Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 1999 /6 Teves, 5760
Within a few blocks of our normally gleaming, businesslike downtown, you could see confrontations between cops and kids, catch whiffs of teargas, listen to angry chants and beating of bongo drums, or watch huge crowds of dancing, clapping protesters blocking intersections with their waving signs and hand-lettered banners. At one particularly crowded corner, Jeremy Steiner, the 26-year-old co-producer of my radio show, turned to me and asked, "Doesn't it make you feel like you're back in the '60's?"
The honest answer is yes --- and no.
Some elements of the huge, occasionally destructive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization indeed resembled the anti-Vietnam protests in which so many Baby Boomers participated. There was the same festive atmosphere, the same wildly inflated sense of self-importance ("The whole world is watching!" they chanted in Seattle), the same intoxicating appeal of reckless youth challenging established power, the same inane attempts at street theatre, and the same ugly epithet of "pigs!" hurled at hard-working officers merely trying to do their jobs.
There was also a familiar pattern of hordes of generally peaceful protesters upstaged by a few hundred violent thugs. Almost exactly thirty years ago (November 15, 1969), I traveled to Washington D.C. and marched with some 700,000 others in the surprisingly orderly Mobilization Against the War, while a few dozen radical (and revolting) "Weathermen" smashed windows, looted shops and stole headlines. Despite these distractions, the so-called "Peace Movement," like the WTO protests in Seattle, largely succeeded in its primary purpose--- insistently, even obnoxiously, forcing the broader public to examine issues it preferred to ignore.
In contrast to these superficial similarities, the differences between two generations of protest seem more subtle-and more significant. Consider, for instance, the role of organized labor. In Seattle, the AFL-CIO organized some 20,000 union members to march beside neo-hippies, college students and street people. For Vietnam era "Peaceniks," on the other hand, working stiffs and labor leaders, with their instinctive patriotism and anti-Communism, represented perhaps the movement's most implacable enemy; on a few well-publicized occasions, "hard hats" from the construction trades expressed their opposition by beating up long-haired demonstrators.
There is also a crucial difference in terms of the protesters' personal stake in the issues of the moment. In rallies and marches of the '60's, everyone felt directly implicated in the controversial war policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Whether you liked it not, every young male in the country faced the Vietnam draft ---and though women were exempt, their boyfriends weren't.
The Seattle activists, on the other hand, found it far more difficult to explain their impassioned involvement in terms of any personal connection to distant, abstract disputes about world trade. One protest leader, who joined me as a guest on my radio show, bragged of traveling more than a thousand miles to our city because he believed the WTO hurt everyone on earth.
This tenuous notion of the impact of policies they decry goes along with utter confusion about the goals of today's demonstrators. Sure, they agreed on a short-term program to "Shut Down Seattle!" and they succeeded-temporarily-in that effort. But what was the "Battle in Seattle" meant to achieve? Protestors carried signs ranging from "Death to WTO" to "Free Tibet," from "Save the Sea Turtles" to "End the Blockade of Cuba!," from "Decent Jobs at a Decent Wage!" to "Say No to Greed--Smash Capitalism!"
By contrast, the focused goal of anti-war protests of the '60's and early '70's was simple and comprehensible: to end the war and to bring the boys home. A tiny handful of militants yearned wanted to see the North Vietnamese and Vietcong win the war ("Ho! Ho! Ho Che Minh!/NLF is Gonna Win!"), but the vast mainstream of the anti-war movement cared little what happened in Southeast Asia. We wanted the war to stop (on any terms) largely because we didn't want to fight in it, and we didn't want other Americans coming home dead.
This goal proved powerful not only because it was readily understandable, but because it was so obviously attainable-in a way that the nebulous goals of today's activists are not. Every anti-war protester in the Vietnam era knew that we would one day succeed: no war lasts forever, and some day, sooner or later, in victory, defeat, or negotiated settlement, the American government would bring its boys home.
In direct contrast to this sense of unavoidable success, the WTO demonstrators face an underlying certainty of failure. Even if they miraculous managed to "Smash the World Trade Organization" and to force the dissolution of this one international entity, does any sane observer believe that the march toward free international trade would suddenly cease?
In a new millenium of the World Wide Web, jet speed transportation, entrepreneurial energy, and collapsing political barriers, a global economy isn't debatable, it's inevitable. Dissidents may raise questions about specific costs and controversies, but they know they have no hope of wholesale retreat to the old world of protectionism and economic isolation. This knowledge gives their flamboyant efforts their unique edge of unfocused anger and incoherent desperation.
These emotions may serve to win worldwide publicity and even to
disrupt the life of a great American city, but they equip this protest
movement for a new generation with little staying power and no long-term
JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show
broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.
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