Saturday, November 27, 2004

Covering Dissent

Tom Hayden argues that "[c]are will have to be taken during such militant actions [as mass demonstrations and civil disobedience] to send the clearest possible message to mainstream public opinion" ("How to End the Iraq War," AlterNet, November 23, 2004).

The proverbial "mainstream public" who do not directly participate in such militant actions, however, will only see or hear of them through the media. How did the media cover them during the Vietnam War?

After studying the media coverage of the anti-Vietnam War movement, Melvin Small concluded:
From the first major demonstration in April, 1965, to the wild Mayday activities of May, 1971, the media framed their stories in terms of the size and composition of the crowds attending antiwar events, and especially the absence or presence of violent, bizarre, or countercultural behavior. Aside from reporting that the protesters wanted out of Vietnam, the media virtually ignored the political discourse that served as the centerpiece for most antiwar activities. They rarely exposed casual readers and viewers, who constituted the bulk of their audiences, to the rationales behind protest activities" (Covering Dissent: The Media and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1994, p. 160)
As even the largest anti-war mobilizations only involved a minority of Americans, fine points of "the message" -- beyond Out Now! -- never reached those who only saw them on TV, heard about them on radio, or read about them in newspapers.

What lesson may we derive from Small's research as we seek to rebuild a movement against the Iraq War? Since the media do report on "the size and composition of the crowds" and their behaviors (Small, p. 160), anti-war organizers -- rather than wrangling with one another about speakers' lists and contents of speeches -- should concentrate on expanding the size of the crowds and sending a message not through words but through the social composition of the crowds and their actions. What message should we seek to send? Masses of Americans are opposed to the war, among whom are an increasing number of GIs, veterans, and military families, who can embolden soldiers deployed in Iraq to disobey and refuse to take orders. Workers and oppressed communities such as Blacks, Latinos, and Arabs -- who are capable of literally stopping "business as usual" for production will stop without their labor -- are at the forefront of opposition. And if the power elite refuse to end the war, the nation will become ungovernable.

Does that mean that "political discourse" doesn't matter at all? It does, but it mainly matters to those who get involved in mass actions, rather than their spectators. How we talk about the Iraq War before and after the mass actions in our own communities, linking it with the war against workers and oppressed communities at home as well as other wars abroad, makes the difference between helping end this war and creating conditions for building our own bases of power.

1 comment:

doug said...

This is good. I agree. Good speechifying is not critical, but it can help people have good things to say when they go home to spread the word to their friends and family. A well written leaflet, good banners, signs, slogans, chants, theatre etc. are good also. The reason people compete for the stage is because it tends to confer leadership status on those who occupy it. We need to elevate people to this position in as democratic a manner as possible. I've actually seen decisions over speakers made not on the basis of who someone represents but how much money they bring to the table.