in partnering with India and Pakistan, both of whom have serious concerns about Waziristan-driven terrorism.

The politically savvy-to-the-point-of-cynicism in me says that perhaps Obama is only out front on Afghanistan to neutralize Republicans on the only issue that they could even lay a glove on him for in the ’08 elections, which is national security/foreign policy. Republicans have completely lost the battle on social issues (See Iowa) and Obama’s domestic plan, including the stimulus, is extremely popular. Cut off on foreign policy, Republicans will likely turn to nativist anti-immigration screeching and try to tie Obama to the bailout crisis, the latter being Obama’s biggest political vulnerability today. If all this ruminating is correct, Obama will turn around once his cute little “Afghani-surge” is over and bring the troops home.

On a related note, please continue to join us for Make Out Not War on Saturdays, 4pm-5pm, in Union Square. In my mind, this is the war I am making out against.

On a happier note, please enjoy David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing Christmas carols:
I know. It’s been a weird day.