February 15, 2007 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Wide awake in America

“The years that are gone seem like dreams — if one might go on sleeping and dreaming — but to wake up and find — oh! well! Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
    — Kate Chopin, The Awakening

I can’t be the only one who feels a bit disconcerted about the current state of political affairs. Members of Congress are questioning the President’s policies. Pundits and talk show hosts are openly skeptical about any prospects of success in the Iraq War. The Democrats swept into power on a rising tide of antiwar sentiment, and are speaking openly about reigning in presidential power and restoring accountability over the wretched abuses and excesses of the past six years. Alleged liberal Barack Obama has begun a serious White House bid.

I should be happy, right?

But I’m not at all. I mean, I am glad for the change in political tenor, but instead of feeling satisfied, I end up mostly with a combination of bitterness and guilt. When I watch TV or read the news, I have this strange sense of almost Brechtian disconnection. I look around and it seems like America is waking up from a spell, like the country spent years under deep hypnosis, mindlessly and mechanically marching off a cliff. And now the Jedi mind tricks are losing their effectiveness, but we’re still in fucking free fall.

I feel bitter because I spent years yelling at everyone to wake up, and I feel guilty because I don’t think I tried hard enough. I’m bitter towards the 71% of Americans who supported this stupid Iraq War in the first place, but eventually changed their minds when it dragged on longer than expected. Then I feel guilty for despising ordinary people who didn’t have the chance to seek alternative viewpoints back in 2002 and 2003 and trusted their leaders to do the right thing. But then I get bitter again because the information was all easily available, for anyone with the mildest curiosity or a moment’s skepticism. Sigh.

And my anger is directed, more than anything, at the “journalists”, opinionmongers, and political operatives whose shoulders I rub up against on the streets of Georgetown, who squeeze past me for an ESB at downtown bars, who work at all those pallid organizations — like the acronymned party apparatus or the vaguely ideological think tank — that I have become all too familiar with in my life as a Washingtonian. This establishment set, the people who write editorials, devise campaign policies, and show up on Sunday talk shows, forged a broad consensus after the 2001 terrorist attacks in favor of “toughness.” Since then, they’ve had a change of heart, and what feels like a country waking up is actually a political and media establishment shifting focus, turning its spotlight on new voices that had been screaming and jumping up and down in the dark for years. (I am basing this analysis on an excellent article by Matt Taibbi that speaks on the same topic far more eloquently than I could. Taibbi notes that “the real responsibility for the Iraq war lay not with Bush but with the Lettermans, the Wolf Blitzers, the CNNs, the New York Timeses of the world — the malleable middle of the American political establishment who three years ago made a conscious moral choice to support a military action that even a three year-old could have seen made no fucking sense at all.”)

The establishment felt that anti-war opposition was not “serious” and therefore could be ignored. In this they were following a pattern that had been set years before, one that I had become more acutely aware of in the wake of the anti-globalization protests of the late-’90s and early ’00s and the Nader campaign of 2000. The media had a standard method of dealing with grass-roots protest: snicker at protesters; portray them as ill-informed, naive, logically inconsistent, and prone to violence; emphasize the lunatic fringe; and ultimately ignore them.

You hear a lot about how there has been no anti-war movement compared to the Vietnam era, but this is a viewpoint espoused by those with selective memories of the ’60s and ’70s, and those who have been wearing blinders for the duration of the Iraq War. A couple weeks ago there was yet another big anti-war rally, that didn’t receive much more coverage than all the other ones I’ve attended in recent years. I didn’t even go to this one; I was busy, and bitter, and guilty.

The thing is, protests almost never really accomplish anything. The First Amendment fully enshrines the “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, but it simultaneously provides for freedom of the press to completely ignore protesters. If anything, protests almost make things worse, because they make the majority of people uncomfortable — they are too in-your-face for the mild-mannered masses. The nation was founded in Revolution, but has never been comfortable with revolutionary rhetoric — we don’t learn much about Shays’s Rebellion or the Bonus Army in school. The protesters of the ’60s and ’70s get a partial pass because they tapped into the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and because the media still romanticizes them — it helps that the baby boomers have such lasting power and that pop culture revolves around rock music. People tend to forget that “despite its romantic image, the anti-war movement of the 1960s wasn’t always effective and created a backlash against progressive Democrats that lasted even into the 2004 presidential election, activists and historians say.”[1] Modern anti-war activists are a savvy lot, and are trying hard to prevent spitting-on-veterans and Hanoi Jane narratives by influencing the political process from the inside, which means leaning on the media and policy establishment to change their tune. It’s been pretty effective in a sense.

But in reality, it’s way too late. The price of freedom, as Jefferson said, is eternal vigilance. Five years of hitting snooze left us in horrendous shape, ensnared in an unwinnable war that seems likely to have all the opposite effects from what its designers envisioned: a violent, undemocratic Iraq, an unstable Middle East, and an America seriously weakened in international status and in actual global effectiveness. At least the alarm is ringing at last, but it is so late, so late.

I’d like to think the nation’s collective alarm clock is playing the Arcade Fire, so we can get the following lyrics stuck in our head:

Wake up
Hold your
Mistake up
Before they
Turn the
Summer into dust.