Riding Shotgun: War of Words

Please come armed.

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

And there’s no tellin’ who

That it’s namin’.

For the loser now

Will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’.

Oh, Bob, you magnificent, mumbling bastard! You bombastic bard of the common folk. You voice of a generation. You little hippie shit.

That you were able to pen the words to not one, but an entire portfolio of songs that not only tapped the emotional pulse of the public, but managed to spell out in verse the politic machinations of the day, was a stroke of amazing luck for which you should daily thank your chosen deity. This sort of crap doesn’t happen anymore.

Voice of a generation? Who’s the voice of our generation? Hell, not just mine, but everybody under the age of retirement? Who is it? It ain’t a musician, I’ll tell you that. You think Britney‘s going to stand in the breach?

So, where do we look? Politics? Ha! Television and movies? I don’t think so. A writer? There’s not a writer dumb enough to take the job. I asked around.

Our lack of a counterculture figurehead (A politically aware one. I hear anyone say the words Marilyn, Manson, or Osbourne, I’m going for my gun.) was no more apparent than during the recent peace rallies in Washington D.C. What a sad, sad, sad, and utterly confusing spectacle. Does anyone know how to protest anymore?

It was bad enough that they came with no coherent alternative to war with Iraq. But some people came not even knowing what they were supposed to be protesting.

“End racism now!”

“Disarm the WTO!”

“Free Mandela!”

I saw some of these fuckheads on the D.C. Metro that Saturday evening. Heading back to their dorm rooms at the University of Maryland, they were commenting on how butt-ass freezing it was, and how cool it was to be in an actual protest, but probably not as cool as when their parents did it in the Sixties.

I dunno. Maybe it was the same in the Sixties. Maybe after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, protesters stumbled back to the University of Chicago wondering if they lived up to their parents’ righteous indignation twenty years earlier, when they were wearing buttons saying “America First!” during World War II.

Or maybe that’s a load of crap.

Despite its lack of a cohesive message or viable political alternative, it was still a memorable to-do. By the way, “Make Peace, Not War!” is not a viable political alternative for at least two reasons:

  1. It’s a slogan four decades old and counting and sounded a little pansy-ass, even at its beginning.
  2. While any national leader worth his salt can “make war” easier than he can make number two, you cannot “make” peace. To force peace on anyone is, by the definition of peace — “the absence of war or other hostilities; freedom from aggression; harmony,” American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd edition — not peace. Peace can only happen through roundabout methods. A more realistic version of the slogan would read “Don’t Make War and Let Peace Happen In Its Own Unforced, Naturally-Occurring Time!”

Several boatloads (if your boat happens to be a Carnival cruise liner) of people showed up, sang songs (Chumbawumba?), screamed chants (“No War for Oil!”) and basically wandered around, wearing out their Urban Outfitter boots and leaving enough litter to fill a giant reflecting pool. So in direct opposition to what some call an age of apathy, there are young people out there with an opinion.

It might have been a bit pathetic compared to the rally/riots of the Sixties and Seventies, but it’s not too bad coming from a youth culture that frequently seems to know only what comes out of their computer screens, and then only what’s packaged into small, easily-swallowable byteballs laced with sugar-pop.

Or maybe that’s being a bit cynical.

The protests in D.C. looked more like this: A spirit of counterculture, a sentiment of widespread, mainstream activism that was stretching limbs grown shriveled and numb from atrophy.

In other words, those who truly do feel strongly, have a voice, and want to make it heard in opposition to the government’s current stance, will have to move around a bit and stamp their metaphorical legs to get the prickly-tinglies out. It’s been a while since they used them, after all, and our culture, young people especially, is going to have to re-realize that a pro-active movement does have the ability to create real change. That change might not be immediate, but you can bet your beret it’ll be memorable.

Is there an American alive that still thinks Vietnam was a good idea — a hunky-dory little foray into Southeast Asia to keep that country, and by Domino Effect, Japan, Honolulu and Oakland from falling to those nasty commies?

It’s taken our government nigh-on 30 years of retrospect, and the economic shattering of our great red enemy, to figure out that maybe we made a boo-boo. But they did figure it out, and they’ll be damned if they want to be seen doing that kind of crap again.

After Vietnam, the idea of war changed forever. A soldier’s life wasn’t to be used as cannon fodder. The decision to actually “send in troops” was weighed with a lot more caution.

Now, we try and let smart bombs do the killin’ for us.

Those Sixties revolutionaries never found the silver bullet to slay the beast of human brutality, but they pushed the country a step in the right direction.

So, do the young men and women who kicked off the new year with a march on D.C. want to pick up where their parents, or their parents’ tie-died friends, left off? I ain’t catchin’ that vibe, if you know what I mean.

Opinion polls are spinning from point to point like a compass strapped to a magnet. Bush’s boys are saying that the majority of the country favors war. Anti-war speakers are saying that the same majority favors no war. And a third set of polls — those being cited by the flailing and lost Democratic Party — are saying that this apparently schizophrenic majority favors war only with U.N. approval.

Oh, who to believe? Take my advice and ask 10 people on your own. As long as you don’t find all 10 people at the same klan/poetry/party/NRA meeting, I think you’ll have a better divining rod than the polls you see on the cover of USA Today.

And toward which direction will the new revolutionaries turn? If it were the Sixties, I’d say “Peace or Nothing!” But it’s not. In those days, protesters were called everything from impudent snobs to tree-huggers to pinkos to threats to our national security. That last one sounds a bit familiar, dun’ it? Nothing pissed off the buzz-cut, blue suit, black-tied, American, right-wing, middle class than a long-haired, hippie, peacenik shouting in front of the White House for an end to war.

These protesters were freaks and dissidents, and worst of all, they were weak. Advocating peace was seen as the equivalent of weakness, and while they might be poor examples, these advocates were still Americans and fuck-all if Americans are allowed to be weak.

To many, it seemed that this counterculture was doing nothing more than showing the country’s soft, pale underbelly to the world.

“My God,” they thought, “what would happen if we pulled out before total victory? If we leave before we’re finished, we’re gonna look like total pussies. Now that we’re in there, we’re going to push and push and push harder until we’ve breached the enemy’s defenses, destroyed their capability for offensive resistance, and planted the seed of democracy.”

Sometimes I think Johnson was just really horny.

That dichotomy doesn’t seem to be in play as much today. The idea of “peace” isn’t what’s pissing off the modern equivalent of Nixon supporters. It’s the idea of getting anyone’s approval before going to war. That third poll I mentioned said that over 60 percent of those asked would only favor war if it came with agreement from the U.N. Security Council.

A fuckload of folk were yelling that advice in D.C., and while it might seem like some kind of wishy-washy middle ground, it’s a far cry from “Make Love, Not War.” There’s a whole different message here.

Holy shit, and that message does seem to piss people off.

For some, that’s even worse than advocating peace. At least when you tell the government not to go to war, you’re saying they should make the decision themselves. Now, people are saying America should get approval from France. From France, for chrissakes.

Oh, and Germany. Don’t forget them. These two countries are real twitchy about war, and for good reason. When these guys agree on something, you should pay attention.

If you told Lyndon back in 1965 that he should get a consensus from the U.N. before initiating Operation Rolling Thunder, he would have shat himself laughing. Then he would have taken you out back and beaten you with the billy club he kept in the drawer with the presidential stamp and the pictures of Hoover wearing Marilyn’s lingerie.

Now, folks are asking George W. to do the same thing, and he’s chafing himself into a lather at the concept. We’re America, after all. We don’t need anyone’s permission. We’re the biggest, baddest mother on the block and we’ve got the best game running. These guys might have been around a little longer, but we’re not in grade school anymore. We don’t need to ask teacher if we can take a piss.

But that’s what a healthy portion of the public is crying out to the government to do.

“Go to war,” they’re saying. “Just as long as you talk to everybody and make sure it’s the best thing to do.”

To many, it must seem like asking a king to abdicate the power behind his throne. To others, it might seem like showing a weak spot, and thus begging for a beating.

To those of us who grew up in the Information Age we now live in, it ain’t no big thang.

The world’s a whole lot smaller than it was in 1969. The idea of countries separated by oceans and borders and languages and ideologies just isn’t going to fly anymore. I turn on my TV and I can get a front-row seat to a thousand government meetings in a dozen countries. I type a message and I can have a hundred thousand Japanese businessmen reading the translated version by lunchtime. I want to buy a rug from Madagascar? I want it here tomorrow? No problem.

I’ve met people from countries that don’t exist anymore. I’ve had coffee with folk who, had I visited them in their own country twenty years ago, they and I would have been arrested, tortured and shot.

We’ve got messages and commerce, people and pets moving across nearly every border in the world on a thrice-nanosecondly basis. And ideas? We’ll those move a little slower, but the momentum they pick up on the way is staggering.

You think any country can stand alone and think it’s going to grow and thrive in the world? Donne said that “No man is an island.” The same goes double for countries… even if those countries are islands.

We grew up being spoon-fed the newly-minted political correctness that espoused the idea of a “world community.” Maybe you thought we’d take it half to heart, just enough so that words like “chink” and “kike” and “slant” would slowly erase themselves from our vocabulary, but certainly not so much that we’d expect our own government to think it truth.

Well, joke’s on you. We’ve spent the last two decades exchanging fads with the other cultures of the world so fast it would give you whiplash. It might have taken 80 years for blue jeans to make their way to Moscow, but now a pop sensation in Japan is being savored in Omaha ten minutes after the band they plays its first gig in Tokyo.

If there’s a revolution in Kazakhstan, we want to find out about it over orange juice and Pop-Tarts. We don’t just desire cooperation and communication on a worldwide level, we fucking expect it. That the half of Europe that we consider friends and allies are giving us the stink-eye like we just let one plop in the communal swimming hole makes us upset, and not at them.

We look at our government and wonder what the hell they’re thinking. Maybe our government has more information than everyone else. Maybe they know exactly where the skeletons are packed away in Saddam’s closet.

But with our friends backing away from us so fast, it looks to many Americans like we’re shoving decades of detente and cooperation in the crapper just because we want to get our gun on.

Our elected officials know better what’s best for the American people, some say. But you’re talking to somebody who grew up post-Nixon, with my cartoons pre-empted by Iran-Contra, with Reagan feigning amnesia, with Bush in Kuwait, with Clinton and cum stains, with the X-Files and Oliver Stone and the admission of exploding Cuban cigars and Tuskeegee and our government figures showing their asses and their ineptitude time after time. In the Sixties, you suspected your leaders might be incompetent. Well, it’s 2003 now. We know our leaders to be jackasses.

So why don’t we just sit down with the others at the big-boy table and take a look at Iraq as a world community? Trust me, these guys want a nuclear-powered Iraq a hell of a lot less than we do, and if we’ve got the evidence, they’ll bite.

It’s going to take a lot of convincing, a lot of public demand, and a lot of public outcry. George is going to see it as a “precedent-setting maneuver,” and he’ll be right. It will set a precedent for our nation to work with the world community to solve global threats rather than telling them what we plan to do and expecting their support.

“But we might still go to war,” some of you might cry. “What will all this protest have accomplished?”

Well, those protesting Vietnam didn’t stop war. But they did manage to change the way that our nation and its government thinks about war, and that’s just about the best we can hope for.

A change in thinking is a massive thing. It’s just about the hardest change to effect. Just ask Southern blacks about racism, or women about sexism, or an openly gay man about how many times he hears the word “faggot” in a day.

A change in the way a single person thinks is nothing to scoff at. The time and work it takes to change the way a nation perceives itself is more than worth the effort. You might get called a lot of names in the process, but they didn’t hurt then, and they certainly won’t now. Peacenik? Hippie? Pinko?

The opposition’s vocabulary is so antiquated, it’s laughable.

Somebody asked the other day if I were a tree-hugging liberal. I said, “No, I’m the kind of liberal that would, should you refer to him as a tree-hugging liberal, beat you senseless with a hefty Redwood branch.”

Peacenik? For fun, we turn on MTV and watch a midget kick himself in the balls. I think this generation is ripe to take up the charge of revolutionary protest. Just don’t tell them that. They’ll probably think it’s “kinda gay.”

Well, don’t expect change overnight.

Article © 2003 by Steve Spotswood