We’ll Fight Them on the Boulevards

Here's a thesis to try out on friends: The anti-war movement, in its current form, is an unwitting complement to US government policy, not an opposition to it. It will enable a cowardly premature withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, an event that will be a horrendous betrayal of the Iraqis we promised to "liberate" and a complete failure of political imagination, and which both the Bush administration and the anti-war movement will claim as a victory.

Marco Roth’s Rome Diary, Part II

Here’s a thesis to try out on friends: The anti-war movement, in its current form, is an unwitting complement to US government policy, not an opposition to it. It will enable a cowardly premature withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, an event that will be a horrendous betrayal of the Iraqis we promised to “liberate” and a complete failure of political imagination, and which both the Bush administration and the anti-war movement will claim as a victory.

This thought occurred to me well before I joined up for Saturday’s antiwar protest outside the American Embassy on the Via Veneto, but nothing I see there does much to change it. We’re a decent-sized contingent leaving the academy, including staff members who’ve been living as expatriates for years, along with visiting artists and scholars and their families. The kids range in age from seven to eleven. We crowd onto the number 44 bus and, after wandering past the Temple of Juno and the Mouth of Truth (“I want to see la boca di verità today,” says one eight year old), we change buses and go past the column of Marcus Aurelius and up the Corso. (“They used to have horse races here,” says the librarian. “Goethe lived here,” her husband adds.) Soon we’re in the wide boulevard of the Via Veneto, with its luxury hotels, doormen in sweeping Napoleonic greatcoats, glass-enclosed sidewalk cafés like luxury train cars of a bygone era, and elegant lingerie shops. Across from a thermal spa sits the embassy, ringed by Carabinieri.

We’ve arrived early to hang a banner from two oak trees opposite the embassy, and the Carabinieri are still forming up, uncertain what to expect. A troop of ten march past, with what I hope are tear-gas grenades tucked prominently into special hooks at the top of their vests. No riot gear in evidence, they only wear soft berets. This isn’t Genoa, and they must have been told to be nice. They roll their shoulders, tuck their thumbs into their belts, and ogle the TV woman setting up with her crew. At this stage, the police and the reporters seem to outnumber the protesters. A few times I think someone is part of the crowd, only to see them whip out a notebook or a Blackberry and start asking questions. The woman from La Stampa looks like an American college student, with sneakers, track pants, and hair pulled sensibly back in a ponytail. A fellow reporter seems dressed for a night out at a grunge club; she’s got one of those vests worn by fishermen, cameramen, and John Burns, but she doesn’t appear to be wearing anything underneath it. Her notebook seems to emerge from her cleavage as she shakes her dark hair and fixes her interviewees with dark eyes made even darker by elegant mascara. Both the TV correspondent and the roving reporter are wearing haute-couture takes on desert combat boots with three-inch heels.

Not much happens until the leader of US Citizens for Peace and Justice in Rome shows up. She’s accompanied by a bull of a guy in a designer black suit, aviator sunglasses perched on top of his shaved head and a small wooden crucifix around his black turtleneck. I never figure out who he is, but he has the look of command. He tells people where to walk and warns us that we can’t hang another sign from the thermal spa building, which is private property after all. The banner goes up between the trees, but the message is slightly obscured by a lamppost with a billboard ad for Armani featuring AC Milan’s flamboyant defender, Kaká. Someone must have forgotten about it when they scouted out the location.

At last a band of Italians arrive. Dressed in bright orange t-shirts bearing a quote I can’t make out and a figure I don’t recognize, they noisily begin to set up orange banners and wave flags. They all seem to be between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five and turn out to belong to something called “Il Partito Umanista.” I assume they’re either an ex-Communist reformed organization or linked to the Catholic Church, but I never figure it out on site. When I ask one of the flag carriers in my faltering Italian, he draws himself up to enter soapbox mode. “Il Par-ti-to U-man-ist-a,” he begins, enunciating every syllable in a manner that signifies “political discourse” before launching into a spiel about the group’s interest in human rights, their founding in Argentina in the 1970s, and his internet radio show: “Vau, vau, vau, partitoumanista.it.” I’m given some fliers and finally succeed in asking if they have any representatives in parliament. They don’t. When I look at their website afterwards, I read the Secretary General’s speech and am torn between bemused admiration and cynical disdain. I’ve just read Franklin Foer’s wonderful piece in the TNR Online about the dirty tricks College Republicans practice on each other, and the Partito Umanista, whatever they are, seem like the party of joyous naievete:

“Il Partito Umanista ha un grande passato, fatto di persone volontarie che non si sono mai arrese all’apparente destino di una politica violenta, menzognera e ingannatrice, ma, al contrario, hanno sempre creduto nella possibilitý di un suo riscatto a favore dell’essere umano.”

“The Humanist Party has a glorious past, made of volunteers who have never surrendered to the apparent destiny of a politics of violence, lies, and fraud, but, to the contrary, have always believed in the possibility of its redemption in favor of the human being.”

Belief in the human being seems to involve a mood more festive than militant. Returning to Rome after the unification of Italy in 1871, Henry James commented that the Roman carnival atmosphere was being destroyed by the interest in politics. He deplored the newspaper kiosks springing up along the Veneto: “For every subscriber to the Libertý there may well be an antique masker and reveller less.” I guess he failed to appreciate the way that street protests become a kind of carnival. The kids in orange are like any masked revellers, and when they’re joined by the Roman contingent of “Women in Black” the commedia is complete. These women seem to have materialized from the spas and hotels. All stately Roman matrons “d’une certaine age,” they look dressed for the funeral of a prime minister, or a president. They have black pantsuits and some wear big tortoiseshell sunglasses. (Something about Rome will turn everyone into a fashion correspondent and makes me wish I knew the names of a thousand shoes and a thousand bras and two thousand kinds of pants.) A few smoke while carrying handheld signs in the shape of Hamsa, the Arab symbol for good luck and warding off the evil eye. They stroll around with these before taking up positions curbside, where they pose indulgently for the cameras and send the youngest member out to talk to reporters.

Watching them, I think about a scene in Bertolucci’s “Prima della Revoluzione,” that odd adaptation of Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma. A Communist party rally is presented in full stultifying rigor: the stage, the droning speeches, the tired-looking participants, an extended “neo-realist” set piece against the party most neo-realists supported. This is contrasted with the beauty of the Parma bourgeoisie, their clothes, their interiors, their shopping and affairs, though they too are bored. Everyone is bored, so everyone puts on a mask.

The carnival is supposed to be a mini-revolution in everyday life: paupers become kings and kings become paupers, the high is made low, the straight crooked. It’s what we’d now call “subversive,” but in a controlled way that is not often appreciated by lovers of the “carnivalesque.” This licensed letting-off of steam isn’t subversive as much as it is the subversion of subversion. The protesters are vamping for the cameras, even for their own. Everyone seems to have a mini-video recorder or some kind of phone. They are showing off their activism, but the activism is part of a larger theater, the theater of freedom. Western democracies need to tolerate these fundamentally harmless and useless forms of dissent, and they’d be stupid not to. The members and organizers of Citizens for Peace and Justice and MoveOn have allowed themselves to become the fools of the Bush administration. They tote their “Worst President Ever” signs, their Alfred E. Neuman caricatures; they read out their letters and follow it up with a top-ten list of “Bushisms,” Letterman-style. But this is no different from the role the carnival clown plays in imitating the king or telling cuckold jokes and just about as “political.” Is it an accident that the freedoms we claim as Americans seem to resemble the indulgences permitted to feudal subjects?

When your government fights an enemy they won’t recognize as a political actor and won’t negotiate with, and when the citizens protest against the very existence of an elected president without emphasizing the means and legitimacy of his election or demanding reform of the unreliable process by which he was chosen, then the only possible result is an endlessly negative conflict; a stasis, in the root sense of the word, but also in the modern sense, a situation in which no real action is possible. Non-violent protest only works when it aims to expose the violence of the state against its citizens. That’s why burning draft cards mattered, but the volunteer military put a stop to that. So we are left only with expressionism, and expressionism isn’t good politics or good aesthetics, and, like a good pluralist, the American ambassador allows the protests to happen and has dinner on someone’s yacht. Our soldiers continue to be blown up by roadside bombs, peaceful Iraqis continue to die in huge numbers, protesters continue to turn out, but nothing seems to happen.

My doubts began the week before, at the meeting to plan out the banners called by Stormin’ Norman the Doorman. “Norm,” as he’s known around here, is a former Marine who did two tours of duty in Vietnam. This gives him a certain grave authority, though he keeps his war experiences at a distance which leaves whatever horrors he saw or did buried under gruff bad jokes: “I was shot at and missed and shat at and hit.” But Norm’s past is less worthy than his present. He’s the man who lets you into the building every time you reach the gate, who sells you laundry tokens and tells you where the buses go, who governs his post with the perfect sense of a good tyrant, knowing just when to enforce the rules and when to let them go (and there are rules aplenty here). He tells us that the sign is supposed to read “All troops out of Iraq” in English and Italian. “What about ‘All troops out of Iraq, all terrorists out of Iraq’?” I ask, wanting both to be even-handed and to voice my feeling that whoever caused the death of thousands of Shiites on a bridge, whoever killed Steven Vincent, whoever has been kidnapping girls who won’t wear veils—these people shouldn’t be part of the new Iraq either. Later, our resident poet will propose a sign: “Everyone out of Iraq.”

The next day Norm forwards me an email from HQ urging us to stay on message for the big banners, though individual expression of differing viewpoints is permitted. The email also includes some reading matter: a speech called “Why We Fight and Why We Shouldn’t” by Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican Congressman from Texas. When the antiwar movement starts quoting libertarians, you know something’s rotten, and the speech, though a fine and intelligent résumé of the case against Wilsonian interventionism and for old-fashioned Republican isolationism, does nothing to explain how withdrawing the troops will help Iraqis who want to believe in the freedom we’ve promised and toward whom we now owe a duty of care, similar to the one we owe the abandoned citizens of New Orleans. Our occupation of Iraq may be illegal, according to international law, but as the Hebrew National slogan goes, “We answer to a higher authority,” and that authority recognizes that the duty of care doesn’t stop at the water’s edge.

Back at the protest, an older Italian man with a finely trimmed beard turns to me and says, “I feel a surge of powerful emotion here today. Don’t you?” I answer that I feel a sense of desperation, but there are many emotions in the air. He moves off to chat with someone more enthusiastic. There are actual fashion models in the crowd now, and my view of the banner is blocked by the shoulder blades of a towering girl. She greets her friends with kisses and they chat about weekend plans; she’s holding a sign that reads “Stop the War on Iraq.” A picture of her will appear in the next day’s Corriere Della Sera. The marchers are getting tired of circling the tiny strip of sidewalk and curb opposite the embassy. One of the academy folks, a lively graduate student, begins to complain of hypoglycemia. I offer her part of a Cote D’Or bar I stuffed into my knapsack before setting out. Soon the kids notice I’m handing out chocolate. They’re bored and tired too. They break ranks and rush over to me. Standing in the center of the crowd, I break off piece after piece. The parents don’t seem to mind; in fact, they join in. We’re all munching hazelnut chocolate, and I know, for an instant, how easy it is to feel like a liberator.

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