Three New Jersey Activists Exchange Opinions on the Election

by Tom Barrett

What follows is an exchange of opinions by Bob Witanek, the coordinator of the Committee to End the Occupation of Iraq, based in Belle Mead, New Jersey, singer-songwriter Sharleen Leahey, of Somerville, New Jersey, and Tom Barrett, co-Managing Editor of Labor Standard.

Voting For War

By Bob Witanek

For many pro-war voters — a vote for Kerry is a vote for war because they believe that Kerry will do it right. Kerry is accusing Bush of retreating — attacking Bush from the right — and goading on a massacre in Fallujah, Sadr City, etc. Kerry is running a jingoist pro-military campaign and soliciting the pro-war vote. Many pro-war veterans are identifying with his jingoist swift boat landing in Boston and his “I know how to fight this war better” rhetoric. Face up to it — Kerry is carrying many pro war voters.

At the same time, many anti-war activists believe — I would say are under the illusion — that they are voting against the war when they vote for Kerry. There are those who have not taken the time to study the statements and positions of Kerry and they just have gone along with the anti-Bush hype at the rallies and in much of the buzz in the anti-war movement. In these cases, these folks believe however illegitimately that their pro-Kerry vote is a vote against war. I would charge that these people are giving their political support to a pro-war campaign of the Kerry administration out of ignorance and denial.

There are others however, who concede that Kerry is as bad as Bush on Iraq and yet they are voting for him. Yes — I charge that they are explicitly voting for war. They say that they are voting for Kerry not because of his pro-war positions but for other reasons. They have prioritized how they want to expend their measly political power — their vote — and opposing the war is not their motivating factor. They might not be happy that they are voting for war but they should admit it to themselves.

There are also those who are supposedly part of this movement who know full well that voting for Kerry has nothing to do with war opposition but they sinisterly promote the idea that it does. They are misleading and manipulating the movement to take pro-war action. They are doing it to elect their party man. That is their priority — not stopping war.

Folks can be personally, morally, ethically against war. They march, rally, fax, call, lobby, vigil, etc., against war. But then they vote for war. That does not mean they support war on a moral or personal level. But on the political level, the physical act of voting for Kerry is a physical act of donating the small amount of actual political power that we possess to supporting war — supporting a policy that does not retreat from the precipice of massacre in Fallujah, Najaf, Sadr City etc.

Bush is preparing these assaults and Kerry is baiting the U.S. to move quicker. He promises a quicker exit — after he defeats the insurgency.

All of the categories above amount to voting for war. In some cases it is explicit and in other cases out of ignorance. The bottom line is — they expend their only real political power to support war — regardless of the many reasons they give for their support, campaigning, donating and voting for war.

I am not making up these motivations for people. I have observed the arguments folks are putting forward. I am not making assumptions.

Many anti-war people claim to vote for Kerry to oppose the war. They say that. Others admit Kerry is pro-war and say they are voting for him for other reasons. They say that too. As for those who in my view know full well that Kerry is just as much a war monger as Bush yet still shill for him in the movement — I do not pretend to know their motivations but in any event — they are still expending their political capital in favor of war.

Bottom line is — you can lobby, march, rally, vigil, fax, phone, argue, cuss, throw things at your tv, pass fliers, all you want — but if you get out there and vote for candidates who are in favor of the war — you are voting for war — and you should not be surprised when you get what you vote for: WAR!…regardless of the motivation of such pro-war voters.

— Bob

Answer to Bob Witanek re: Voting for War

by Sharleen Leahey

Dear Bob,

Let’s get real…we are living in the most powerful, technologically advanced imperialistic empire to ever exist in recorded human history. Of course Kerry is supporting the war because our economic, political and cultural reality at the present time is defined by a huge permanent war machine and sickening macho-man rhetoric. But this election is about more than politics…it is about our very survival.

When asked if she supported Nader for president this time journalist and author Ariana Huffington recently stated, “When your house is on fire it is not time to re-decorate.” Well our house is on fire and we have to get Bush out of office or face dire consequences on many fronts. For one thing, the people of Iran and Syria have been put on notice by Bush and his Neo-con gangsters that they are next on his hit list. According to Peter Peterson, a well-known economist, Bush is increasing the deficit by 4 billion dollars a day which is driving us toward an economic meltdown. Bush has promised to privatize Social Security immediately if he gets back into office. Millions of women and children are trapped in dire poverty and are facing more devastating cuts in social programs. He promises to appoint three neo-con Judges who could not only overturn Roe v. Wade but try to impose a right-wing Christian fundamentalist agenda on our citizens. The list goes on and on…

You spend your energy telling us how bad Kerry is but Bob…guess what? Obviously one of these two men is going to be President and it is going to make a huge difference…in the lives of billions of people all around the world as well as countless species of plants and animals currently being decimated in the wilderness areas being slashed and burned by Bush’s corporate controllers. And I haven’t even mentioned civil liberties…we are facing the end of our republic and the very real possibility of the establishment of a police state. I shudder to think what will happen to our peace movement under an unbridled 2nd term if Bush stays in the White House. This is not just an opposition Republican Party…we are dealing with fascists.

I voted for Nader in two past presidential elections. Now I urge every person who believes in a peaceful future to vote for John Kerry. I remember Kerry very well when I was a kid taking part in the Vietnam War protests. He mesmerized a whole room of US Senators speaking out for peace during a time when Nixon ruled the White House and many lived in fear of his dirty tricks and enemies list. Kerry bravely asked them “Where are our leaders?” He had courage and spoke from his heart about his anguish over war crimes being committed against innocent civilians. What other major public figure in American life (other than Martin Luther King) can you remember doing that? As a Senator Kerry took on the drug-running of the Reagon outlaws in Central America…he helped re-establish relations with Vietnam. These events speak volumes about Kerry’s character and potential to be a leader we can move in the right direction.

After we finish celebrating the defeat of Bush we must re-dedicate ourselves to pushing Kerry hard for an end to the occupation of Iraq. Let us remind him of his famous words as a 27-year old veteran who asked “How can we ask someone to be the last person to die for a mistake?” With John Kerry as the next President of the United States there is a real chance for our voices to be heard. Bush must go.

Bob, how can you ask peace activists to throw away the one weapon they have to defeat George W. Bush…their vote?

Sharleen Leahey

The Differences Between Bush and Kerry Are Tactical, Not Fundamental

by Tom Barrett

Dear Sharleen:

Thanks for sharing this exchange with us. Whenever peace and justice activists can express different opinions while recognizing that we share common goals and a vision for the future of the world, everyone can benefit from the discussion.

I have to tell you, though: I fundamentally agree with Bob. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I agree with his basic premise, and I will be voting for Nader and Camejo. I’m not enthusiastic about the Nader ticket, even though I have known Pete Camejo personally for over 30 years, but I have this thing about never failing to vote, and they are the best I can see running.

Just to start: you say that “this election…is about our very survival.” Well, I have heard that before. The first time I heard it was forty years ago, as a teenage boy watching a campaign spot on TV of a little girl picking petals off a daisy and then a nuclear blast. The tagline was: “The stakes are too high for you to stay home,” with the implication that if Lyndon Johnson did not defeat Barry Goldwater we could face nuclear annihilation. Johnny Carson used to joke that he had a friend who told him, “Don’t you know that if you vote for Goldwater, we’ll get in a land war in Asia, that millions of American young men will die, there will be terrible unrest in this country?” Carson continued, “You know, he was right. I voted for Goldwater, and that’s exactly what happened!”

Two years later I was involved in a Democratic primary campaign for the governorship of Maryland. Our candidate, Carlton R. Sickles, was representing a faction which was seeking to wrest the party away from the coalition of Eastern Shore segregationists and corrupt Baltimore City machine politicians which had dominated it for years. Robert Kennedy was playing an active role in this effort. We had been successful in 1964 in defeating the machine candidate for Senate, and now we had our sights set on the governor’s mansion. Unfortunately, Mr. Sickles lost in a close primary to a corrupt segregationist named George Mahoney, who besides running a disgustingly racist campaign was also completely stupid and unfit for any public office. Nearly all of us who had worked for Sickles decided to support the “lesser evil” candidate, a liberal Republican county executive who was associated with former Governor Theodore McKeldin, a protegé of Nelson Rockefeller. Our efforts were successful, and the Republican won. That was how Spiro T. Agnew became governor of Maryland! That is a mistake I will never make again.

I gave the system “one more chance” in 1968. As a college freshman, I went on several road trips from my campus in Massachusetts up to New Hampshire to ring doorbells for Eugene McCarthy. Our success, which led to Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, sent our hopes soaring, hopes that were dashed in Chicago that summer. When John Connally’s Texas delegation smashed the minority report in the platform committee and Mayor Daley’s cops smashed antiwar demonstrators in the streets, I made the decision: I gave the system one more chance, and the system blew it. We will not change the world for the better through the electoral process. Ain’t gonna happen. Though I continue to vote and have worked in minority-party campaigns for many years, I believe that our energy is better spent in direct action: the vigils, the marches, and, when appropriate and possible, labor strikes and civil disobedience.

Since my teenage years, we have survived the Nixon administration, which crashed and burned which Nixon played games with our civil liberties. We have survived Reagan, a man who was far worse than the “madman” Goldwater. And we have survived both Bushes, not to mention the neoliberal Clinton, who gave us NAFTA, “welfare reform,” and a budget balanced on the backs of the working people. And though I do not minimize the very real threat that the Bush administration poses to our civil liberties, an older generation that I very much admire courageously stood up to Joseph McCarthy and the witch-hunts of the 1947–54 period. That was a terrible time: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death. Jimmy Kutcher (I knew him personally), who had lost both legs in World War II, was fired from his VA job and fought for 10 years for reinstatement. We know the rest. But fear did not defeat them. And it should not defeat us either. If Bush is re-elected, it does not mean that there will be nuclear annihilation or fascism. And if Kerry wins it does not mean an end to war, the assault on workers’ living standards, the continued destruction of our environment, or the domination of this world by the multinational corporations.

Kerry has not been dishonest with us: he has said that his plan is to win the war in Iraq. He says he has a better plan than Bush’s, and I don’t doubt it. I can’t go along with that. He has expressed complete support for the racist apartheid state of Israel. I can’t go along with that either. Kerry voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, and he has not “flip-flopped” to repudiate that vote. What kind of defender of civil liberties is that?

Whenever fundamental change has come about in this country, the last people to get on board have been the elected officials. The struggle to end slavery began as soon as the Constitution was ratified. Abraham Lincoln did not singlehandedly emancipate anyone. For decades courageous men and women (and sometimes children) fought for the eight-hour day, a living wage, and safe working conditions, long before Franklin Roosevelt signed the Wagner Act and other New Deal measures. And the fight for equal rights for African-Americans had been going on for years, with sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts, and unfortunately, martyrs, before the Kennedy brothers became involved (against the wishes of their father, by the way). The world will change for the better because of people like you and me, when, as Pete Seeger has written, two and two and fifty make a million. The politicians will follow; they will never lead.

In past years we have heard it suggested that during an election year we should call off our public protests so that the Democratic candidates can get elected. We heard some of this kind of talk in response to the Million Worker March last weekend, and it had a negative effect on it. But for the most part, we don’t hear this any more, and this makes me optimistic about our future. When 400,000 people marched in New York City on the eve of the Republican convention, it convinced me that no matter who wins the election, he will not be able to do whatever he would like.

On 2 November we will all cast a ballot (or boycott the election) as our consciences instruct us, but we will make real change by our united direct action. I certainly understand that the emotions involved in looking at four more years of Bush. Anyone with a social conscience can only be sickened by the prospect. But that is no reason to vote for someone whose differences with him are only tactical, not fundamental.

So, Sharleen, let’s work together, march together, sing together, and if necessary, fight together. I always respect your opinion, whether we agree or disagree.

Yours for peace and justice,