Iraq, MySpace and The Fading of Street Protests
I hope you enjoy today's biased coverage of this weekend's Iraq war demonstrations.
("Come quick, Martha -- the media's finally owning up to their bias!")
Anti- or pro-war, journalist, blogger or reader, we can probably agree that news coverage of events such as yesterday's rallies along the Mall routinely reveal a strong media bias toward covering crowds of people doing stuff outdoors, especially on a day featuring crisp air and brilliant sunshine.
I say this not to belittle the several thousand people who devoted their Saturday to the constitutionally sacred act of sounding off in their nation's capital. But after talking to many passionate people on both sides, I came away uncertain about whom they were trying to speak to and what they hoped to accomplish.
People at the pro-war, pro-surge Gathering of Eagles rally on the Mall and at the much larger antiwar, anti-Bush march from Lafayette Square to the Capitol had one thing in common: They were frustrated, both by smaller-than-expected crowds and by their inability to get their messages across, either in the media or to their elected officials.
"Nothing," Toby Mikle said when I asked what he expected would come out of the antiwar rally that he traveled to from St. Paul, Minn. "I'm really disappointed. I guess people are too busy with work. Everybody I know has two or three jobs."
At the pro-war rally, James Choate of Birmingham, Ala., attributed the lack of a massive turnout to many Americans' belief that they are safer than they really are. "Most of the country doesn't want to believe" that more terrorist attacks are inevitable, he said. "Everybody's getting a false feeling of security. Every morning, I wake up and just hope another 9/11 hasn't happened overnight."
There is, as ever, a vast middle range of people who don't have all the answers. They don't know whether it's better to withdraw the troops and let Iraqis kill each other or stick with a long-term military mission that has little prospect of success.
But many other Americans have concluded either that we must stay in Iraq and seek something called victory or that this is a war gone bad, and it's time to end it. The majority in both camps do not attend street rallies.
At any given moment, vastly more people argue and shout on Web sites and blogs such as dailykos.com and freerepublic.com than attended yesterday's rallies. Are new channels of protest pushing aside the grand American tradition of taking it to the streets? Protest organizers say it has become far easier to draw a crowd online than in person.
Why is it news when several thousand demonstrators take a pleasant walk through the city but not when many more express the same passions in an online forum?
Protest organizers are perplexed by their inability to turn high antiwar poll numbers into huge street gatherings. "The size and intensity of the demonstrations, protests and acts of resistance does not at all measure up to the vast magnitude of feelings against the Iraq war among the general population," says a treatise from the ANSWER Coalition, the main organizer of yesterday's antiwar event.
ANSWER blames a splintering of the antiwar movement. Some of the largest and best-funded antiwar groups neither embraced nor publicized yesterday's protest. Some organizers no longer see street actions as effective in changing minds or policies.
Does it advance a cause when people stand a few feet apart on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, some chanting "Hey Bush, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today?" while a man on the sidewalk shouts back, "Treason! You should be hung. You hate our country?" Do ritualistic antics and arrests for climbing over a barricade change any minds?
Hardly anyone on the streets seemed eager to discuss where to go from here. Many of those chanting slogans such as "out now" and "stay the course" find it hard to digest the notion that there are antiwar diehards who believe we must stay in Iraq to prevent wholesale slaughter or that there are true pro-war believers who have concluded that it would be immoral to allow more Americans to die in a war that cannot be won.
It would be a shame if our fascination with connecting electronically leads to the end of our history of gathering in throngs in the shadows of democracy's marble temples. But new ways of pressuring the powerful are evolving. It's hard to persuade someone who believes in the efficacy of online organizing that walking on a D.C. street is a better way to put the screws to politicians than, say, a demographically targeted e-mail fundraising campaign. Two hundred million MySpace members can't be wrong, can they?
Political organizers sound much like entertainment executives these days, as they wonder how to get people off their couches and into public places. But the real question isn't how to get people to engage in the old way -- it's how to use new ways to engage them where they are.
The same goes for reporters. Like flies drawn to a porch light bulb, we keep covering people who take to the streets. And we should.
But it's at least as important to get into the heads and hearts of those who spent yesterday in their living rooms and back yards or driving around doing errands, wondering, if only for a moment, whether their country is doing the right thing.
By Marc Fisher |
September 16, 2007; 6:33 AM ET
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