By Tom Valovic / Mass Peace Action
I’m probably not your typical peace activist. Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve been involved in a variety of volunteer and activist work in environmentalism, healthcare, and the best use of emerging technology. As a relative newcomer, I’ve found that the level of fierce dedication and deep foreign policy expertise that characterizes the peace movement and the many varied initiatives underway is both impressive and inspiring. As a former research analyst, educator, and political journalist looking at the movement with a fresh pair of eyes (and admittedly from a limited base of “in the trenches” experience), I wanted to share some thoughts about how the peace movement, considered as a whole might, become more effective.
This is hard, hard work because we’re swimming against some very powerful social and political currents. Dealing with the nuclear horror week after week is akin to staring at the face of Medusa as found in classical Greek literature and requires unusual courage. It’s common knowledge in our ranks that the peace movement is confronting one of the greatest challenges it’s ever faced, even as our political environment parallels some of American history’s worst moments. But at a time when it needs to have its greatest impact on public perception, the movement is struggling in some key areas. The recent Rage Against the War Machine rally’s pre- and post-event ideological turbulence echoed all of these fault lines and placed them into sharp focus. Clearly, there are important lessons to be learned from this event and whatever clarity it might provide.
In part, the movement is struggling because of internal division and the highly polarized and fragmented national political climate that necessarily spills into this work. Another huge challenge is the Herculean task of educating a public that has been bombarded with skewed narratives from the mainstream press and electronic media in full support of (and not even marginally questioning) the need for continued military solutions in Ukraine over and above diplomacy. Overlay all of this with a kind of cultural amnesia or denial concerning both World Wars and the abject horrors of nuclear weapons, and the task, at times, can feel a bit overwhelming. Among the worst challenges we face is the fact that “the Democratic Party has been overly blasé about nuclear escalation with Russia, and has stigmatized even minor dissent over the issue of how the U.S. should approach vital diplomacy with Moscow” as an MSNBC op-ed writer admitted.
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Several months ago, a number of articles appeared in mainstream publications such as New York magazine, Time magazine, and the New York Times giving more visibility to the peace movement and Progressive activism (as opposed to just Progressive politics.) This is a positive sign and signals that peace activism has had some measure of success in gaining better visibility in the public sphere. Taking this opportunity to step back and engage in broader discussion and self-analysis can only be healthy for the movement as it works to increase this visibility, add new members to the ranks, and ratchet up its impact on our benighted public policies. Given this background, here are a few suggestions for consideration:
Widen the audience and improve outreach. The peace movement spends a lot of time and energy that’s focused within its own ranks. This is important in terms of reinforcing core values and keeping members engaged. In addition, there’s the ever-present challenge of trying to stay on top of rapidly developing news about the Ukraine War and a New Cold War paradigm designed to keep militarization as a top US priority. Understandably, this is demanding and challenging enough and takes up a lot of bandwidth. But, in my opinion, to increase effectiveness, the movement needs to keep a laser focus on a broader audience, i.e. the general public. This is our true constituency. An enormous amount of education needs to be done to help counter sophisticated media narratives designed to rev up the public into a war mentality that supports a military-only approach to solving the Ukraine crisis. A few simple ways to do this, for example, might be to extend the focus of webinars and other educational outreach into metropolitan library systems; or engage local speakers’ bureaus that might sponsor talks at local universities by pro-diplomacy foreign policy experts.
Maintain a big tent. The internal divisions within the peace movement are well known. These include disagreements over core issues such as assigning blame for the genesis of the war in Ukraine. While this is an important discussion to have, it can soak up a lot of time and energy that could be used elsewhere. Seen from one vantage point, the peace movement is a petri dish for larger society and, as such, reflects the deep divisions in American culture and politics. Having a big tent can mean several things. One is allowing room for valid argumentation but doing so in a way that creates more light than heat. In addition, peace groups need to welcome new members who may have differing views and be open to innovative thinking. While “paying dues” and special expertise in activism is to be highly respected and valued, it’s important that groups work to welcome and respect new ideas, approaches, and members. In general, if the peace movement becomes too insular, it may diminish its impact. As Chris Hedges has pointed out, having a big tent might also include reaching out to those in other political parties or factions who might support demilitarization even though this remains a controversial matter within our ranks.
Be open to new ideas and approaches. Keying off the last item, many peace groups are populated by activists who got their start protesting the Vietnam war or who were involved in the many anti-nuclear efforts that characterized the 60’s and 70’s. I count myself among their number. This core group (among others) is generally fiercely committed to nuclear disarmament and demilitarization and is very well versed in the complexities of foreign policy by virtue of both experience and educational background. However, to keep the peace movement vibrant, new approaches and new volunteers from a variety of demographics and generations need to be continuously welcomed into the fold. Generation Z has been identified as being more inclined towards social and political action than previous generations. Mentoring younger members who don’t have extensive peace activism or foreign policy experience (and this can include anyone of any age who is new to peace activism) can help create another layer of diverse opinions and ideas.
Foster a collegial and positive environment. The principle of collegiality and respect for differences of opinion is essential in peace work. Any group of committed and well-seasoned thinkers will have strong, well thought out, and differing opinions. When opinions clash, group members should be respectful and not try to shut down or bypass those opinions even if they create discomfort. Democracy itself is messy and if peace groups can’t practice it, they run the risk of losing effectiveness in the broader world where they’re trying to make an impact. Disagreements are to some extent pre-ordained because of the nature of trying to unpack complex geopolitical realities in a world where information itself is often compromised or overwhelming. However, the tone and tenor of communications, especially in email where misunderstandings can more easily arise, is just as important as the content itself so it’s not perceived as in any way shutting down speech. Closely related to this is the notion of avoiding ideological purity checklists, another occupational hazard of peace work.
Redefine the geopolitical landscape. As early as 1993, the futurist Alvin Toffler writing in his book “War and Anti-War” noted that the world’s geopolitical model was changing to something we hadn’t seen before. Even Toffler had to struggle to describe trends as yet uncategorized by foreign policy experts. These changes were based on several powerful global trends: runaway electronic communication, globalized trade, transnational corporate power and control, the shift to multi-polarity and other factors. In his many books and work as an MIT professor, cultural historian William Irwin Thompson brought in another important consideration: the rise of technocratic forms of governance. Arguably. we’re now in a world model that’s moved beyond a simple nation-state parsing and perhaps even beyond a multipolar hegemonic model. Simplistic mainstream media comparisons such as the notion that “Putin is Hitler” are based on these older geopolitical models of what the world looks like and can be very misleading. All of that said, how emerging new models should be described is still, in my opinion, up for debate. The extent to which Davos-style technocracy has displaced the viability of democratic nation states is one important consideration. It seems helpful for peace activists to broaden perspectives that are sometimes overly rooted in the nation-state model. Models are important for purposes of analyzing world events; looking at possible ways to better achieve global stability; and making sure that discussions and statements are not viewed as overly “old school”. That said, and regardless of changing models, governments working ever closer with corporations in public/private partnerships (a loose description of the military-industrial-complex), are still the primary purveyors of military solutions and militarism.
Recognize that new technology is radically altering weapons systems. The impressive technology now being developed as the result of exponentially advancing computing such as artificial intelligence is being warped and scooped up into the service of militarization almost as soon as it becomes available. Nuclear missiles and large-scale weaponry are still, of course, the top priority, but peace activists need to keep a close watch on what might be called the downscaling of weaponry. This ominous trend began with the accelerated use of drones under Presidents Bush II and Obama. Defense contractor and former Google subsidiary Boston Dynamics, for example, manufactures and provides robotic dogs to governments worldwide. These “products” are being used not only for military applications but also for domestic surveillance and control in authoritarian countries like Singapore where they patrol parks and public spaces. Equally concerning, they’re now also being considered for use by law enforcement agencies in the US. Closely aligned is development of “super-soldier” capabilities by military research organizations such as DARPA. The military then pushes the technology out to defense contractors like Raytheon for market entry. According to some sources, the Ukraine War is now a major testing ground for AI-based autonomous military vehicles and advanced surveillance techniques from companies such as Palantir, a data intelligence company founded with $2 million in seed money from a CIA venture capital firm.
Simplify complexity. Many of the voters the peace movement is trying to reach are working full time and lead very busy lives. In this struggling economy, some might be working two jobs. If they have time for news at all, they most likely just skim it from the mainstream media or see it on Facebook. The MSM, of course, has taken the provision of sound bites and over-simplified narratives to a high art, no matter what the topic. In trying to explain a situation as geopolitically complicated as the Ukraine war, the messaging of peace activist outreach efforts needs to provide simplified counter-narratives that will make a strong impression and linger in the minds and hearts of public citizens from all walks of life. It’s important to try and avoid the temptation to dive too deeply into the constantly shifting complexities of the Ukraine War and the new Cold War so as to keep messaging simple and memorable.
Link military initiatives and domestic surveillance. The peace movement primarily and properly focuses on militarization and nuclear disarmament. However, there’s often not enough linkage made between these critical areas of focus and the massive domestic surveillance being conducted by government agencies such as the NSA. These two areas might seem distinct but they can be broadly described as the militarization of culture.