March 19, 2006

Futile protests

from - RSA

John Cole, in a post titled The Futility of Anti-War Protests, asks what the point of protests is. (John's site, Balloon Juice, is where smijer and I first became acquainted.) I began to respond in the comments section, but realized that I had more to say than would be appropriate there.

So, some background: It's been forever since I've been active in protesting for or against a political cause. I was arrested in DC back in the early '80s during a protest against apartheid, along with probably a hundred other people, but in general I've done no more than act as an occasional bystander/spectator at events I support. There are good reasons for protesting the war in Iraq, even if you think that it can have no immediate effect on the government's behavior. Here are a few, aside from pure self-expression:

  • Bursting (or at least deforming) a bubble. The Bush administration pays lip service, in superficial contrast to the Clinton administration, to ignoring polls. Public disapproval for the war in Iraq is harder to ignore than dry percentages.

  • Global communication. How much support does the war in Iraq have in Europe? Read any polls lately? I haven't, at least none that have made an impression recently. Protests in other countries, on the other hand, can have much more of an impact. For casual observers outside the U.S., similarly, the actions of our government would ordinarily speak louder than (polled) words of the public, but protests within the U.S. can act as a visible counterbalance.

  • Changing opinions. We'd all like to think that everyone rationally evaluates political options and chooses the best. Of course, we all also realize that this isn't the case. Many people seem to be comfortable going with the flow, perhaps thinking, "Well, no one seems to think [whatever] is worth opposing." A protest has visibility that in itself may carry some weight.

  • Fighting the appearance of inevitability. John Cole comments that Bush's approval numbers are in the toilet (my words, not his) and that a U.S. withdrawal will not stop the war in Iraq. On the first point, many protesters doubtless believe that Bush's incompetence goes much deeper than his decisions concerning the war, and that demonstrating their disapproval on this issue may raise others' awareness of his many failings. Could Bush's approval rating go lower? Possibly, and it's worth trying to convince other people that it should. As to the second point, it's an open question whether our withdrawal would worsen the conflict in Iraq. Many war supporters believed that removing Saddam would improve the lives of Iraqis, but in the short term, by many measures, this has not happened. The cost of our withdrawal should be compared with the cost of our staying (a comparison that was carried out very poorly for the invasion in the first place). Specifically, we need to consider that eventually, at some point in the future, U.S. forces will leave Iraq. Better now, or better later? "Stay the course" presumes that later is better, but we see no accounting of the accumulating costs of this policy.


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Posted by RSA at March 19, 2006 01:22 PM
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