Editorial: MoveOn Not as Clever as They Thought

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday September 25, 2007

There’s been a completely unnecessary uproar over MoveOn’s ad about General Petraeus. It almost makes one wonder if there isn’t some Cointelpro-like infiltration going on in the anti-war movement, except that I know that people like us can always manage to shoot ourselves in the foot with no help from anyone. What’s unnecessary about it? 

Well, there’s a rule that everyone should have to master in order to get out of the 7th grade: never make fun of anyone’s name, face or family if you want to be thought of as one of the good guys. There’s a “nyanh nyanh nuh nyanh nyanh” tone to calling the admittedly creepy fellow General Betray-us that strips all dignity from the complaints about him. It makes the protesters seem juvenile, when in fact their point is deadly serious.  

MoveOn supporters confounded the problem after the ad appeared. Clicking on “the thinking behind the ad” on the MoveOn site produced this pseudo-academic explanation: “The language of the ad was intended to be both hard-hitting and catchy. The truth about the mainstream media is that the kind of analyses with which some of us feel more comfortable don’t generate enough attention or news coverage to shift the debate. Phrases like “General Betray Us” are “sticky”—that is, they get repeated again and again in the media—because they are so memorable. It was precisely because this ad was controversial and the language in it was ‘sticky’ that the allegations at its core were widely discussed.”  

In fact, the ad’s copywriters were too clever by half. The core allegations got lost in the brouhaha over the “your mama” language they used. Being “in your face” is a lot of fun, but it changes few minds. 

The problem stems from a confusion that first surfaced in a big way when the counter-culture and the protests against the war in Vietnam both came to a boil at the same point in time. The Summer of Love and its offspring were mostly about self-actualization, or at least about self-expression, whereas political protest is or should be mostly about changing minds and thus policies. A good argument can be made, and was made at the time, that adding the dimension of acting out differences between the baby boomers and the dominant culture slowed down rather than speeded up the goal of ending the war. I know, that seems like heresy today.  

Not, of course, that proper behavior necessarily works either. Some of us in the last pre-boomer cohort began our political careers in the most careful way, doing our best to please while making our political points. The first big demonstration in the ’60s took place when 5,000 people (an amazing number in those days) ringed San Francisco City Hall, where the House Committee on Un-American Activities, commonly known as HUAC, was grilling suspected Communists and fellow travelers with the goal of ruining their lives by every means possible. Perfect ladies, we wore—hard to believe now, but there’s film to prove it—hats, gloves and high heels on the picket line. And the city fathers still felt free to turn on the firehouses and wash the demonstrators down the long marble staircase in City Hall.  

But the movie that HUAC made about the event, Operation Abolition, backfired. It toured college campuses where it was greeted with jeers and catcalls, and made a major contribution to radicalizing the next decade’s college students. And it wasn’t the outrageous acts depicted in the film, which as I recall were few, but the contrast between the civil demeanor of the protesters and the violent reaction to them which made the point.  

The commemoration this week of the integration of the Little Rock schools 50 years ago is another case in point. The concentration and seriousness of the African American young people and their families made their slavering opponents look even worse. The success of the civil rights movement, limited of course but very real as far it went, was materially aided by the consistent dignity of the activists. It would have been a serious mistake for them to lapse into making fun of the names or faces of their opponents.  

It’s true that making fun of the enemy in moderation helps the good guys keep up the fight. The choir needs a little encouragement to keep on singing, but the congregation will never grow if that’s all the preacher does. The San Francisco Mime Troupe has thrived on ridicule, but they are most successful in Bay Area parks and on college campuses, and their best offerings have managed to combine humor with pathos. They don’t try putting on their shows uninvited in parks in, say, Memphis, nor should they. Jon Stewart is the favorite news source of people who stay up late—a whole new generation of students, not to mention my mother, now almost 93—but his brand of humor wouldn’t come across the same way if it ran as an ad in a metro daily in most of the country. 

And cultural self-expression that isn’t even funny is particularly perilous. The Weathermen’s Days of Rage running amok in Chicago just prolonged the agony of the Vietnam War. (It now seems odd, among many things that are hard to understand about what went on in those days, that they weren’t called the Weatherpersons.)  

The outcry over building the new gym/office building next to UC’s Memorial Stadium has gotten a lot of publicity because of its tree-sitting component. It has garnered a respectable cohort of supporters, including some notable and serious “old birds in the trees,” but it’s constantly at risk of being considered frivolous because some protesters are more concerned with acting out their differences with the dominant culture than with converting opponents. Success will probably come, if it does at all, in a court of law rather than in the court of public opinion.  

The most pointless aspect of L’Affaire Betray-Us is the after-the-fact parsing of the criticisms of the ad by the presidential candidates. I don’t remember any of the senators saying that they objected to the form of the ad, but not to its content, which is what they should have said, but maybe I missed it. It’s impossible to remember the substance or wording of the conflicting resolutions, who said what about which phrase, but the bottom line is that making juvenile fun of the guy’s name just gifted him with undeserved victim status, and drove the substantive problems with his report off the front page. And that’s too bad.