Bathed in light
That such trappings might lead journalists to treat anti-war gatherings skeptically — and give similar pause to the 60-plus percent of Americans who currently oppose the Iraq War — seems both obvious and worrisome. But it’s hard to find anyone on the left who agrees. “I think what this really is is a crime of opportunity,” says Jim Spencer, a Boston political consultant and alum of ’60s-era protest group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), when asked about the current anti-war movement’s tendency toward diffuseness. “You’ve got groups of people gathering around a cause, and you have other people who believe in that cause who have another cause, too, as organizers. Historically, throughout any social movement, that’s always happened.”
“That’s characteristic of radical movements in general,” agrees Zinn. “Part of any movement is always further to the left, and bringing in larger, broader, different issues. Then there’s usually the major part of the movement which is concentrated on one issue, and which is able to unite more people.”
And what about dubious deployment of Vietnam-era iconography? Jane Fonda, the anti-war activist whom the Vietnam-era right loved to hate, was conspicuously present for the January 27 rally in Washington, DC; a Reuters photographer even captured her clinging dramatically to fellow actress-activist Susan Sarandon. Surely that wasn’t a smart move?
Zinn wouldn’t have it. “I think that’s being overly cautious,” he replied. “If I were around when somebody said, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t have Jane Fonda here,” I would resent that. That’s surrendering to that minority of the American public who were hostile to Jane Fonda. After all, most Americans came around to oppose the war.”
“I don’t think a movement should judge its tactics by how a vociferous right-wing minority will react,” Zinn added. “I think, in fact, that it’s good to make a connection between Vietnam and Iraq. And I think Jane Fonda symbolized that connection.”
But is the Iraq-Vietnam connection really a good one to make? Or, to put it more accurately: is it really good to make that connection in the way Zinn suggests? Today’s anti-war activists have a burden their Vietnam War–era counterparts never had to contend with — namely, the legacy of Vietnam. It’s because of Vietnam that catch phrases like “Support our troops” have more power than they should. It’s because of Vietnam that the press signed on to the military’s absurd “embedding” project before the Iraq War started. And it’s because of Vietnam that critics of the Iraq War need to be so cautious about alienating those who fundamentally agree with them.
Of course, striving for a more standardized and palatable message would run counter to Radicalism 101, which holds that the great strength of coalitions is their diversity. It might also offend the sensibilities of activists who see the Iraq War as one manifestation of bigger systemic woes. But if the goal is to galvanize and strengthen opposition to the war — as opposed to luxuriation in a general sense of righteousness — it’s a shift worth considering.