This evening, I spent a couple of hours at Central Market in downtown Austin, Texas, with 7 other people in one of the first Meetups to Rethink the Afghanistan War. I've been involved in a serious way in the struggle to end the war for a little more than two years. This was the most positive, hopeful experience of my time in this movement.
It's cliche these days to talk about the isolation that can occur when one participates in a movement largely based online. It's cliche for a reason: even in the age of social media, movement participation through online means can lead to slactivism and lonely vigils in front of computer screens, such that even while blogging, tweeting and Gchatting, one can feel thoroughly, coldly alone. Though I am a firm believer in "going online to go offline," tonight was the first time in years that I'd gathered in a real place with real people wearing their real bodies to talk about the issue I'm most passionate about (except, of course, in-person meetings at work, but that's a slightly different animal).
This isn't to say that the work we do online at places like the Rethink Afghanistan Facebook page isn't powerful and important. It's just that when you get together with your fellow travelers face-to-face, that's when the magic happens.
As the organizer of the local Meetup, I had very simple objectives for the first meeting: I wanted to get to know the attendees and find out what would bring them back to the next meeting, and I wanted to know what they wanted from the group. For the latter, there was a unanimous answer: action. We didn't want to sit around and blow off steam about what was wrong with U.S. policy in Afghanistan. We were all already converted. We wanted a group that would dive in and agitate for an end to the war through effective local events and actions. Austin is a music town, so some of our ideas tied local music and local speakers on the war. Austin is also something of a movie town, so we also raised the idea of a screening of the Rethink Afghanistan documentary at the Alamo Drafthouse. The group was forward-leaning, down-to-earth, and seemed to share a positive attitude about the work ahead.
Sitting there with a handful of people willing to give up their Friday night for this issue, I got the sense we were tapping into a much larger phenomenon taking place all across the country. Polls show that opposition to the war has sharply increased, and the "Inauguration Hangover" is wearing off. Whereas once Americans opposed the war, yet gave President Obama high marks for his handling of it, these days people are unreservedly unwilling to give "Our President" a free pass on a brutal, costly policy, post-9/11 rhetoric notwithstanding. It's a phenomenon now on display in Congress, as described in today's L.A. Times:
The moment has been long in coming, but it may finally have arrived.
For the last year and a half, on issues including healthcare, financial regulation and climate change, Democrats in Congress have bent for President Obama. Liberals swallowed hard to accept compromises that fell short of their long-sought goals, and moderates cast tough votes that now threaten their reelection prospects as voters revolt against government overreach.
Then, last week, the president asked them to bend yet again -- this time to approve more money for his troop buildup in an Afghanistan war that many Democrats oppose.
And once again, lawmakers went to work. On the eve of the vote last week, Democratic leaders compiled a complicated $82-billion package of war funding, disaster aid and domestic spending that achieved the seemingly impossible -- meeting the president's request while accommodating the needs of its politically diverse members.
Obama responded with a one-word message that sent shudders through his party on the Hill: veto.
In that exchange, the tension between the White House and the president's Democratic allies spilled over.
The President isn't up for election this year, but Members of Congress and many Senators are, and they are heading into a stiff wind carrying the stench of dead civilians and soldiers from the longest war in U.S. history. The honeymoon is over, and what was once a clever anti-Republican rhetorical strategy--Iraq bad! Afghanistan good!--has been revealed as morally and strategically bankrupt nonsense. People in Congress and people across the country get it, and they're finished with their post-2008 break, and they're not content to let made-for-swagger campaign rhetoric kill people any longer.
Tonight, with Rattletree Marimba playing steel drums in the background (yes, in Austin, we have live--and good!--music at the grocery store cafe), I made some new friends with whom I plan to share important work. I also had my hope renewed that, struggling together in small groups all across the country, we can end this war and set our country onto the paths of peace.
I cannot recommend Rethink the Afghanistan War Meetups strongly enough. Many local groups' first meetings will take place this Saturday and Sunday. I hope you'll join us.