Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Most Dangerous Man in America

How do we go from individual acts of courage to a mass movement for peace and justice?

In 1971, when the first of the Johnson administration's major escalations of the war in Vietnam was already a decade old, the New York Times began publishing portions of the Pentagon Papers, a Rand Corporation study of the history of U.S. military and political involvement in Southeast Asia. Daniel Ellsberg, a high-ranking strategist at Rand, working under a contract with the Pentagon, copied and leaked the top secret report to the Times, the Washington Post, 17 other newspapers and several members of Congress.

The story of Ellsberg's evolution from elite war strategist to anti-war activist is told in The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a documentary that premiered Friday night in D.C. and several other cities. Former Alaska senator Mike Gravel, who moderated a question and answer session after the showing, was also featured in the film for his role in inserting the whole of the Pentagon Papers into the official records of a Senate sub-committee he chaired. The Q and A, featuring Ellsberg, himself, and filmmaker Rick Goldsmith, highlighted a few key issues connected to the absence of a contemporary anti-war movement and apparent obstacles to movement-building; but passing through a sustained challenge to one's courage and integrity, as Ellsberg did on his journey to leaking the documents (and Gravel did, as well, in reading portions during a formal session of his sub-committee) does not automatically qualify one to speculate about how to build a movement.

Perhaps, it is uncharitable of me to carp about Ellsberg and Gravel, who deserve virtually any applause they get for their individual acts of moral courage and for their lifetime commitment to peace and justice, as well. But I have a churlish streak, so I will plunge ahead with the point that both Ellsberg and Gravel (and "The Most Dangerous Man...) seem essentially unaware that they were standing on the shoulders of a movement when they shared the secret papers with an apparently astounded public. Yes, the movie does acknowledge a certain measure of movement activity, of clashes between demonstrators and police, and of leadership from a select few politicians, but the nod is only cursory; the film goes so far as to claim that with his actions Ellsberg set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to President Nixon's resignation and the end of the Vietnam War.

This strikes me as very bad and unhelpful history. By 1969, the year when Ellsberg made the decision to begin copying the Pentagon Papers, the anti-war movement had already made the war a political hot potato. By that time, the first of thousands of campus teach-ins against the war (at the University of Michigan) was already five years past. Also earlier, on April 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in a sermon at the Riverside Church in New York City ("A Time to Break Silence") first linked the civil rights struggle to the war in Vietnam.
Soon, if not already, King said, our troops "must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated must surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor."

From that point forward King moved beyond his brief as a leader of the civil rights movement to become a leader of the opposition to the war in Vietnam. A year later, in a tragic moment that injected a fresh moral energy to both movements, but also added to a growing cultural and social division in the country, King was assassinated.

It was also the movement (and therefore a collective expression of a myriad of moments of individual courage) that forced President Johnson to give up the presidency at the end of his first full term in 1968. And on May 4, 1970, the National Guard fired on a crowd of demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding thirteen. Ten days after Kent State, the police in Jackson, Miss. fired on a crowd of students at Jackson State University. Two students were killed, another 15 were wounded. Though the series of demonstrations at Jackson State began as a civil rights protest incited by an incident in which a white motorist injured a black pedestrian, there was also a strong anti-war message infused in the demonstrations organized by students at the historically black university.

All of this and much more was part of the zeitgeist that inspired, shaped and affirmed Ellsberg and Gravel and others in their individual acts of conscience. And all this matters because in this history lie the lessons we must learn if a movement for peace and economic and environmental justice is to develop early in the 21st Century. The first person to speak during the Q&A following the film on Friday night was an older guy who spoke about his own despair over the absence of a viable popular movement in the U.S. Neither Ellsberg nor Gravel could speak to the question of how a movement develops though they both asserted that there is always hope; hope that is kindled in individual acts of resistance. This is reasonable and true, but we cannot mistake the moment in time when an otherwise collaborationist media publishes something like the Pentagon Papers as a pivotal moment in the development of a movement.

That moment comes when a mature movement has already forced people in positions of influence who have remained studiously neutral or have been complicit, as Ellsberg himself was, to confront their own consciences. In such a moment, some, like the editors at the New York Times and Washington Post, may finally make the decision to do the right thing and publish the truth, or a reasonable facsimile. The crowd at the premiere seemed to believe that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was an act of journalistic courage, but the comments of the Washington editor of the Times suggest something else. Once we had the documents in our possession, he said, we had to publish. If we had not, and the public had ever found out what we knew, it would have ruined the newspaper.

It is worth noting here, in the autumn of the newspaper publishing business, that journalists need not rue the fate of our great newspapers who have failed to relentlessly investigate and publish the truth about our war frauds in Iraq and Afghanistan. The end of the major urban dailies is at hand, in any case. By and large, the public has lost interest in their fate. So it should also be obvious that no strategy for building a movement can depend, in any part, on newspaper or, even, television news coverage. Audiences are too fragmented and have too many media choices for any message from any source to fall on millions at once with the same impact.

The good news here is not that I have any better idea how to build a movement than do Dan Ellsberg or Mike Gravel. The good news is that elements of that movement already exist. They exist in affinity groups and collectives focused on individual issues. Elements of the next movement exist in neighborhood collaborations aimed at improving local schools or reclaiming abandoned housing. Elements exist even here, in Washington, where some electeds, like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich keep fighting the good fight. There are also organizations fighting for economic and environmental justice on a global scale. Though labor unions are only a pale shadow of what they once were, some unions continue to organize low-wage workers and strategize ways to connect to a larger movement.

None of this is enough. What is missing here is a critical mass of young people who have not yet fully compromised with prevailing attitudes or who are not yet resigned to a comfortable cynicism. I do not know how to persuade people 30 or 40 years younger than me that their future, that the future of the world they will grow into is at risk; that to be 50- or 60-something in 2040 will be a lot more unpleasant than being that age now. I cannot even say persuasively how I know this to be true (though I will keep working on my argument that it is so). Nor can I say what exactly is required of me now. But I will say that I won't stop thinking or writing about these questions until I have better answers. And when I get to that happy point, I'll keep working on the same questions, anyway, because nothing less is required of each of us.

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