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on August 25, 2009
How do peace groups promote peace, especially in an adverse environment?
When the United States embarks on a war, an intense patriotic ferver typically spreads across the country. Most powerholders and opinion leaders -- political leaders, military officials, news commentators, and corporate executives -- exhort everyone to accept and embrace a pro-war perspective.
How do critics of war* challenge the overwhelming calls for patriotism and tremendous pressure to conform? What discourse do they use to influence the public and reframe the discussion so that more people understand why war is not the answer?
These are the questions explored in this very accessible book by three professors of sociology and political science. To find the answers, they studied fifteen peace movement organizations (PMOs) which had grappled with five recent US conflicts -- the Gulf War, the bombing of Iraq in 1998, the 1999 NATO bombing of Kosova/o, the crusade to eliminate terrorism following the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq war. In particular, they studied the narratives that peace activists used to challenge these five wars by carefully coding 510 formal statements from these fifteen PMOs and then rigorously and thoroughly analyzing the data from a variety of angles.
These scholars report that the peace movement organizations strove to convey four different kinds of oppositional knowledge: (1) counter information that provides additional details missing from the picture presented by conventional sources, (2) critical interpretations that provide other perspectives on the conventional understanding, (3) radical visions that paint completely different pictures of what might or should be done, and (4) transformation strategies that illustrate how to bring about these different pictures.
Their analysis finds that PMOs care deeply about democracy and how it is implemented, so they often rely on the rhetoric of democracy to achieve their goals. PMOS use eight recurring themes that uphold the ideal of democracy but also criticize the way democracy has been practiced in the US and convey alternative views of democracy and how it should be practiced. These eight themes are: (1) the US government represses dissent, (2) war weakens democracy, (3) democracy is a pretext for US power plays, (4) democracy cannot be forced on others, (5) the US democracy project is in trouble at home and abroad, (6) true democracy holds great power and promise, (7) democracy should be rooted in broad-based political participation, and (8) democracy works when the public hold leaders accountable.
The book then devotes a chapter to each of several important aspects of PMO discourse. Chapter 2 outlines a theoretical framework for considering the struggle of ideas. This framework, based on Gramsci's concept of hegemony, posits that powerholders rely on familiar and commonly accepted ideas to present issues in a way that supports their policy agenda while dissenters try to either directly challenge those hegemonic ideas (such as directly challenging the concept of "patriotism") or to harness hegemonic ideas to reframe the debate in their favor (such as asserting that "dissent is patriotic"). In times of political closure when hegemonic views are dominant (such as the time immediately following the 9/11 attacks), PMOs harness dominant themes and redirect them. In other times, when Americans are disenchanted with military policy (such as the time before the Iraq war and again several years later after the war had badly soured), PMOs directly challenge the goals and methods of the military.
Chapter 3 looks at five nationalistic concepts, like "support the troops" that have been used by powerholders to bolster their support and undercut challengers. It then analyzes how US peace movement organizations responded under various social conditions, especially the time of intense national pride immediately following the 9/11 attacks. The authors report that PMOs adapted well to the changing environment, sometimes directly challenging nationalistic notions but then, when the environment was less favorable, harnessing and riding nationalistic ideas (such as "support the troops, bring them home"). At times, peace groups have even mocked dominant symbols. For example, CodePink chose their name in November 2002 to mock the terror alert color code system that the Bush administration was using to scare Americans into supporting the invasion of Iraq.
Another key point: the authors found that despite the use of variable responses in different circumnstances, PMOs still remained true to their core beliefs. Their rhetoric shifted, but their overall message remained the same.
Chapter 4 looks at emotions, particularly the climate of fear engendered by the 9/11 attacks and stoked by the dominant discourse, and how PMOs responded to and used emotions, particularly to help people develop their faculties of "critical feeling" to complement their critical thinking skills. PMOs also used emotions as a tactical tool to challenge war and also as a way to induce empathy for the civilian victims of war and build a bridge of understanding to them.
Chapter 5 focuses on the role of religion in the discourse, looking espcially at President Bush's facile religiosity and the three main responses by PMOs: (1) directly challenging his simplistic demonization of enemies (caricatured by the President as "forces of evil" who "hate America"), (2) harnessing the President's religiosity and turning it back on him (enlisting the help of prominent religious leaders who condemned the Iraq war, especially United Methodist bishops), and (3) providing accurate and nuanced information about Muslims that countered their demonization.
Chapter 6 looks at how peace movement activists mobilize supporters through collective identities of gender, race/ethnicity, class, and religion. This chapter also looks at how PMOs challenge hegemonic norms of society about identity and community, and provide an alternative.
Chapter 7 explores how the concept of security was used by powerholders to call for military action and how the concept was expanded by PMOs to include "security from want" (housing, jobs, healthcare, etc.), security from government intrusion (privacy rights), and joint security and action with the international community of nations (through the United Nations, International Criminal Court, etc.).
Chapter 8 analyzes how PMOs address the competing demands of domestic and global perspectives and drew four conclusions: (1) when domestic costs of a war are likely to be high, PMOs emphasize that cost, but when the costs are likely to be low, they focus on the cost to innocent civilians in the targeted country, (2) PMOs adjust their rhetoric in response to both national and international hegemonic concepts, (3) when there is a conflict between the national and internationl contexts, PMOs are more influenced by the domestic context, and (4) US PMOs piggy-back on the discourse of transnational social movements when those ideas are circulating widely, are useful strategically, and are ideologically compatible with the efforts of the PMOs.
Overall, the broad focus and rigorous scholarly work done by these three professors contributes greatly to our understanding of peace movement organizations and how they challenge and harness widely-accepted hegemonic ideas. Their detailed analysis shows how the "war of ideas" actually works and provides a conceptual framework that makes these details comprehensible.
* Note: Some activists oppose a particular war because it is promoted for the wrong reasons or is justified on false premises, because the war is poorly conceived or executed, because the execution of the war involves massive violations of human rights, or because the war will cause much more harm than good overall. Pacifists oppose all wars because wars inflict death, injury, and trauma on both soldiers and civilians, because wars cause massive, indiscriminate destruction of critical infrastructure (schools, hospitals, electricity-generation plants, sewage treatment plants, etc.), and because wars tear apart the bonds of human solidarity, engender hatred, undermine democracy, and inflict social wounds that take centuries to heal.