As much as I agreed with the sentiments coming from Saturday's antiwar rally in Washington, and as much as I wished I had been there, I nevertheless heard and saw a few notes that made me cringe. As a historian and something of a radical, I certainly agreed with most of what I heard condemning the Bush administration's efforts to exploit America's post 9/11 fear and patriotism just before the midterm elections.
But what made me shake my head with dismay was the strategic naivete of some of the crowd. Does this segment of those gathered in Washington really believe it can "win the hearts and minds" of America's "silent majority" with placards that read, "I love Iraq. Bomb Texas" or "The Real Axis of
Evil: Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld." How about the elegant "Fuck You, Bush" or the chant of "Ashcroft Sucks, Ashcroft sucks?"
No wonder speakers at a later, thankfully much smaller, rally in support of war charged that the "radical left hates America." If I had listened longer, no doubt I would have detected the predictable, now-cliched accusations that those who oppose war in Iraq are part of the "Blame America First" crowd. Thank God, I've seen no reports of any flag burnings.
I raise this criticism not out of prudishness, but out of patriotism and pragmatism. In earlier days I've made this mistake myself, having carried a "Nuke the Gipper" sign at a Mondale rally in 1984. But history has taught me that if we really want to convince Americans who don't already agree with us, it would be wiser to avoid being tarred with the anti-American brush.
Certainly placards and chants are attempts at humor and hardly real political dialogue. But if we in the peace movement really wish to be relevant in American politics, we cannot repeat the historic mistakes of the anti-Vietnam protests. Instead of playing into the hands of the critics who think we hate America, we must go out of our way to show that protest is patriotic. Martin Luther King managed to convert most of America because he convincingly showed how the protests of the black freedom struggle were "deeply rooted in the American dream." Unlike many in the antiwar movement, protesters in Selma and other civil rights "battlefields" carried American flags; they did not burn them.
So my memo to movement organizers carries three suggestions.
First, make an American flag the ticket to admission at antiwar rallies. When C-SPAN shows its pictures, let the audience look out over a sea of red, white, and blue. In so doing we can burn into the American consciousness an image that patriotism need not be identified with war-mongering.
Second, let speakers and placards underscore that such protests do emerge from ideals that are as American as the Constitution. Given the protections of the First Amendment, protest IS patriotic. Moreover, concern for peace not a radical idea. Inasmuch as it could save thousands of American lives and billions of American dollars, it is really a conservative notion.
Finally, while acknowledging connections with Islam and other religions of the world, let pro-peace preachments also emphasize the religious tradition with which MOST Americans still resonate, that of Jesus of Nazareth. Showing that peace-mongering is not only American, but also in the strictest sense, Christian, will go a long way toward convincing the unconverted. After all, since this compassionately conservative president claims Jesus as his most important political influence, the most powerful (and pragmatic) protest I can imagine would be a red, white, and blue placard that read: "Mr. President, what WOULD Jesus do?"
Andrew M. Manis is professor of history at Macon State College in Georgia, and author of A Fire You Can't Put Out: The Civil Rights Life of Birmingham's Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, which won the 2000 Lillian Smith Book Award.