A Letter to Wes about politics in general
To the distributor of the second-worst gas in Istanbul:
Did you really describe the protests in the 1960s and the Bush era ones as similar moral situations? Sure, the two line up nicely enough: unjust war, strange electoral practices, human rights restrictions, but in the question of importance, seriously? I think you’re having a serious case of historical amnesia here.
Have you seen any of the footage from the 1960s protests recently? In the archives of our country’s memory, it seems so far away, as though the 1960s were grainy and gray-scaled in real time, PBS voice-over at the ready. Sometimes, it feels like George Washington was crossing the Delaware at the exact same time. America fought the British and won; America fought racism and won. Take a study guide and pass the rest to the person sitting behind you.
Hey, I wasn’t there either. But if you spend any time examining the actual footage or reading the actual documents of the time, it will make you sick. Middle-class men and women, families, queuing up politely on sidewalks for nothing more than a voice in their government and suffering incredible abuse because of it. The civil rights decisions from that era are a testament to the worst parts of human nature: you will be amazed, horrified and depressed at how clever, how creative, how industrious all levels of our nation’s government could be when they were actively conspiring to deny people equal treatment. Before Martin Luther King Jr. was a street in every major American city, he was probably the most charismatic and inspiring American leader in the last fifty years, someone who thought long and hard about what made an unjust law an unjust law. And segregation, voting-rights restrictions, and the like, those were certainly unjust laws: they merited personal sacrifice and protests in the streets.
But 2003? Yeah, our government engaged in an unnecessary international conflict which lead to many needless casualties. We had a human rights controversy that betrayed or country’s principles at home and damaged our credibility abroad. Those problems were certainly horrible enough, don’t get me wrong. But a decade later, it’s a picture of incompetence and failed leadership, not institutional evil. We invaded two Middle-Eastern countries with an intelligence apparatus and military designed to fight the Cold War, the modern equivalent of invading Russia in winter. In retrospect, our government was indefensibly ignorant of Middle-Eastern politics, and collectively, the whole country as well. I certainly hold myself accountable here as well. I don’t know Iraq from Iran, I’m an American.(Interestingly enough, most veterans I’ve encountered describe their service in Afghanistan much more favorably than their time in Iraq. I’m not sure why. I think the answers might be somewhere in this Twilight-type teen supernatural thriller.)
In my family, we didn’t need to argue about the war – we argued if Bush was worse than Nixon. (sigh) He wasn’t; I can see that now. George W. Bush was the worst possible president at the worst possible time, but he was just stupid. (I wouldn’t mind if George W. Bush was still President of the Texas Rangers baseball team, convincing his general manager to trade Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines. He was always trying to win, he was just horrible at it.) Nixon, on the other hand, was a man without a conscience in an office that required one; his crimes were against the democratic system itself. Bush may have profited from a series of flaws in the electoral system, but he was at least following them. And let’s remember, in 2004, Bush won by an even larger margin. Sometimes the American people get what they deserve. It’s good to remember Winston Churchill’s famous one-liner about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others.
It might seem irrelevant to discriminate between Vietnam or Iraq if you lost someone in either conflict, but complicated problems require individualized solutions. It’s no mistake that organized civil disobedience was most effective in combating two of the worst political situations of our time – the struggle for Indian independence and the American civil rights movement. I don’t think we could have prevented the Iraq war if more people had marched, I think the marches made conservatives and moderates roll their eyes, dismissing protesters as radicals and knee-jerk liberals, people who either couldn’t distinguish between Vietnam in the 1960s and Iraq/Afghanistan in the 2000s or refused to do so. And these were people who lived through both conflicts. (I think you’re right that Iraq provoked less outrage partly because none of us faced the draft. There’s an element of self-preservation there, sure, but I think it’s more about the limits of awareness. Without a draft, we never had to consider that we might be affected directly by the war or Maybe American government developed a resistance to civil disobedience after prolonged exposure. I think the Iraq war called for a different solution and we failed to provide one.
Will the protests work in Turkey? I’m not sure. I don’t know if the Turkish people have the same experience with protesting that we have in the United States. It might very well be the perfect fit. Personally, the most troubling part of this conflict has been Erdogan’s heavy-handed response; restricting the freedom of the press is not a hallmark of a free and democratic society. May you have plenty of opportunities to explore Turkish gay bars in the future.