April 3, 2003
A Scream Looking for a Mouth
The anti-war forces in America have blundered, and it's making them lose the war -- for our hearts and minds.
The problem is the demonstrations. By their very nature, public rallies of this sort tend to reduce issues to black-and-white oversimplifications, fueled by a need to dramatize and emotionalize for maximum effect.
Unfortunately for the demonstrators, this issue is hardly black and white. Anyone who has scanned editorials over the past few months can tell you that this is a heart-wrenching subject, with strong arguments on both sides. But angry demonstrators who yell, scream and demonize President George W. Bush with signs like "Bush is the real terrorist" end up undermining their credibility and, ultimately, their cause.
For anti-war demonstrations to be effective, they need a clear bad guy, no strings attached. Bush is not that guy. You can criticize him all you want -- for failing to make his case for war, not giving sanctions enough time, being arrogant, etc. -- but you can't look like you hate him more than an evil tyrant who has murdered and tortured thousands of his own people.
Therein lies the blunder. The anti-war demonstrators seem to have forgotten the one person who would have made a fabulous target for an "anti" rally: Saddam Hussein. Against that kind of evil, it would be perfectly acceptable to simplify and dramatize. I can't imagine ever accusing someone of exaggerating a critique of Saddam Hussein.
I can even see the signs: "Saddam Must Go," "Free the 30 Million Iraqis," "Iraqi Women's rights," "We don't need another Hitler," "No negotiating with Evil" and so on. You can disagree with the decision to go to war, but you can't disagree that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who must go.
By choosing to demonize Bush, the anti-war forces have let their hearts rule their minds. They have forgotten what the majority of Americans intuitively understand: that there is another, more vicious war going on -- the war that Saddam Hussein has waged on his own people for decades. That war may not be as visible on CNN, but it's real, and it's disingenuous to look like you ignore it.
All this makes me wonder if there are other factors behind this seemingly blind and single-minded hatred of Bush. We live in a consumer-based society where we are used to being pandered to and seduced, where we judge personalities more than we judge issues. But Bush doesn't seduce. It's quite possible that his morally righteous, cowboy personality is a total turnoff to these anti-war demonstrators, and they can't see past that unpleasant veneer to give him any credit for noble intentions.
It's also true that public demonstrations have always had a romantic pull for those looking for a more meaningful and dramatic life. And going against war is as romantic and dramatic as it gets. Who cares if we are exaggerating or simplifying or demonizing? In a feel-good culture, yelling against war can feel really good.
The side effect of all this yelling is that it kills honest debate. It's easier to yell than to think. Thinking, balancing and debating may be the more appropriate course, but it won't get you on the evening news. The result is the appearance of a polarized world, where you are either for or against, no questions asked. That's not democracy at its best.
I have a suggestion for demonstration-seekers. If you're going to yell against something in three-second sound bites, pick a true evil to yell against that requires little or no nuance. Otherwise, if you're genuinely against the war and you're a scream looking for a mouth, scream for something positive like peace. It may be superficial and naive -- especially now that the war is well underway -- but at least you won't lose the credibility that comes from demonizing the wrong demon.