I remember last year when student protests
happened all the time. It was easy then to think some students were
just enjoying a revival of the radical chic fashion, eager to wear
“Bush Sucks” stickers and yell alongside the Radical Cheerleaders
(“Hey Bush … Hey What … We don’t need no…” and so on). But
that was OK, because the Radical Cheerleaders were ingenious, and
the protest itself was a friendly and hopeful gathering for the
students and townspeople who marched to the Federal Building on
Liberty Street

Janna Hutz

Dissent was alive and well, despite some notable instances of
suppression around the country. This included Laura Bush’s
cancellation of a White House symposium on poetry once she realized
that poets are an unruly group of thinkers. But even that instance
showed the strength of the movement – the website
poetsagainstthewar.org collected more than 13,000 poems, and poets
and protesters teamed up for “Days of Poetry against the War”
around the globe. We were all very confused, and we protested all
the more because of it.

But political dissent is different this year. Everyone is
excessively practical. The war in Iraq has already arrived, so no
one holds onto the blind hopes they had last year – maybe the
largest worldwide anti-war demonstrations in human history will
give our leaders a moment of pause. At that time, we were in the
hopeful position that poet Helen Frost described like this: “It has
not happened yet. We can move our minds together as shorebirds rise
above an ocean, arc in evening light -grey silver white – rise
higher, turn, and find a way together back to land.” How
na�ve we were.

No, this year we do not wonder about the nature of violence, the
impetus toward imperialism, or the absurdity and inescapability of
our situation. Instead, critics on the Left have been pigeonholed
into dwelling on a few wait-and-see issues: the existence of
weapons of mass destruction, the number of troops dying each day,
the need for U.N. assistance, and the question of Iraqi support for
U.S.-built institutions.

The poets are not working en masse anymore, and the ones that
are writing sound trite and too topical. In the most recent issue
of The Nation, Calvin Trillin wrote a short poem about Bush’s
speech: “You tell us, with a casual by-the-way, / Iraq was not
behind that awful day, / As if we’d never heard your staff and you
/ Implying just the opposite was true. / The web must say, or maybe
Lexis-Nexis, / If chutzpa is a word they use in Texas.”

It is the chipper tone of an established critic, not the
up-and-coming fire of a protester or even the world-weariness of a
true poet. And there is room for all of these in the world, but the
shift to such jolly fact-oriented verse indicates an intellectual
flight from the larger picture. The poet’s job is to take us
outside of day-to-day journalism, not to set the day’s stories to
rhyme. Paul Krugman and other columnists already have the
fact-digging market cornered.

All of this is important because if we don’t think abstractly
about our situation, even a bit absurdly, we will lose touch with
our own insights and be swept up in the current. Recent polls have
indicated that Americans are dabbling with the Democratic
opposition: One showed a majority of Americans opposing the war,
and another found voters favoring Wesley Clark over Bush in the
next election. But all of this is just a little bit of alarm at the
slow development of wait-and-see issues. It is the inevitable
outcome with an administration that stakes its worth on the
validity of certain promises and speculations.

It is not the same kind of opposition that guided Americans of
conscience in the early days of the war, when we thought we might
still return to shore. That was a reaction that superceded politics
and policies; it was rooted in appreciation for the value of all
life and in profound disgust at the way Americans can march over
other cultures, but also in ambivalence about the whole thing, a
recognition that the world is not divided along the lines that
Washington has drawn.

No one among that movement would have supported Clark, who
believes in wars of choice, who led the war in Kosovo, and who
turned Democrat 20 minutes ago. No one would have let the terms of
debate become so trivial and compartmentalized as they are today,
when the Bush administration might appear vindicated if it will
just fulfill the promises it initially made. But no one today will
do otherwise. If poets and protesters did any good before the war,
it was to document their free thoughts before they disappeared.

Cotner can be reached at
“mailto:cotners@umich.edu”>cotners@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

 

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