Posts Tagged ‘social movements’

The movement to end the Afghanistan War is gaining momentum, and on March 12, it will gain some more. In a little less than two weeks, supporters of Rethink Afghanistan (“Rethinkers”) will get together with their neighbors in hundreds of communities to talk about what can be done locally to stop the war. We’re going to swap stories, share a coffee or a beer, and make the personal connections with other Rethinkers in our neighborhood that will carry us through to our goal of bringing our troops home. Join us in your hometown for Rethink the Cost, a worldwide Meetup for people who want to end the Afghanistan War.
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It may not feel like it while President Obama is talking about four more years of futile, brutal combat operations in Afghanistan, but the anti-war movement is winning. We just don’t know it.

Part of the problem is that most people in our movement have very little understanding about the way social movements grow and evolve, so we buy into narratives of failure and irrelevance, like this one from the September 4, 2010 issue of Politico:

Paradoxically, the anti-war movement has grown weaker even as public opposition to the Afghanistan war has grown stronger.  A recent Gallup poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed think the Afghanistan war was a mistake, compared with 30 percent in January 2009. But an anti-war rally in Washington in March 2009 drew fewer than 10,000 people — a fraction of the 500,000 activists who attended an anti-Iraq war rally in Manhattan in 2003.

This conflation of one aspect of a social movement–public anti-war rallies–with the entire movement is common, even among activists. That’s why people like CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan can be fully aware of the massive public opposition to the war but still say things like this:

“We don’t have a very vibrant anti-war movement anymore,” lamented Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink, one of the anti-war movement’s most visible organizations.

“I basically think that it’s over,” Sheehan said.

It’s a common idea among people who consider themselves activists that a lack of huge rallies, marches or mass demonstrations equals a dead movement. Thankfully, these activists are just wrong.

The author of the Politico article quoted above unwittingly described a social movement that is succeeding and that has outgrown a particular stage of its life and moved on to a much more powerful and widespread incarnation. According to Bill Moyer’s seminal 2001 book on social movements, Doing Democracy, huge rallies, marches and other demonstrations are expected to fade away as a movement progresses through the various stages of its life toward success. If we look at the movement through the lens of Moyer’s model of social movements, its clear that not only is the anti-Afghanistan War movement not “over,” but we’re winning.

There are eight stages of social movements in Moyer’s model (excerpted from p. 44-45):

  1. Normal times. A critical social problem exists that violates widely held values; the public is unaware of the problem and supports powerholders. Problem is not a public issue.
  2. Prove the failure of official institutions. Many new local opposition groups spring up. Social movement members use  official channels –courts, government offices, commissions, hearings, etc. — and prove in the process that they don’t work. Movement members do research and become experts.
  3. Ripening conditions. Recognition of the problem and its victims grows as the movement makes the victims’ faces visible. 20 to 30 percent of the public oppose powerholder policies.
  4. Take off. Trigger event(s) occurs. Dramatic nonviolent actions/campaigns occur that show the public that the problem violates widely held values. The new social movement rapidly takes off. 40 percent of the public opposes current policies.
  5. Perception of failure. Movement members see goals are unachieved and powerholders unchanged. Numbers at demonstrations decline and it seems like a return to normal times. Despair, hopelessness, burnout, dropout pervade the movement. The “negative rebel” emerges more strongly.
  6. Majority public opinion. The majority of the population opposes conditions and powerholder policies. The movement demonstrates how the problem and policies affect all sectors of society, involving mainstream citizens and institutions in addressing the problem. Problem is put on the official agenda and alternatives promoted. The movement must begin to counter each new powerholder strategy while powerholders demonize movement and its alternatives. The movement promotes a paradigm shift and seize on re-trigger events.
  7. Success. Large majority opposes current policies and does not fear the alternatives. Powerholders split off and change positions, changing policies, losing power or lose by attrition. New laws or policies are instituted. Powerholders attempt to make minimal reforms while movement demands broad social change.
  8. Continuing the struggle. The movement extends its successes, opposes attempts at backlash, promotes its paradigm shift and focuses on other sub-issues. It recognizes and celebrates its successes so far.

The trick to models like this is that they can tend to convey to users that there are clear demarcations between the stages, but the truth is that the transition between them is murky, and sometimes two stages can overlap. Despite that, Moyer provides a very useful framework for discerning where the movement is and what it’s job is at this point in the movement’s life.

I’d argue that the movement to end the Afghanistan War is in a combination of Stages 5 and 6, Majority Public Opinion and Perception of Failure, with the first hints of Success peeking through. Here’s my evidence:

  • A solid majority of Americans opposes the Afghanistan War. Most Americans think we shouldn’t even be involved there (Quinnipiac University Poll. Nov. 8-15, 2010), most think it is a lost cause (Bloomberg National Poll conducted by Selzer & Co. Oct. 7-10, 2010), and most want troop withdrawals to begin on or before July 2011 (Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Aug. 25-26, 2010).
  • Alternatives are being proposed. The Council on Foreign Relations, the thermometer of Very Serious Thinking on foreign policy in Washington, D.C., has proposed rapid troop withdrawals if progress isn’t being made (and it isn’t). The Afghanistan Study Group proposed a significant troop reduction beginning next year. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace proposed its own withdrawal plans. And, of course, anti-Afghanistan-War activists have been calling for withdrawals on a much faster time-line for months now.
  • All of this has contributed to a drastically altered national conversation about the war, which now focuses almost entirely on how and when we withdraw our troops. The administration attempts to diffuse solid public opposition by offering vague, unacceptable withdrawal time-lines, but this is exactly what the model predicts–an attempt by powerholders to co-opt the language and momentum of the movement to diffuse opposition without offering solid concessions. This is an indicator of success, and even though it’s frustrating as hell, it’s something that should be recognized and celebrated as a milestone of progress toward the end goal.

And yet, the movement is struggling with a perception of failure. Many of the activists I talk to express feelings of burnout, cynicism, and powerlessness in the face of the powerholder intransigence. I often feel these things myself. Moyer’s description of the Perception of Failure stage probably resonates with a lot of us, emphasis mine:

…[T]the high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing. It has not achieved its goals and, in their eyes, it has not had any “real” victories. They come to believe that powerholders are too strong and are determined not to change their policies. Moreover, the powerholders and the mass media report that the movement is dead, irrelevant, or nonexistent. Activists in Stage Five also believe that the movement is dead because it no longer looks like it did at the start of the take-off stage: the numbers at demonstrations and civil disobedience actions have dropped substantially. Many Stage Five activists develop cynical attitudes and some turn to destructive behavior. (p. 59)

But, Moyer cautions that these feelings and the powerholders’ intransigence are poor indicators of progress for the movement precisely because “powerholders will be the last segment of society to change their minds and policies.”

He also warns that the intellectual and emotional capital that we built up at the beginning of the struggle–the expertise about the depth of the problem and the knowledge of the damage it does to the victims, the burning drive to devote every waking minute to the fight, etc.–can begin to work against us personally. We fail to celebrate the milestones along the way to ending the problem, and we fail to take time for “adequate rest, leisure, fun and attendance to personal needs.” We overwork, we can’t see the forest for the trees, and we burn out. But that feeling of burnout is about us, and isn’t a good measure of the movement’s progress.

Think about the changed dynamic between this year and last year.

At this time last year, the public opposed the Afghanistan War, but President Obama decided to push ahead with a troop increase. However, this president, who campaigned on escalating the war, was compelled by public opposition into providing a concession: “In 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” he said. War supporters worked mightily to redefine that concession into meaninglessness, and after McChrystal resigned in disgrace, General Petraeus worked to try to convince the American people that we were “making progress” even when it was obvious we weren’t. He failed spectacularly, and public opinion remained solidly in opposition to the war. As it was prior to the last two decisions by President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, the war is clearly failing to achieve the stated goals of its supporters. And yet, somehow, the option of sending another major surge of troops is off the table, even though administration officials have repeatedly stated that the troop levels have not been “capped.” That didn’t just magically happen. The political environment shaped by the work of anti-war activists did that.

Today, there’s an end date to combat operations on the table. This date is too vague, too far out and comes with too many loose ends, but it’s not insignificant. We’re past the “ifs” of withdrawal and are into the “whens,” and whether we realize it or not, powerholders have entered into a bargaining process with public opinion.

Now, it’s incumbent on us to recognize powerholders’ true intent here. As Moyer warns, the purpose of this negotiation is “for show and to confuse, defuse, split, and co-opt the opposition. Any serious negotiation will not happen until Stage Seven.” They’re hoping slapping a vague end date to something like combat operations will act as a steam valve on public opposition. Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. But again, regardless of the powerholders’ intent, this move on their part is a sign that we’re making headway and are on the road to bringing this war to an end.

The success that we’re headed for, by all indications, is what Moyer calls the “quiet showdown” or “victorious retreat.”

A quiet showdown happens when powerholders realize that they can no longer continue their present policies and they launch a face-saving endgame process of “victorious retreat.” Rather than admit defeat and praise the movement for its correct views and its principled stand, the powerholders adopt and carry out many of the goals and policies that were demanded by the movement. The powerholders claim credit for victory, even though they have been forced to reverse their previously held hard-line policies. the mainstream media complies by reporting this as a success of the powerholders. (p. 76)

President Obama and his administration will likely never say anything like, “Man, you anti-war activists really shut me down. Good job. We’re ending combat operations because I can’t sustain political support if I keep pushing policies in opposition to you.” What he will say is something like, well, what he’s saying right now. It will be something along these lines:

“Thanks to the outstanding performance of our troops and General David Petraeus, our assessment shows we’re making sufficient progress to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, if not before, and we’ll end combat operations by [insert end date here].”

We’ll do every thing we can to push that end date forward in time, and the generals and the pro-war politicians will do what they can to roll it back, but in the end, we will end this war. The president will do his best to save face, the media will, as always, comply and convey the powerholders’ narrative, but we’ll tell our grandchildren how we ended the Afghanistan War.

Most people agree with us that the Afghanistan War isn’t making us safer and isn’t worth the cost. The national conversation has shifted onto a playing field that is advantageous to ending the war. Further major troop increases appear to be off the table. The powerholders are fencing with us, attempting to co-opt the energy of our support base through the use of the language of withdrawal, yet offering as little as possible in the way of real concessions. The latter can be frustrating, but is also a sign that they cannot ignore us and the sentiment we’ve helped generate in the public at large. This is no time to get complacent, but it’s not a time for despair either.

Take care of yourselves, keep your eye on the prize, and keep up the fight. It’s later than you think.

Jesus Military Patches

Although you’d never know it, the holiday we celebrate as Veterans Day began as a day for “thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations,” according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Not anymore. Today is a day for glittering generalities and conflation of Christian love with trigger-pulling.

Even my own church got in on the fun, declaring this Wednesday’s service a “Special Veteran’s Day Eucharist:”

On Wednesday, November 11th the 7:00 am and noon services will commemorate the service our veterans have given to our country. …All are invited for special prayers and thanksgiving devoted to the courageous persons that have made our country a place of freedom, justice, and peace.

Now, aside from my theological hangups about a Christian church cheering on militarism, this also happens to have the extra bonus of being blatant propaganda. This statement must refer to some platonic ideal of the U.S. military. It manages at once to ignore a great many crimes committed under the war flag against freedom, justice, and peace and to place all the accomplishments of every social movement in the lap of the military. Were the members of the U.S. military under General Winfield Scott who participated in the Nunna daul Isunyi involved in making our country a place of freedom, justice, and peace? I’m sure a few of my ancestors might be somewhat surprised to learn that little bit of history.

Of course, there are many things to celebrate about military life: discipline, self-sacrifice, etc. Those are things Christians and the anti-war movement could learn from our brothers and sisters in the military. The danger is that we focus on those things to the exclusion of the flip-side of military life: demonizing enemies, violence, killing. When we do this, we run the risk of baptizing radically anti-Christian behavior and transforming troops into Paschal lambs.

This is not meant to be an attack on the members of the military. It is, however, a reminder that military service is not a Christian vocation. Veterans are not saints. Military service is not holy. Killing someone through a night scope is not love of neighbor. Veterans need special pastoral care due to the nature of their experiences–fine. Many people want to thank veterans for allowing their hands to remain clean even though they don’t subscribe to Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence–understandable. Veterans need our love, just as every person does–and they should have it. But I’ve sat in a room where priests called war “sin,” right next to the “sins” necessary for women to maintain their reproductive rights. Will next Sunday be Abortion Sunday? Any guesses?

The point is that, even if you think war is a “necessary” evil, we don’t hold Eucharists to celebrate “necessary” evils. The Eucharistic prayer celebrates the Man of Perfect Love, the nonviolent Jesus of Nazareth. Is it too much to ask that we not bow and scrape to the sword of Caesar at the table of the Kingdom of God?