George Bush did indeed light some "fires of freedom" last Thursday ... in the hearts and minds of thousands of fervent protesters along Pennsylvania Avenue.
He showed once again that this government takes itself very seriously, and so must the rest of us.
The inauguration was a self-conscious spectacle of militaristic intimidation and spectral power. Protesters responded with such passion that I was taken back to the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early '70s.
Within the peace movement there is always hand-wringing about how ineffectual it is to go places and do things when the same crowd, young or old, shows up. "Preaching to the choir," people call it, their voices dripping with sarcasm.
It's a perplexing argument to counter. It's so cynical that it throws a shroud over conversation. I suspect that people who accuse each other, or even themselves, of preaching to the choir are borderline activists looking for an excuse to quit.
Who sings in this choir anyway?
Just because people gather sometimes to sing a common song doesn't mean that they agree about everything else. In fact, I would bet that some of the 54 people on our bus last week traveling from Madison to Washington to protest the Bush inauguration wouldn't consider themselves members of the choir at all. Or maybe they were just beginning to think about joining the choir.
I was beyond tired when we left Union Station about midnight Jan. 20 for the ride home. The atmosphere in the bus was worsened by the driver's very bad day. After dropping us off in the morning and heading for his distant motel, he got several expensive tickets for driving too many hours without rest, having a burned-out license plate bulb, probably speeding, and other things. Leaving D.C. he kept calling fancily dressed people "morons" as they jammed the streets trying not to ruin their gowns and tuxedos in the snow, wending paths from limousines and balls.
One of my last visions of the city, before falling asleep, was a sign announcing an inaugural event: "Black ties, hats and boots."
I don't remember much about Maryland. Pennsylvania took so long that I started reading an interview with historian Howard Zinn in the new issue of ISR (International Socialist Review). He was asked for his opinion about constant criticism that activists "preach to the choir."
Zinn replied that there is value in speaking to the choir because even people who agree sometimes don't act on the principles they believe in. Getting the choir together helps motivate people. Additionally, there will always be people hanging around the edges of the choir who will listen and learn new ideas.
"I've spoken to 1,500 people in Morehead, Kentucky. There are not 1,500 radicals in Morehead, Kentucky ... Maybe there were 50 and the other people came out of curiosity," said Zinn.
It dawned on me before daybreak at a truck stop along the Ohio Turnpike that preaching to the choir always has been and always will be not only acceptable, but also necessary. Try as I may, there is so much that I don't understand or, understanding, don't embrace or, embracing, don't act upon.
The clerk serving coffee was very perky. She had obviously slept all night.
"Where are you guys coming from?" she asked.
"We were in Washington, D.C., protesting the inauguration," I said.
"Really!" she said.
I wanted to make sure she heard me correctly. "We were protesting the inauguration of George Bush because we think he has made a lot of very bad mistakes and has put our country in danger."
She thought for a moment, and said: "I'd really like to do that sometime." She seemed like a potential choir member.
"Where are we?" I asked her.
We spent 28 hours riding the bus, and 12 hours on the ground together with 10,000 or more "choir members" in the most vigorous, heartfelt, angry and nonviolent protest I've been part of in many years. It seemed like a peaceful revolution.
At home I peeled off my stale layers of clothing. They smelled odd. Finally it came to me: diesel fuel from the bus. Eau de diesel had attached itself to my shirts and trousers and hair. What more appropriate cologne to wear at the inauguration of George Bush than the scent of diesel fuel?
During the Nuremberg tribunals, Hermann Goring said: "Why, of course, the people don't want war. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. ... All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same in any country."
David Giffey works as an artist and writer in Arena. A Vietnam veteran, he is a member of Veterans for Peace.
© 2005 Capital Times