Thursday, May 10, 2012

Challenges of Peacemaking in Violent Times

What follows are my remarks to the Pax Christi Annual Assembly at USM in Portland, Maine on Saturday, May 5, 2012.

Lisa Savage, CODEPINK Maine Local Coordinator

Welcome, everyone, and thank you for being here. Special thanks to the organizers for bringing us together to reflect on our proper roles in this troubled world. I appreciate being invited to share my thoughts about the challenges of peacemaking in our day.

I was born the year that Pres. Eisenhower gave his famous warning about the impending power of the military-industrial complex. For the last 20 years I've been a public school teacher, but before that I worked as a journalist, and for a few years in marketing and advertising. These experiences have informed the way that I understand the peacemaking job before us, because I approach it from a communications perspective. I'll return to this theme, but for the moment I would like to briefly discuss the conditions we find ourselves in midway through the year 2012.

The critical mass of federal spending is and has been dedicated to military purposes, as was predicted by Eisenhower. No matter how you slice up the federal pie, and allocate spending to various categories, it is an enormous slice. It is symptomatic of the fact that all three branches of government in Washington DC have been effectively “captured” by moneyed interests. Congress fails to represent the will of the people; as just one example, 69% of those polled by the NYT said they no longer thought the U.S. was doing the right thing in Afghanistan. 
The Executive branch showed very little change in its foreign policy following the 2003 electiion; if anything, it has become even more warlike, especially in the use of drones and extrajudicial killing. The Supreme Court has also indicated that it stands with the corporations, by ruling in Citizens United that they are people and thus entitled to first amendment protections. Meanwhile, a citizen detained for anything at all – including a dog off the leash, or an unpaid parking ticket – can be strip searched according to the highest court in the land.

State governments are in the process of being captured systematically in a similar fashion. In our own state big money brought in a third party candidate to split the vote and elect our Tea Party governor. This has brought us laws authorizing the capture of public school funds into taxpayer supported charter schools, and a public-private partnership where taxpayers pony up $300,000 for a feasability study of an east-west corridor to truck LP gas from one site in Canada to another to use for fracking, a private toll road whose profits will go to the Cianbro Corp. (Great reporting here by Lance Tapley in the Portland Phoenix.)

How did this happen? Well, for starters, we're the only democracy in the world whose citizen rely solely on commercial media outlets for news. In other words, we have no public information services such as exist in other countries. We do have a vibrant independent media and some vigorous citizen journalists at work, but they are battling uphill for attention in the glut of sensationalized entertainment that passes for news in our day. Just this week I ran across this article in Yes! Magazine, one of the positive forces in the new media landscape. It reports that the IRS is holding up approval of tax exempt status for non profit media outlets – for months, sometimes for years. Meanwhile, the US military has a recruiting budget of $12 billion a year.

So – depressing no? But there may be some game changers on the horizon, and we may be looking at opportunities that did not exist before.
One of the big changes is killing by remote control. This is qualitatively different from the aerial bombing that has characterized U.S. foreign policy in my lifetime, because there is no pilot in the sky, just a guy with a joystick and a video monitor far, far away. I believe this change will have a profound effect on the warrior ethos, and on how our military is perceived by the citizens who pay for it. It certainly has already had a profound change on how the US is perceived by others. It is also astronomically expensive, and has enormous implications for surveillance, including domestic spying.
Tireless peace worker, the late Tom Sturtevant, at the protest he organized calling attention to the environmental degradation caused by the recruiting tool of the Blue Angels Air Show, at Brunswick Naval Air Station last summer.

Another inescapable game changer is the environmental chaos that we've been warned about for decades. The chickens of greenhouse gas emissions, of offshore oil drilling, of fracking and last but certainly not least of nuclear weapons and energy sourcing are coming home to roost quite rapidly now. The Fukushima disaster in Japan continues to unfold and will likely affect the whole world in due time.

How much does the public know about any of these things? Precious little, unless they do quite a lot of their own information gathering, and are paying attention.

Depressingly, the majority of those polled about US military use of drones think its a good idea. If you've been watching the propaganda stream around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's assassination, it's easy to understand how ill-informed your fellow citizens could be on this topic. Manufactured consent is not a new problem – George Orwell wrote about it brilliantly nearly a century ago, as has many others.

That is why I see communication as job #1.

And with that in mind I'd like to discuss and offer some examples of what I see as the basics of effective communication.

Both CODEPINK (the name) and the Bring Our War $$ Home campaign are essentially communication strategies. After 9/11 as the so-called “War on Terror” kicked into high gear we got Homeland Security and a bunch of color coded alert levels: Red, Orange, Yellow and so on. Women peacemakers asked themselves as they circled the White House: What could we call ourselves that would refer to and at the same time defuse the fear mongering of the alerts? Thus Code Pink was born.

Bring Our War $$ Home speaks directly to the most fundamental principle of communication : Know They Audience. In education we call this “the teachable moment” as in, what are these listeners ready to hear? What have their background knowledge and experiences prepared them to understand?
Bring Our War $$ Home rally in Hall of Flags, State House, Augusta, Maine 2011.
As the U.S. economy tanked and the banks were bailed out – while health care bankrupted millions and foreclosures and student debt soared – budgets for basic human needs were slashed in our communities. Most all of us in the coalition of a couple dozen peace groups had vigiled and protested and met for years, often feeling that we were mostly “preaching to the choir.” We wanted to reach out to our neighbors and co-workers, not with a message about how war is morally wrong – which I know it is – but with a direct appeal to their own circumstances.

People can be easily fooled about largely invisible wars happening on the other side of the planet, less so about their household finances. The debt party that masked our insolvency is just about over now,and that is one of the reasons that the Occupy movement broke out when it did. The 99% had finally run out of cheap credit.

Prior to that our campaign saw the opportunity to connect with the concerns of people that cannot afford to take their child to the dentist, or who get laid off and never are able to find a comparable job. Such people are consistently amazed by the outlandish scale of guns vs. butter. A minute of the war in Afghanistan would, for instance, pay for a full four year degree with all the trimmings from USM. $230,000+. One drone could plug the gap in your local school budget and re-hire the teachers and other staff who were laid off. Or buy health care for thousands. And so on.

So how did we get the message out there? We used every medium we could think of. Some were of the type associated with CODEPINK as a national organization: connect with events or persons who do get covered in mainstream, corporate owned media, and be eye catching – sometimes you can even make it look fun. Getting the US Conference of Mayors to pass their first antiwar resolution since Vietnam was an example – all major press outlets were on hand to cover the annual urban policy conference, and the controversy created by a floor debate on the resolution – which passed handily – led every story. This momentum had been started right here in Portland when its city council became the first to pass a war dollars home resolution. Such reslutions were debated, and reported on, in many twons where they did not pass. But our goal was always to create a space for the conversation.

Alternatively, create local news. When Bruce or my husband Mark Roman and others carried the BOW$H banner in a peace walk led by Buddhist monks and nuns, the newspapers in every town where they stopped to hold an event gave the campaign some coverage.
"Military, defense issues top list of people's concerns" by Dieter Bradbury | Portland Press Herald | March 11, 2010
I've been told by some that my cotton candy pink wig “trivializes our message” but it, too, is a communication strategy. When I first wore it to speak at a town hall meeting here at USM, I was in good company with many informed and articulate speakers. But guess whose picture they put on the front page of the Portland Press Herald?

Collaboration with the Union of Maine Visual Artists on a series of Draw-a-thons and Print-a-thons not only produced images of what our war dollars could better be spent on, but were a platform for the public to interact with artists who helped them envision such a change. The posters, t-shirts and other image carriers have spread far beyond Maine with the bring our war $$ home message, a slogan by the way which was deliberately crafted from simple short words that even a youngster can read.

There are many other mediums that have carried the message: press releases, slideshows, blogs, songs, books, leaflets, parade entries, radio ads, local access tv programs, YouTube videos, tweets, and facebook events.

Could you feel us getting younger in that list?

I'd like to end with just a few notes about what works with a young audience. Young people care deeply about the environment, and about fairness, but moralizing bores them. They are visually literate, they love music and digital forms of entertainment, and chunks of discrete content – so-called “memes” – will spread like wildfire if they are sufficiently entertaining. 

Young people willingly join in work that is serious yet fun, important yet playful.

Well I am a school teacher after all and in my marketing mind I'm always aiming at a young audience. They shall inherit the Earth and it will be up to them to make the difference. 

You never really know how someone's learning has changed them. If you do find out it's often long after the fact. Communication, and education, are acts of faith.

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