Swans Commentary » swans.com January 14, 2008  



The Secret Ingredient Of Activism: Mutual Support


by Philip Greenspan





(Swans - January 14, 2008)  Perhaps it's nitpicking or sour grapes from a prejudiced activist to find fault with the favorable coverage our antiwar group received in a beautifully written story in the Metro Section of the prestigious New York Times of December 2, 2007 ("Following a Kindly Light, and Casting One," by Peter Applebome *). The previous day commemorated the fifth anniversary of antiwar vigils that take place each Saturday afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00 PM without fail in Rockland County, New York. A few short sentences of this milestone event provided the lead-in to the Times article, an absorbing portrait of George Houser, one of the regular protesters.

So far so good. George was an excellent subject whose triple-threat activism was in the forefront of every issue -- war, racism, African liberation -- he tackled. There were highlights aplenty in any that could be picked. What was chosen, the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation that he and Bayard Rustin organized -- an interracial group of sixteen blacks and whites to confront Jim Crow in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky over a two-week period, fourteen years before the Freedom Rides -- was definitely one of those highlights.

Since the focus of the article was about or should have been about antiwar protesting, why wasn't Houser's equally meritorious and newsworthy antiwar work depicted? Back in 1940, with World War II already underway in Europe, Africa, and Asia, FDR prevailed upon the US Congress to pass the first peacetime draft. George, a student at the Union Theological Seminary at that time along with seven others -- although all were exempt from the draft as theological students -- refused on principle to register. Their actions were a cause célèbre that hit the newspapers, radio, and the newsreels of the day and brought loads of publicity to those alleged traitors. There were twenty students who originally intended to defy registration, but the intense pressure that was exerted on them, in many cases by close friends and relatives, caused twelve to drop out. David Dellinger's father threatened suicide if his son would not back down. David didn't back down and pop didn't commit suicide. The steadfast eight were convicted of a felony and sentenced to a year and a day in the federal penitentiary.

Peter Applebome, selected an excellent story about George Houser, our antiwar protester, as opposed to another one that I thought more appropriate. Why object? Because the mainstream media has consistently downplayed opponents of the war and their activities. They claim to be objective but they subtly edit their news stories to favor their pro-war position. Antiwar protesters are a committed community who, like the Rocklanders, are out protesting week after week after week in cities and towns throughout the country. From time to time a major protest in Washington, New York, or other major city will bring tremendous numbers from cities far and wide and yet there is scant coverage. Their numbers are downplayed and the story is relegated to a few paragraphs below the fold on an inside page. Rare actions by small pro-war groups will be played up far beyond their significance. We are feared and rightly so. With the entire Establishment against us -- all branches of the government, both political parties, all the forces of the military and law enforcement, the media, the churches, and schools -- we, a minority of the population, have been able to turn an overwhelming percentage who favored war after 9/11 to a majority now opposed to it.

A chap in San Diego, impressed by the Times article, called George for additional information about that event. He broached an intriguing question: How does one summon the courage to engage in an activity knowing that menacing consequences are likely? A question most appropriate for George, who has devoted his life to opposing unjust government laws and practices. He answered that the mutual support of all the others was a most important factor.

I agree. Bucking the tide, stepping out of line, being a loner is very difficult and uncomfortable. Knowing that others willingly undertake jeopardous tasks makes it easier to follow. I believe that most people are instinctively opposed to violence and war. They reluctantly go along once their government embarks on war because they are loyal patriotic citizens and they have been convinced by a masterful public relations campaign of lies and distortions that war has become necessary and inevitable. They may go along because of their loyalty to the state, a loyalty that has been indoctrinated into them over a lifetime. But they harbor doubts and can be induced to oppose the war by the courageous example of others who consistently and openly protest.

Adolf Hitler demanded complete and unaltered loyalty of his Nazi subordinates. He did not hesitate to purge those suspected of deviation, even close associates in his rise to power. The same fealty was expected from the military and the bureaucracy who swore loyalty and obedience to "Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich." Fear and terror kept the German people in line as well. Woe to those who defied the Führer. Their very lives were in danger. Yet opposition groups did arise in horrendous Nazi Germany. White Rose, a group of five German students, distributed antiwar leaflets that led to the execution of three who were caught. Gentile German women protesting the confinement of their Jewish husbands were able to gain them freedom and saved them from certain death. Most well known of the groups were the conspirators of the failed Hitler assassination plot of July 20, 1944.

If the ruthless Führer and his Nazis could not keep their military and bureaucracy in line, other governments can be and have been defied as well. During the Vietnam War Daniel Ellsberg, a committed Cold Warrior, with prodding and assistance from his colleague Anthony Russo, copied and distributed the Pentagon Papers. The Vietnam War GIs ultimately turned against the war with an unprecedented mutiny.

The top brass in the military and the bureaucracy are apparently disagreeing with the proposed pro-war plans of the White House. After weeks of buildup by the administration and the media in anticipation of a war with Iran, sixteen intelligence agencies, unwilling to be browbeaten into issuing the report expected by the hawks, reported that no Iranian threat existed.

The Establishment is determined to hold on in the Middle East -- too much is at stake for them. But they must rely on the lowly cogs to carry out their policies, and while it takes time those cogs are gaining their courage and in spite of their wealth, power, and prestige their desires will be thwarted! The likes of George Houser and the antiwar activists will see to it.



*  [ed. Peter Applebome's excellent article can be read at:
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/nyregion/02towns.html --  (back)]


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/pgreen129.html
Published January 14, 2008