Sunday, December 18, 2011

War Is Over (If You Noticed)

In March 2003--more than eight years ago--I ended my first blog post with these words:
I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm feeling compelled to start one of these things at the very moment that the U.S. has engaged in a mad war on Iraq. The blogger, the poet, and the dissenting citizen seem to have a lot in common these days: they're all trying to make themselves heard in a culture that seems intent on not listening.
In our worst nightmares, I doubt many of us could have imagined that the Iraq war would become one of the longest in American history--lasting longer than the war in Vietnam, but still sadly surpassed by the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

I saw few of my friends commenting on the formal end of the Iraq war this week. There's certainly little to celebrate. The bloody cost of this needless war, most of all to Iraqis themselves, has been simply staggering. Here at home there's little enthusiasm these days for giving credit to President Obama for much of anything, even for keeping his campaign promise to end the Iraq war.

I wish I had something more profound to say about the war's end. But thinking back to the beginning of the war did make me think back to that eight-year-old blog post, and more broadly to the question of how, if at all, public and political discourse has changed in that time.

When I started the blog, we were in the depths of the George W. Bush administration, the most hysterical moment of the "war on terror," and the march toward war seemed inevitable. The space for dissent seemed nonexistent. The sudden flowering of blogs by poets seemed to be a teeny little space where neglected and unpopular topics--from politics to poetry--could be hashed out, mulled over, shared in public. Even if there was little public there to receive them, doing this kind of personal writing in public seemed a transgressive act of its own.

As public dissatisfaction swelled in the second term of the Bush presidency, new spaces seemed to open up for political discourse. Barack Obama won in 2008 in part because he was best able to embody this transformation of public space--from fear to hope, to put it simply--and mobilized a new level of political engagement among his supporters. Unsurprisingly, the shine came off quickly, thanks to the cratering economy and disappointment that Obama turned out, after all, to be a politician and not a revolutionary or a saint. The 2010 backlash against Obama's mildly progressive agenda made it start to feel like we were back in the bad old days of the previous decade.

But then something else happened. In February, tens of thousands took to the streets of Madison and occupied the state capitol to protest against--of all things--a frontal assault on unions. In September, Occupy Wall Street took the fight to the banks and the financial elite. The common denominator for occupations all across the country was the occupation--the reclaiming--of public space. These are spaces not just of physical occupation but of democratic exchange and speech; the cynicism of Mayor Bloomberg's call for protesters to "occupy space with the power of their arguments" notwithstanding, the point is well taken: these physical occupations have opened up space for ideas previously unheard or shouted down to be taken seriously and even to drive public debate.

So does that mean it's time to start thinking and writing "in public" again? Shall the blog rise again? We'll see.

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