Why Johnny Can’t Protest

Reflections on December 16th

One can imagine a future where protesters who chained themselves to the White House fence last Thursday tell their grandchildren about being a part of it.

The good news is that it may be well on the way to becoming legendary, joining iconic Vietnam and Civil rights era Washington protests in our collective memories. If so, this will be at least in part due to a remarkable and deeply moving video documenting the event for posterity.

Framed by a searingly prophetic oration of Chris Hedges, alongside a Lincolneque cameo by Daniel Ellsberg, a procession of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans function as a kind of Greek chorus, bearing witness to the human wreckage of war, which they both inflicted and suffer from themselves, living breathing testimonies to Hedges “War is a Force which Gives us Meaning” and his subsequent, even more radical books.

But while recognizing that halcyon possibility we must also splash ourselves with some cold water. For in an important sense, the demonstration might as well not have happened in that very few, relatively speaking, have any inkling that any such thing–the largest demonstration of Veterans at the White House since Vietnam-even occurred.

The reason, as has been noted by Dave Lindorff among others is by now predictable: it was barely mentioned within those channels through which most get their information which is to say through major media: network television, high profile dailies and internet news outlets.

The underlying explanation for this black out should also be well known by now which is that the establishment media does not challenge but rather serves power.

We need to stop complaining and simply recognize corporate media complicity and censorship as the fact of life it is. And given this fact, we need to redirect our attention to monitoring those media outlets and individuals who claim to offer alternative to the corporate mainstream and give voice to the left, such as it is.

And this means, specifically, that we need to ask certain questions about their relationship to this event.

Among these are why did left media outlets such as commondreams, alternet, counterpunch Znet and others devote relatively little attention to the protest in the days leading up to it, even when it was already clear that it would be a major act of civil disobedience that needed, and deserved to be, reinforced by thousands of others. As for well known left writers such as Thomas Frank, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Katrina van den Heuvel why did they fail to write pieces in support of it, or even mention it, within the high profile platforms they have access to, thus getting the word out to many thousands some of whom were sure to have participated?

We can only infer the answers to these questions. But for at least two members of what might be called the “left establishment” we now have some grounds for making inferences. These are based on a recent initiative which attempted to move some of these figures from their prior positions of support, albeit highly critical support, of the administration into active opposition. Thus, in his reaction to the initiative (which he characterized as “weirdness”) Tom Hayden described the demonstration as “somewhat jusfified” while expressing doubts as to whether “it was a smart idea to begin with.” In short, an event of relatively little consequence, though Hayden did mention that civil disobedience could be “healing” for those participating in it.

In his reaction, Bill Fletcher made no comment on the demonstration confining his remarks to the observation that he was a strong critic of the administration.

It should be noted in this connection that while failing to mention the Dec. 16th event, even when specifically requested to do so, Fletcher has been actively involved in Washington demonstrations since the Obama administration took office, most notably the union- sponsored One Nation rally on October 5.

The differences between the two protests could not be more stark and are highly revealing.

First, one was a rally held at the Lincoln Memorial some distance from the White House while the other centered around civil disobedience at the White House fence.

Secondly, more significantly, the Veterans directly and passionately criticized the Obama administration and its policies. In contrast, at the One Nation rally, according to Patrick Martin of the World Socialist website:

“Nearly every speaker combined warnings of the consequences of a Republican victory in the November 2 election with appeals to those attending the rally to spend the next month in all-out campaigning for a Democratic Party victory. There was no examination of the actual policies of the Democrats, still less of the relatively insignificant differences between the two big business parties.
There was no criticism of the Obama administration by name, even by speakers who criticized some of the policies for which the Democratic president is responsible.”

These two protests clearly display an unmistakeable and unbridgeable difference in perspective-between support (including highly critical support), on the one side and active dissent and militant opposition on the other.

This distinction, which has immediate practical consequences for how, or whether, a protest movement will develop and flourish, admits of an explanation: in the opinion of many, much of the left leadership played a role in fomenting unrealistic expectations with respect to the Obama presidency. Their investment in the Obama brand prevents them from endorsing and playing a role in organizing protests of sufficient vehemence and intensity as these would necessarily shine a light on their failure of judgement and lack of credibility.

Whatever the cause, the course of action is clear: the institutional left establishment must get off the fence and show which side they are on-critical support or active opposition.

If not, they will be, regrettably, but justly and inevitably swept aside by the currents of protest which must inevitably now come into being.

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