All the Old Dudes

"A man could make a fortune selling Geritol to these people."

Capitalist stooge that I am, that was my first reaction upon reaching the Washington Mall last Saturday to observe tens of thousands of demonstrators rally against the war in Iraq.

Expecting a healthy turnout of idealistic youths, I was surprised to find that the crowd was comprised predominantly of middle-aged ’60s throwbacks looking to recapture the glory days of the jarring folk music, campus occupations, and general social chaos that accompanied the Vietnam War. When the Raging Grannies showed up, it was hard to distinguish them from the rest of the crowd.

What a disappointment. Nothing against the old folks, but they simply can’t match the energy of a young crowd of college kids unencumbered by work responsibilities or age-related health problems. The whole rally was flat, dispirited, and even boring. I felt especially sorry for the speakers: it’s hard to rile up a crowd when so many attendees are afraid to stray too far from the porta-potties.

The languid mood was reflected in the pedestrian anti-war slogans. Speakers led the crowd in bland, rhythmless chants like “Troops! Home! Now!” and “Pull! Out! Now!,” thus showing an awkward reluctance to invoke words with more than one syllable. They couldn’t even muster the energy to launch into a refrain of the ‘ole “Hey, hey. Ho ho . . .” chant, a nice rhythmic incantation that is usually a staple of antiwar demonstrations.

Dominated by the ’60s generation as it was, it was unsurprising to see a galaxy of signs and booths invoking the sacred cure-all of nearly every 1960s radical — socialism. “Bush is the symptom, Capitalism is the disease, Socialism is the cure” blared one giant banner. “Defeat US Imperialism. Socialist revolution is the only solution” intoned a pennant by the League for the Revolutionary Party. “Defend China, North Korea, and Vietnam Against Imperialism and Capitalist Counter-Revolution!” was the motto of the Sparticist League. That last slogan I found to be one of the most offensive statements of the day — right up there with one speaker’s invocation of Maureen Dowd as an authoritative social analyst.

It is sad that in thirty years, the U.S. Left hasn’t come up with a better idea than socialism. Dejected, I wandered away from the workers’ champions and approached a drum circle. Even this was dominated by superannuated radicals who couldn’t seem to play anything other than quarter notes. I struck up a conversation with one of the few college-aged girls in the vicinity, who asked me how I liked the music. As a drummer myself, I told her that I’d like to see the musicians venture outside of a 4/4 time signature. Perplexed, she picked up her “Buck Fush” sign and walked away.

Convinced I wasn’t going to see anything interesting, I began walking home. But just then, I struck gold. About 100 protestors had broken off from the main rally and grouped across the street, near the Capitol building. I could tell right away that something was different about this crowd because it was composed almost entirely of young people. Catching sight of the red and black flag of anarchism, I realized I had fallen in with the hardcore antiglobalization gang.

These protestors, clad almost entirely in black, menacingly chanted “Who’s Capitol? Our Capitol!” Having ventured into the realm of the polysyllabic, I could tell they were serious. The bandanas wrapped around their faces, meant to conceal their identities, had an intimidating effect only slightly mitigated by their tendency to remove their disguises whenever they needed a cigarette. Which was often.

The group marched past the fountain and up the field in front of the Capitol, pushing aside some flexible green mesh fencing. (Or, in the words of one protestor later relating the events to his attractive female comrade, “We smashed through the barricades.”) They walked up to the steps of the Capitol, which were defended by a line of police officers. Things looked tense as the anarchists chanted “Who’s steps? Our steps!” But in the end, they lacked the resolve to take on the cops. Some drummers banged out a beat, there was more sloganeering and dancing, and eventually the whole procession simply moved on, chanting “We’ll be back!”

The cops seemed unmoved, even though they’d just been threatened with another punishing drum circle.

Realizing the gothic-looking group was more about fashion than follow-through, I left for home. I felt embarrassed for a movement to which I don’t even belong. Even the young anarchists could not escape the looming specter of the 1960s, which was reflected in many signs simply reading “SDS” — an old ’60s radical group that I thought had died out at the same time as eight-track tapes.

The sad scene on the Mall shows that the Left is incapable of parlaying the unpopularity of the Iraq War into a new, energetic anti-war movement. The ‘60s radicals are active, but the movement just can’t get traction without young people. A good many of the older folks, I suspect, are not even motivated by politics so much as by a desire to recapture their youth. They break out the old slogans and the old songs, but these ring hollow to a younger generation.

“Hey hey, Uncle Sam! We remember Vietnam!” chanted one former flower child from the stage. The problem is, the youth don’t remember Vietnam. The old radicals are thus trying to entice the young into a movement that revolves around the sacred memory of events in which today’s young people played no part. The youth are essentially being asked to become second-class citizens in this movement, having to bow to the superior wisdom of those who fought the reactionary opposition back when it really mattered.

But the attempt to make the current war into a replay of Vietnam is failing quite dramatically. What’s missing is the key element that provoked many of the old radicals to oppose the Vietnam War in the first place: the draft. It wasn’t really the war per say that a lot of them opposed; it was the prospect of themselves actually having to go fight it. Lacking that impetus, the younger generation seems distinctly unimpressed by the urgency of ending a war fought so soon after the 9/11 attacks.

What do the old radicals have left to offer the youth? Socialism. One can understand the attraction of this credo back in the 1960s, when its American adherents only had the millions of victims of the Soviet regime to contradict their assertion that socialism would provide a positive alternative to capitalism.

But now, we know of the atrocities of a whole new set of postwar socialist regimes in China, Cambodia, Romania, and countless other places — including Vietnam — as well as the final collapse of most socialist governments and the turn toward capitalism of nearly all the remaining socialist regimes. Younger activists may have the Iraq War to fight against, but they need something to fight for — and with socialism, their older role models are not offering them anything appealing.

The ’60s radicals say they want a revolution, but how often are revolutions successful without any young people? Trotting out a nervous-looking Jane Fonda — as the Washington rally organizers did — may excite the old radicals, but the few younger ones on hand seemed distinctly unimpressed. The attraction of spending hours sculpting giant paper mache puppets and creating makeshift bongos out of water jugs for use in antiwar rallies will only go so far. Without a more creative goal than socialism, the youth are unlikely to follow their aging forebears to the barricades any time soon.