A Message to New Jersey Antiwar Activists

by Tom Barrett

The following message was sent to the members of the Northwest New Jersey Peace Fellowship, an antiwar network based in rural Sussex and Warren Counties.

Dear Friends:

What follows are some of my thoughts about the just-concluded election and how we need to proceed in the next few weeks and months.

Many people chose to devote their energies defeating Bush’s re-election effort. Though that effort was not successful, no one need engage in hand-wringing or recriminations. In terms of conventional politics, the antiwar activists who worked for the election of John Kerry did everything right. They chose a candidate who had appeal to a broad spectrum of opinion, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former prosecutor, who had decades of experience in the U.S. Senate. The Kerry campaign raised more money than any Democratic presidential bid in recent memory. Kerry as a candidate spoke well; he performed well in the debates, and he presented a positive message. The president responded with lies, personal attacks on Kerry’s integrity, and the kind of negative attack advertising for which Bush Senior’s campaign manager, Lee Atwater, gave a deathbed apology after being stricken with brain cancer while still a young man.

Kerry’s supporters worked tirelessly, and delivered all the states where trade unions and peace and justice coalitions are strong: the entire Northeast, West Coast, and all the upper Midwest except Indiana and the crucial state of Ohio. What made the difference in Ohio? The Republicans mobilized the Christian fundamentalists to vote for their man, and God help us all when that bill comes due.

What is ironic is that polling data throughout the country shows dissatisfaction with Bush’s policies. People feel that the war is going badly; they fear that they may lose their jobs, and they see the costs of health care and college tuition far outpacing the rate of inflation. And they are paying in many areas over $2/gallon for gasoline. But in election periods it is emotions which rule, not reason — on both sides. And just as many of us had an emotional gut reaction of hatred and disgust just to hear George W. Bush’s voice, his supporters simply liked him, even though they knew his policies are wrong and that he is not really qualified to be president of the United States. It doesn’t matter that a campaign leaflet asserting that John Kerry would outlaw the Bible was a lie from start to finish. Some people believed it, and it got them out to vote. It didn’t matter that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. When administration figures danced around the truth to plant the idea of a connection, it worked. Gay marriage, abortion, and even Creationism and the belief in the End Times all contributed to Bush’s victory. There is absolutely no principle that Bush and Cheney are unwilling to sacrifice in the interests of holding onto power, and the people as a whole are the losers.

And let’s forget about any notion that this election — or any of the recent elections — is about a conflict between “liberal” and “conservative.” Those words have been stripped of any kind of serious meaning and have become nothing but empty epithets. I read Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative in 1964. The goals it promoted, however falsely, were individual liberties and fiscal responsibility. If Goldwater’s ideas were conservatism, the Republican party today is one place where there is no conservatism! The notions of individual responsibility are gone, especially in this administration. We have a president who expects others to clean up his messes for him, who expects to keep his job now matter how badly he does it, and who genuinely believes that the rules don’t apply to him. This administration thinks it has the right and duty to amend the Constitution so that the government can involve itself in our personal relationships, and to use a fraudulent “war on terrorism” to intimidate those who would speak out against its policies. And it has run up hundreds of billions of dollars in government deficits, all the while accusing its opponents of being “tax-and-spend liberals.” This isn’t conservatism. This is radical reaction, and it is dishonest to the core. Its only purpose is to make the world safe for the multinational corporations, and if they have to do things that are patently illegal (let alone immoral and wrong) to do it, they will not hesitate.

Ralph Nader was not a factor in this election. He did not draw enough votes in any state to change the result.

What this means, it must be said, is that working to make progressive change through the twin-party electoral system does not work. Those among us who worked for Kerry in order to get Bush out made every necessary compromise: supporting a candidate who did not favor withdrawal from Iraq, who opposed gay marriage, who voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, and spoke up strongly in favor of Israel. How far to the right can the political “center” move? How far can we go in abandoning our principles for the sake of getting a candidate elected? And after all that, Kerry still lost. We can complain that the Bush campaign lied shamelessly, and it is true. We can complain that the Bush campaign attempted to intimidate people away from the polls, and it is true. We can complain that the Bush campaign appealed to the basest prejudices and ignorance in the population, and that again is true. We can even point to evidence of out-and-out election fraud. But it worked for them. Bush was re-elected. We have to fight back in a different way, for our own agenda, with our own tactics, and with our own organizations. The strategy of relying on Democratic party politicians has failed yet again.

Once we have all recovered from the nearly sleepless election night and the “Blue State Blues,” we need to get back to work. Many good ideas are being suggested, and we need to start talking about them and making decisions. One place to start, in my opinion: International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) is beginning work on a Counter-Inaugural demonstration in Washington on 20 January. How many people from our communities can we mobilize to participate in that event? Our rural corner of New Jersey has been able completely to fill a bus for past demonstrations. Can we do it again? We must do it again.

Our weekly peace vigils need to start filling up the town squares. Instead of three or four people, imagine twenty-five or thirty people each Friday, letting everyone who passes know that Bush’s re-election does not intimidate us, and that we are going to resist every attempt to impose his agenda on the people. Bush will be president for another four years (unless a major scandal forces him from office as it did Nixon); it doesn’t make sense any more to carry placards about “Dump Bush.”  Let’s concentrate our attention on demanding the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Iraq. When you look at the situation over there, can there be any question that there is no benefit to the Iraqi people or the American people from continued U.S. military presence? It’s time to join together to demand “Out Now!” in no uncertain terms.

Many of us are concerned about defending women’s right to choose abortion and basic human rights for gays and lesbians, both of which are in danger.  We may need to organize ourselves to stand outside family planning clinics to defend them from “right-to-life” terrorists. Just as large street demonstrations and vigils are demanding an end to this war, similar tactics have worked in the past to win and defend a woman’s right to choose. And when this administration attempts to use judicial appointments to reverse legal decisions such as Roe v. Wade, the information needs to be circulated far and wide, so that people can make the appropriate demands on those who have the authority to confirm or reject.

Besides working in a political way to put an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians, we need to work on the individual and community level to bringing about acceptance. That means the schools, the religious institutions, and even within our extended families. Are there people in your church spreading intolerance towards homosexuals? Speak out. Are gay high school students being subjected to bullying and social ostracism? It’s everyone’s responsibility to help put a stop to it.

The trade unions have a special responsibility now, because labor alone has the power to stop production and thus the flow of profits to the multinational corporations. Make no mistake: the “red states” are in large measure “right-to-work” states, where the union shop is against the law. Bush’s foreign policy, which many in his administration are openly and proudly calling “imperialistic,” is designed to allow worldwide labor costs to fall to the level of the poorest Third World country. Sweatshops are immoral in and of themselves, but what makes them even worse is that they make it impossible for fair employers to compete in the capitalist marketplace. The Million Worker March in October was a good idea. What we need is a Million Worker March that really brings out a million workers, and then when workers get a sense of their own power, they know how to get results.

I have been noticing over the past nearly two years that people have grown tired of retreating. Being well behaved little citizens hasn’t worked. Hiding who we are hasn’t worked. Trying to fit in hasn’t worked. I won’t be traveling to Florida any time soon. I will not spend money at Wal-Mart again. I won’t engage in polite dialogue with someone who thinks that being gay is immoral. And if any of us feel that we need to defend our standard of living by going out on strike, it’s up to the whole community — all of us — to help them and their families hold out. Don’t think it doesn’t affect you personally. It does.

No retreat! No surrender!