(In) My Hometown

We’ve been long war in Iraq for over 4 years now. The anniversary is now almost a week old, but I’ve been holding off posting about this day because there’s been quite a lot of press about the anniversary and, to be frank, I’m not sure what I can add in terms of commentary to the national narrative.

However…

I live in Walnut Creek, CA, and this part of the Bay Area (Contra Costa County) has been known as either the land of “sleepy suburbs” or a Republican haven. While neither description of this place is entirely accurate, it’s been fascinating to watch the reaction to this war from both sides of the political spectrum. Earlier in March, a right-wing group of war supporters held what can be called a “media event” protest at a hillside memorial in Lafayette, CA (next to Walnut Creek).

Since I work in the media I was treated to many faxes in my “in” box from the group organizing the event, and knew that this event was going to get coverage because one of the organizers is talk show host on a right wing talk station in San Francisco. It worked like a charm. The cameras were out in full force to capture a fight (if one broke out). And the more vocal members of this group (angry parents of fallen soldiers) had their talking points down so they could be repeated in the echo chamber for a good 24 hours (if not more).

I don’t doubt the sincerity of those who believe that the fight in Iraq is the “right thing to do,” nor do I doubt the anger the parents of slain soldiers feel when their child becomes part of a political football game. But when looking at the footage of angry parents berating those who created the memorial, it seemed their anger was fueled by a narrative created by the group organizing the event (i.e., Move America Forward). Moreover, the angry parents lost some credibility (in my mind) when they became willing participants in the very game they supposedly did not want to be part of. Their eagerness to kick some ass in the name of their dead children had the stench of false moralism and showed them less as concerned parents and more like bigoted hypocrites.

At issue was the fact that the names of the soldiers are on the hillside crosses. According to the argument by the angry parents, if the names of soldiers are displayed in a “fake” memorial that makes a political statement, it’s a “disgusting” and wrong thing to do because it dishonors those who served. Because it dishonors the soldiers, the memorial should come down. There are a couple of problems with this argument:

1.) The parents are saying that there’s an appropriate way to protest the war, and using the names of dead U.S. soldiers in a sign of political protest is not a respectful way to exercise a right to free speech. However, the parents then turn around and proudly proclaim that their children died so Americans can protest anyway they want. You can’t have it both ways, can you. You can’t take the moral high ground and parade the picture of your dead son saying your child died so Americans continue to have the right to express themselves, and then demand that people with whom you disagree stop exercising that right.

2.) For argument’s sake, let’s say that I was for the war. I decided to post pictures and names of dead soldiers on a hillside in a liberal enclave with a placard that listed the number of dead U.S. soldiers and a phrase that said something like: “Blood Shed For The Cause Of Freedom. Support The War. Support President Bush.” Would the same group of angry parents demand that my memorial be taken down because I’m making a political statement by using their dead kids’ images and names? It’s difficult to say, but my guess is that they wouldn’t. And that’s why this traveling caravan of angry parents was more about punishing political opponents (with a willing, and supposedly “liberal” media giving them ample air time), than it was about protecting the honor of fallen soldiers by taking their death out of the political arena.

On the left…

Those who protested in front of the Chevron corporate headquarters in San Ramon, CA were in no danger of losing their sense of moral superiority either. They created a human/oil barrel chain that blocked the main entrance to the corporate headquarters, made speeches about corporate greed, oil profits made off the the war in Iraq, and global warming. There was a tug of war between “The People” and the Chevron executives, and overly dramatic speeches about the last piece of ice in the world. In short, it was a lively protest that evoked the spirit of antiwar protests of the 60s. Alas, I’m fearful that it was less effective than the hillside memorial because it stuck to a standard protest device.

Political theater is an old tactic used to dramatize the current plight of whatever is ailing us. However, I often wonder (in the is age of reality TV), whether pieces of agitprop like the tug of war, the human/oil barrel chain, or even the dancing George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condi Rice did much to highlight the connection between the war in Iraq and Chevron’s profit margin. People driving cars past the site of the protest did honk, but it’s not clear if they did much more than that. And I’m not sure if the protesters realized the irony of making speeches about global warming while cars were idling in a dead stop on the freeway because, yes, their protest had snarled traffic on the freeway. Like the angry parents who traveled the country to get their base fired and support the war, those who protested at Chevron certainly had political conviction, but once the spotlight dimmed, it’s not entirely clear if their efforts did much to change the opinions of Americans. As it stands, a large majority of Americans (and that includes the “sleepy” suburbs in CC County) are against the way Bush is handling the war. Yet, from the way the political extremes are acting, you would think the numbers have flipped.
–PK

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