I’ve noticed that of the many groups on the left, Code Pink raises more hackles than most. Of course right-wingers hate them and demonize them pretty regularly, but I’ve also heard them catch flak from leftists for their tactics, and just from casually informed people I hear more rejection of them than I would normally expect to hear about a political group.
Code Pink’s style of protest is to get into the face of people in power and call them out. Recently, at the Washington press dinner, they started yelling “Here comes the war criminal!” when Donald Rumsfeld showed up. A few years ago, famously, a Code Pink member with fake blood on her hands got right up in Condi Rice’s grill at a Senate hearing. I find it remarkable how offended many people get at this sort of thing.
The right’s antipathy is fairly easy to dissect. Code Pink is basically a women’s organization. Any activist organization on the left that is primarily composed of women is going to be a special target of the right because the right wing hates feminism, along with any woman who is aggressive in the cause of peace or human rights. The basic position of the right is that male supremacy is the way it should be, and that anyone challenging that is a scary extremist.
In terms of the mass of only casually informed people, it’s my belief that we have been instilled with a sense of “propriety” that pretends to be about respect, but is in fact based on blind deference to authority. Boldly and loudly confronting political authority seems frightening because of the unconscious fear of retaliation from those in power. It’s as if we’re all tiptoeing around the powerful, doing everything we can not to upset them so that we can stay out of harm’s way. Code Pink violates that unspoken fear, and it frightens people.
Now, if a group of people were to go up to Casey Anthony, a woman accused of murdering her child in a case hysterically covered by the sensationalist media, and yell “murderer!” at her, I would guess most people wouldn’t be offended. Casey Anthony is not an authority figure, but a media-sanctioned object of our moralistic scorn. Donald Rumsfeld, on the other hand, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. But because it’s a war, and we’re not supposed to criticize war, since that would be unpatriotic, then people get offended by Code Pink calling Rumsfeld a war criminal.
Again, think of the socially sanctioned hatred that many have felt towards rioters and looters. I remember vividly the disgust and disapproval people openly expressed about the looting that occurred in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. Fair enough, it’s looting and it’s wrong. And yet, during the late 1980s and early 90s, the perpetrators of the Savings & Loan collapse looted on a scale thousands of times greater, robbing ordinary people of their life savings to the tune of billions of dollars. Some went to jail, most didn’t. In fact, Reagan-Bush policies allowed and encouraged the looting to occur, and taxpayers ended up paying the bill when the industry needed bailing out. Was there a comparable sense of disgust, contempt, outrage among the populace? There was not. These looters were elite bankers and politicians in suits and ties. Their power made it less safe to attack them.
Cowardice is the basic moral currency of American political life. The Republicans turned this into an art form. They learned how to divide white working class from black working class, men from women, straights from gays, Southerners and Midwesterners from Californians and East Coast residents, and any number of variations on the basic theme of scapegoating. The ultimate scapegoat was the liberal, who became the author of everything wrong in the country. The rule of thumb is that the scapegoat is always less powerful than you. To attack those who are actually powerful is taboo, and will result in attacks being aimed at you.
Code Pink breaks that taboo by calling the powerful what they are—criminals. They reject the passive spectator role that has been assigned to ordinary citizens, and especially women, in this country. Some on the left sincerely believe that their tactics are counterproductive. I understand that point of view, but I don’t agree. In my view, one of the functions of a progressive movement is to break through the false propriety, the denial of what is right before our eyes but goes unnamed. If someone were to scream at an SS or NKVD officer who has gone unpunished for murders they committed or ordered, we would consider that normal. But there is a common assumption that America is magically different, and that we don’t have war criminals in our midst. For the truth to get out in this case, someone must first yell it in public, despite all the social taboos against it.
War remains an abstraction for many of us. A Rumsfeld or a Rice may have loving relationships with their families, and their pets. At the same time, the suffering they cause is put at a far remove from their actual experience. As a people, we have become accustomed to thinking of war in these abstract ways. We don’t imagine what it’s like to be the father or the sister of someone who has been suddenly blown to pieces for no reason. The car bombings and the so-called collateral damage are just statistics to us. But war is very real, and real people’s lives, many thousands of them, have been cut off because of the lies and manipulations and greed and self-interest of people sitting calmly in a Washington office. Code Pink gives voice to the outrage that is real and that needs to be expressed. And I think the degree of condemnation and hatred that they receive is a measure of how important their work is.
I haven’t heard of them killing anyone yet. I cannot say the same of their targets. We must learn to channel our outrage towards the powerful who continue to cause untold suffering without having to endure meaningful consequences for it.