Saturday, August 09, 2008


In that blog entry about Mark Steel (see below) I doubted his claim that the protest against the Iraq war was unprecedented in scale, and suggested Vietnam might have a greater claim to being the largest, longest, most effective protest. This is from the introduction to Long time gone: sixties America then and now, edited by Alexander Bloom:

[Martin Luther] King's opposition to the Vietnam War suggests the interrelationship of the [protest] movements. In the first years of the 1960s, Vietnam remained an issue off center [sic] stage, gaining attention only with a headline-grabbing event, such as the 1963 ritual suicide of a Buddhist monk who was protesting [against] the U.S.-backed Diem regime, or the military coup that overthrew Diem later that year. In 1965, however, when SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] called for a march on Washington to protest [against] the war, organizers were amazed when twenty-five thousand turned out. From that point on, regular protests occurred throughout the country, the number of demonstrators escalating along with the number of soliders in Southeast Asia. In 1968, five hundred thousand people turned out in the nation's capital for an anti-Vietnam War protest, with millions of others gathered in locales across the country.

Vietnam moved to center [sic] stage, with nationally televised congressional hearings, antidraft protests, draft-card burnings, public counseling about draft resistance for young men, opposition on campuses to the presence of military recruiters, and, finally, a direct antiwar challenge in 1968 within the Democratic Party to President Johnson's desire for renomination. First, Minnesota Senator Eugen McCarthy and, then, New York Senator Robert Kennedy announced their intention to seek the nomination on antiwar platforms. Two days before the Wisconsin primary, when it appeared LBJ was going down in defeat to McCarthy, the president suddenly withdrew from the race. Later that primary season, after winning in California, Robert Kennedy was shot and killed as he walked from the ballroom where he had just given his victory speech.

The war had brought down a president and set in motion the forces that would come together at the calamitous Democratic Convention in Chicago later that summer. There, before national television cameras, Chicago police tear-gassed and beat antiwar demonstrators in what an investigatory commission later termed a "police riot." Inside the convention hall, as the delegates smelled tear gas and heard the chanting of demonstrators, speakers from the platform berated the administration and the convention host, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, auccusing him of employing "Gestapo tactics."

Now, when the current antiwar demonstrators can point to direct, positive responses to their protests in the ways described above, I'll accept that their protest is "unprecedented." But what have we seen in the US primaries this year? Not a single candidate opposing the war. What political opposition is there in the UK? I think the LibDems are officially against it, but that scarcely signifies. There is undoubtedly sincere unease about this war, but there is about every war that's ever been waged. That doesn't translate into the sort of angry opposition there was to Vietnam. And with good reason. Vietnam was a stupid war.

However, I think the most interesting thing about this quote is the first sentence: the interrelationship of protest movements. That isn't happening now. Why is that? I've discussed this before, and it's what I'm going to do my PhD on: why was there a generalised counterculture in the 1960s, encompassing civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, later on women's and gay rights, basically a widespread unease about the direction in which society was heading?

The same unease can be seen today, particularly with regard to the environmental agenda, and yet this unease is not coalescing into a counterculture. We seem happy to moan, to have individual, thematic protests, but not to protest about society in general. I suppose the WTO protests could be regarded as the sort of thing I'm talking about, but frankly those were excuses for hooligans to go on the rampage, and had no comprehensible political point.

We've been living in a time of plenty, of course. It'll be interesting to see what the imminent downturn does to our state of acceptance. Maybe the revolution starts now...

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