Are blogging and cynicism starving the peace movement?

Ever since Cindy Sheehan’s resignation last week, I’ve been waiting to find a thoughtful response to this small but potent paragraph in her resignation letter:

I have also tried to work within a peace movement that often puts personal egos above peace and human life. This group won’t work with that group; he won’t attend an event if she is going to be there; and why does Cindy Sheehan get all the attention anyway? It is hard to work for peace when the very movement that is named after it has so many divisions.

Lots of lefties are happy to join her in criticizing the Democrats or taking another shot at Republican hate mongering. But when will someone take a serious look at her criticisms of the peace movement. Conversations with activists both in the US and the United Kingdom over the last four years have made me very aware of the divisions and infighting she talks about.

Today a friend forwarded me the first article that begins to look at what’s wrong with the peace movement. It focuses on apathy and cynicism more than in-fighting, but its a start. In The Incredible Shrinking Antiwar Movement, Rex Huppke makes some convincing arguments as to why activism among our generation seems to be shrinking. Two in particular are worth noting.

First he points out that virtual communities have replaced the smoky coffee houses where many of the protests and actions of the 70’s were planned. This aside in particular hit awfully close to home:

Today’s activists seem easily bored and distracted, content to simply blog away their angst and then move on to the next issue that flares up.

Over the last few years, one of my consistent blogging patterns has been to read a story in the newspaper, get upset about it and then pound out an indignant blog post in response. While there’s something satisfying about publishing an articulate rant, does it just provide a false catharsis that distract us from taking meaningful action? Huppke quotes Rachel Einwohner, a Purdue University sociologist who studies protests and social movements:

“People can have these virtual online communities and have all these conversations online without ever coming together,” Einwohner said. “That might explain why we have this massive disapproval of the war, but we don’t see the visible public mass protest. Maybe all those folks who in another era might have been out on the streets, maybe they’re home sharing their ideas and opinions with their best blogging buddies.”

The second, and perhaps more important, factor that Huppke highlights is cynicism and belief that we can’t make any difference. I tend to agree with him wholeheartedly.

The theme of dealing with cynicism has come to the forefront for me since I heard Peter Dula speak on March 17 after the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq in Washington, D.C. He captured for me the way we our caught between complicity and guilt:

It is a sense of both helplessness and guilt. A sense that nothing we can do or say will make a difference. But that is combined with a feeling of complicity. Somehow it is our fault. One way to say it is that we are no longer enough of a democracy that the people feel empowered, but still enough of one that people feel responsible. (Bush has done to democracy what Calvin did to God.) That suggests another aspect of the feeling: a disgust with our fellow Americans for allowing to happen. If we blame ourselves we have to blame them. It isn’t just about pointing fingers at red-staters. This was, after all, a liberals’ war.

How can we deal with this crippling paradox? On the drive back to Chicago, a group of us were so inspired by Dula’s presentation that we decided we’d like to plan a symposium to look at the question more deeply. We’ve continued the planning process through the last two and a half months and have chosen the first weekend of November for a conference tentatively titled, “Owning Cynicism and Acting in Hope: Christian Discipleship in a Post-Democratic Society”. I hope to write more about the planning process later, but for now I’ll leave with you with this excerpt from our fund raising letter:

We will invite activists, theologians and members of our communities to lead workshops and reflect on their own successes and failures through the lens of cynicism and hope. We envision this conference as a resource for the many frustrated, justice-minded Christians who, like us, feel trapped by the current political situation but who long to be part of meaningful action for change.

Sound interesting? We’re looking for organizers, speakers, sponsors and participants! Email me if you’re interested in getting involved.

Comments (8)

  1. folknotions

    Tim,

    I agree that cynicism has taken over. I wondered for a while if it was the shotty organizing tactics that was undermining the peace movement as well. United for Peace and Justice was doing a lot of really great work to reorganize the peace movement, because it had been heavily dominated by alphabet soup Marxist groups with really tiring slogans like “Smash Global Imperialism!” Of course, this is something I agree with, I’m just tired of getting into arguments with socialists about effective organizing for change.

    But those organizing tactics couldn’t have been the only thing. As an organizer, I’ve thought that no one will do anything unless moved to action by an organizer. But that’s pretty pessimistic; as if we’re all totally bankrupt until some 20-something tells us war is wrong.

    I have to believe there is a significant amount of what you are identifying: cynicism and catharsis through blogging. Your conference sounds important to reinvigorate Christians working for peace. Keep us posted!

    Reply
  2. Skylark

    I heard an NPR segment focusing on Cindy Sheehan and her criticisms of the peace movement. I’ve heard criticisms before that the peace movement is ineffective partly because it is so fractured, and it can’t seem to focus on peace. Speakers spend as much time talking about other causes, like poverty, global warming and the like, as they do about peace, these critics said. For me, peace is not a solitary issue that can be divorced from the other social dilemnas. When does integration of ideas become a lack of focus?

    What movements have overcome divisions and presented a unified voice? How can we learn from them? Was civil rights of the ’60s fragmented? It seems to be a human problem to be petty and pick fights, so I can’t imagine we’re the only ones ever to face it.

    Short of a solar flare knocking out internet access, internet communities are probably here to stay. At least for the short term until people tire of them. How do we become compelling enough that people will respond when we tell them to get off the computer and do something offline? We could use group blogs like YAR to organize events, but “events planned on the internet” still have a certain stigma among people I meet offline. It’s less legitimate, it seems.

    Tim, where are you planning to have this symposium about cynicism? You mentioned Chicago. I do have to wonder: would the cynics actually come? Seems to me it would be mostly optimists and a few cynics who got dragged along.

    Reply
  3. Dan S

    Yikes. These words hit very close to home for me. I attend local anti-war group meetings and get frustrated because of all the infighting, so I resort to the strategy of “achieve peace via angry blog posts”, which are mostly complaints about the latest dumb thing the adminstration did. It doesn’t achieve much in the end.

    But does this sap strength for political organzing? I’m not so sure. The internet is an invaluable organizing tool, so any disbursing it does should be weighed against that.

    I think the high standard of living we enjoy contributes more to political inaction. When people are generally happy to consume and be entertained by TV and culture, they don’t feel the need to protest their political situation. It isn’t until a policy actually touches them that they get off their couches. For example, I think if the draft were re-instated, the war would end in 6 months, because suddenly everyone would be potentially affected.

    Definitely keep us posted on the conference – it sounds great.

    Reply
  4. Josh

    Tim,

    Are you quoting Dula from memory or is his talk available?

    Josh

    Reply
  5. TimN (Post author)

    Josh,

    I have a copy of the speech. I’ll email it to you.

    Tim

    Reply
  6. Pingback: Update on Cynicism and Hope Conference » Young Anabaptist Radicals

  7. RonL

    Although it may be manifested in a different way (via the web and blogs), the fact that the peace movement consists of many people who don’t have real inner peace is not a new thing. The same was true during the Vietnam War. In fact, I believe that many people are attracted to the peace movement because of their lack of inner peace. They don’t want to see the images of war on their TV screens anymore- it is upsetting- so they go to protest the war.

    There are actually many levels of peace- peace between countries, peace within countries, peace within your community, peace with your family and inner peace. We tend to only concentrate on the one type of peace over which we have little control- peace between countries and pay less attention to the other types of peace, particularly inner peace, and peace in our families and communities. There, we can have a very important impact.

    There isn’t a way to peace- peace is the way. I also used to go to protest marches in Washington D.C., which were sparsely attended. In order to get enough people there, there were huge coalitions of groups- everyone who had something to complain about. And each of these groups battled for power- for their leader to speak, etc. I remember one peace march in D.C. about the U.S. support for the Contras in Central America where we were sandwiched between the Haitians protesting Baby Doc Duvalier, and the Phillipinos protesting U.S. support of Marcos. There was also the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil war- old guys who were socialists. These different groups each had their own agenda. Many groups were not even pacifist.

    A month after 9-11 when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, I drove several hours to attend a protest of that invasion. I somehow felt that it was important for me to be able to say I took an unpopular stand against a popular war. But, since then, I have not attended these sorts of war protests, and have concentrated more on the other types of peace- inner peace and peace in my family and community. I sometimes wonder though if I am somehow an accomplice to the things my government is doing by not standing up and taking a stronger stand. I don’t want to lose my inner peace or the other types of peace in the process though. I’m sure you all struggle with similar issues.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic.

    Reply
  8. Skylark

    Hi RonL! Thank you for this comment. It was very interesting, and it offers a different perspective on the issue(s) at hand.

    I have a question stemming from this sentence, “I believe that many people are attracted to the peace movement because of their lack of inner peace.”

    If this is true, is there anything we can say about whose who are not attracted to the peace movement? Are people who are apathetic really peaceful? How about those who actively support the wars in Iraq and Afganistan? Do we know anything about their inner peace based on their stance on these issues?

    Reply

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