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Existential Politics: Eight Hours in the Basement for Peace
Kevin Zeese and George O'Neill are trying to form an anti-war coalition of people with views from the right, left and radical center, views of many Americans left out of current debates.
By Sam Smith
Editor's Note: The first parish I served as a pastor, in the late 1960s, was in Washington D.C. in the "Capitol East" area where I met the writer of the piece below, Sam Smith, who then edited a weekly paper there. He has always maintained a very independent and honest perspective on politics. In this piece he talks about an effort to bring people together from widely differing political viewpoints to try to reconstruct an anti-war movement in this country.
Last Saturday I spent eight hours with three dozen other people in a basement conference room of a Washington hotel engaged in an extraordinary exercise of mind and hope.
The topic was, by itself, depressingly familiar: building an anti-war coalition. What made it so strikingly different was the nature of those at the table. They included progressives, conservatives, traditional liberals and libertarians. Some reached back to the Reagan years or to 1960s activism, some - including an SDS leader from the University of Maryland and several Young Americans for Liberty - were still in college.
In a time when politics is supposed to be hopelessly polarized along the lines proposed by Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann, the most heated debate occurred not between left and right but over tactics between Ralph Nader and Bill Greider.
There was an economics professor from a naval war college and the executive director of Veterans for Peace; there was Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, me from the Progressive Review, and editors from the American Conservative and Reason Magazine.
The session had been conceived by long time activist and current head of Voters for Peace, Kevin Zeese, along with artist George D. O'Neill, Jr. who had been chair of the Rockford Institute, a leading traditional conservative intellectual think tank in the 1980s, and who had worked on Pat Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign.
What we shared was an antipathy towards war. It was not so much that we were anti-war as we were seeking a post-war world. Our approaches might differ but our goals were, at worst, next door.
As Zeese put it in an introduction the session, it was about "views from the right, left and radical center, views that reflect those of many Americans which are not represented in the political dialogue in Congress or the White House, or the mainstream media. Throughout American history there have been times when movements developed that were outside the limited political dialogue of the two major parties. . .
"Polling actually shows majorities often oppose war and escalation of war. But these views are not represented in government or the media. In addition, opposition to war is not limited to people on the left; it covers the American political spectrum and it always has. There is a long history of opposition to war among traditional conservatives. Their philosophy goes back to President Washington's Farewell Address where he urged America to avoid 'foreign entanglements.' It has showed itself throughout American history. The Anti-Imperialist League opposed the colonialism of the Philippines in the 1890s. The largest anti-war movement in history, the America First Committee, opposed World War II and had a strong middle America conservative foundation in its make-up. The strongest speech of an American president against militarism was President Eisenhower's 1961 final speech from the White House warning America against the growing military-industrial complex. In recent years the militarist neo-conservative movement has become dominate of conservatism in the United States. Perhaps none decry this more than traditional conservatives who oppose massive military budgets, militarism and the American empire.
"Of course, the left also has a long history of opposition to war from the Civil War to early imperialism in the Philippines, World Wars I and II through Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It includes socialists, Quakers, social justice Catholics and progressives. Indeed, the opposition to entry into World War I was led by the left including socialists, trade unionists, pacifists including people like union leader and presidential candidate Eugene Debs, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams and author and political activist Helen Keller. . .
"Opposition to Vietnam brought together peace advocates with the civil rights movement, highlighted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s outspoken opposition to the war. . . .
"What are the ingredients for a successful anti-war, pro-peace movement?
- The anti-war movement needs to be a reflection of not just the left but of Middle America and traditional conservatives who oppose war.
- A successful anti-war peace movement cannot give up the flag of patriotism. It needs to grab hold of America's patriotic impulses and show the United States can be the nation many imagine us to be-leading by positive example, helping in crisis, being a force for good, rather than propagating military dominance and hegemony.
- A successful anti-war movement needs to be a place where veterans, from grunts to generals, can openly participate, share their stories and explain the lessons they learned from American militarism.
- A well organized anti-war movement will have committees not only reaching out to military and business, but to academics, students, clergy, labor, nurses, doctors, teachers and a host of others.
- The 1960s tactics of big marches and congressional demonstrations have their role but they are not sufficient. The media and government have adjusted to them. We need to use tools like voter initiatives and referenda to break through and put our issues before the voters. And, we need to learn from around the world what has worked; for example, general strikes, whether of a few hours or few days, have shown unified opposition to government policy
- Make war relevant to Americans' day-to-day lives by constantly linking the cost of war to their communities, incomes, and bank accounts. People need to learn that Empire is not good for the U.S. economy.
- Both parties are dominated by pro-militarist elected officials. The anti-war movement needs to be strong in criticizing candidates who call for a larger military, escalation of war, or other militarist policies."
Clips from the bios of those at the session suggest the unusual cross-ideological and cross-cultural presence:
- A Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. He also is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance and served as a Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
- His leading work includes a biography of historian William A. Williams, the Encyclopedia of the American Left, five volumes on the lives and work of the Hollywood Blacklistees, . . . and eight volumes of nonfiction comic art (adaptations of Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel, graphic biographies of Isadora Duncan and Emma Goldman, The Beats, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman, etc).
- He has been a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, and currently covers national security for its National Affairs section. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, and a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.
- An associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a Research Fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. From 1982 to 1984, he was the senior economist for health policy, and from 1983 to 1984 he was the senior economist for energy policy, with President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers.
- Founding member of the Washington chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists; executive board member of the National Alliance of Third World Journalists. . .
- Founding Managing Editor and current Executive Editor of The American Conservative. Research director of Pat Buchanan's 2000 campaign.
- Executive Director of Veterans For Peace. His volunteer social and economic justice activist work include membership in Military Families Speak Out, coordinating committee member for the Bring Them Home Now campaign against the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Co-Chair of United For Peace and Justice.
- Legislative aide for the armed services for Senator Robert Taft, Jr., of Ohio from 1973 through 1976 and held a similar position with Senator Gary Hart of Colorado from 1977 through 1986. An opponent of the Iraq War, has written for the Marine Corps Gazette, and Defense and the National Interest. . .
- For over four decades has exposed problems and organized millions of citizens into more than 100 public interest groups to advocate for solutions. . .
- Active within the Democratic, Republican, and Green parties at various times. As a boy, he supported George McGovern for president in 1972 partly because of the Democrat's anti-war stance. In the mid 1970s, he became a conservative who backed Ronald . . .
- Managing editor of Reason magazine, is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.
Notably absent from the session were members of the extremist center, liberal professors seeking to prove their manhood by backing yet another war, legislators afraid to challenge the Pentagon, belligerent bullies and the cowardly complacent. And everyone in the room was trying something different.
Which, when you come to think of it, is just what happens when you make peace. People who have been shooting at each other sit down and find a way to share some space. One might expect that anti-war activists would understand this, but too often we all regard our political beliefs not as the product of imperfect and struggling minds but as our sacred identity, our justification and our privileged demographic. We reduce politics to the theology of the self-righteous rather than as an imperfect search for better times.
As I sat around that table, I tried to recall those few occasions when I had experienced something close to this - few, that is, since the days when I sat around the family table as the third child of six and learned about living with those different from oneself and more than willing to say so.
Some of the later times worked; some didn’t. One that worked was the anti-freeway coalition of the 1960s and 70s that kept Washington from becoming another Los Angeles. It was started by among the least likely activists - black and white middle class homeowners whose neighborhood was about to be ruined. It expanded to include those of us in the civil rights group SNCC as well as the all white Georgetown Citizens Association. I once wrote of the leader, "By all rights, Sammie Abbott should have been disqualified as a DC leader on at least three grounds: he was too white, he was too old, and he lived in the suburbs. Instead, this short man with a nail-file voice became the nemesis of public officials for years. Abbott, the grandson of Arab Christians who fled Turkish persecution in Syria, had been a labor organizer, a bricklayer and a World War II veteran with a Bronze Star."
There was only one qualification to join the anti-freeway movement: opposition to freeways. And the success of our effort - rare among such highway protests - left a mark on a city colony devoid of rights and helps to explain how - just two years after the riots - we were able to form a biracial third party that would hold seats on the city council and/or school board for 25 years.
I would come to think of it as existential politics - in which one defined one's existence by one's actions rather than by one's ethnicity, class, party registration or magazine subscriptions. And it was a sort of politics that would become increasingly rare.
But it didn't always work. In the mid sixties, I was editing a neighborhood newspaper in Washington's biracial Capitol East. Things were already well beyond the capacity of any one community to solve. America's cities were starting to burn and you could feel the heat even in Capitol East. In September 1967, anti-poverty activist Lola Singletary convinced the white businessmen of H Street to form a organization dedicated to involvement in community problems.
In late 1967 I came up with the idea of pulling together the various leaders of Capitol East into an informal leadership council with the possibility of forming a major neighborhood coalition. Fourteen people attended a meeting on January 31: 7 white and 7 black. Among our purposes:
- To share our group differences so we can increase our knowledge of one another's group positions, plans and needs.
- To increase opportunities to share our group concerns so that we can better support one another's group efforts.
- To unite in common action where we have agreement.
It was too late. A little more than two months later, the riots broke out and Capitol East had two of the four major riot strips, including H Street. Hope had burned up as well.
Then in 1995, as part of the Green Politics Network, I joined a number of other Greens in hosting a conference of third party activists. Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians, Perot backers, Democratic Socialists of America, and followers of Lenora Fulani. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin, and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along. We established two basic rules:
- We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.
- We would reach that agreement by consensus.
I was one of the kickoff speakers and said:
"As a simple empirical matter you can say that one of the great characteristics of Americans is not merely opposition to a system of the moment but antipathy towards unnatural systems in general -- opposition to all systems that revoke, replace or restrain the natural rights of humans and the natural blessings of their habitats.
"This, I think, is why we are here today. If nothing else binds us it is an understanding of the damage that heartless, leaderless, mindless systems have done to the specifics of our existence. . .
"Further, in our distaste with the systems suffocating our lives, we are very much in the mainstream. These systems have done half our work for us, they have lost the people's faith. . .
"We must stake out a position with real programs for real people, with our enthusiasm on our sleeve and our ideology in our pocket, with small words and big hearts, and -- most of all -- with a clear vision of what a better future might look like. We must tackle what Chesterton called the "huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.". . .
"This then is our task. Let's embrace it not as sectarians or as prigs but as a happy fellow members of a new mainstream. Not as radicals permanently in exile but as moderates of an age that has not quite arrived. Let's laugh and make new friends and be gentle with one another. Let's remember Camus' dictum that the only sin we are not permitted is despair. . ."
Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert's Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform "to provide a level playing field in elections;" initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities "consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights."
Not bad for a meeting at which nobody yelled at anyone.
Interesting stories but how rare.
Now Kevin Zeese and George O'Neill have to try to build on the spirit in that basement last Saturday and turn it into something that all can see. Perhaps it will be a catalyst as was, say, the Seneca Falls conference was for women's rights. Perhaps it will be nothing but another nice try that didn't work out.
We may never know. After all, only two women who attended Seneca Falls conference lived long enough to vote.
We do know, however, that good futures are built on the efforts of those unafraid of failure. At a time when a majority of Americans consider their system broken, we can either consign ourselves to being victims or we can, as we did last Saturday, come together in new ways, with new ideas and new allies and start replacing a failed system with communities that work.
Sam Smith is editor of the Progressive Review.
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