Yesterday at the conference Katharina Hübner delivered a presentation titled Feminist Peace Interventions in Public Space—Code Pink’s (Symbolic) Agency. Code Pink is the American anti-war group founded by and mostly using the work of a network of women in response to the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 drive toward war with Iraq. Ms. Hübner gave an account of how Code Pink came into being and an overview of their work, including examples of their visible activist statements.
I thought it was terrible and had to say so.
Code Pink is fine inasmuch as I am glad that it exists, just as I am glad that there remains something of an anti-war movement in the United States. I like seeing Code Pink people at demonstrations, simply for the reason that they represent some minimal organized presence. But any discussion about any element of the anti-war movement, Code Pink included, must be framed as a diagnosis of a failure if it is to have any political or intellectual credibility. That seems completely self-evident to me given the aims of the anti-war movement. And this presentation did not do that. How and why a movement would either succeed or fail was not part of the analysis.
Instead what we got was a celebratory profile of Code Pink’s female-led birddogging and banner drops. The video clips of momentary disruptions might be fun to watch, but does yelling at Donald Rumsfeld really constitute an effective or smart political strategy? How fast does the ‘pink slip’ visual pun go stale? Pretty fast, I would say. These questions were not asked.
The presenter argued that the Code Pink combination of clever punning and female leadership effectively mobilized people to join the anti-war effort. That is completely wrong. If it was about mobilizing people to join the protests, then Code Pink and the anti-war movement as a whole failed to make a case to our masses of fellow Americans. While opposition to the war ran deep, there were no million-person anti-war marches in the US. There were no millions-person letter writing campaigns. There were million click online petition drives, which hardly count as mobilization.
I would have let this pass as just another episode of the anti-war movement and its supporters being unable to criticially evaluate itself, except that this exercise in deficiency took place in a conference that describes itself as about “critical and creative work in visual culture.” That made it inexcusable. So this wasn't even about Code Pink as much as it was about the lazy non-critique offered.
I can maybe stretch it and imagine that the European presenter didn't feel entirely comfortable criticizing an American activist group. But that wasn't the issue, either. She had by her own disclosure just recently finished an internship with Code Pink, so she knew the organization well. Also, she made mention of the standard critique–ie that the active membership of Code Pink is demographically skewed toward a relatively privileged segment of the female population. But that is where that line of critique ended. How that skew might or might not inform the wider failures of Code Pink was never broached because those larger failures didn't seem to be on her radar, despite the fact that Donald Rumsfeld walks free and a US soldier was just killed in Iraq during some kind of operation a week or two ago, long after combat operations supposedly ended. Not mention the escalation in Afghanistan.
My (in that moment from the floor of the conference, rather unwelcome) specific input followed an earlier question about whether Code Pink is vulnerable to co-optation: I proposed that it is the co-optation of feminism itself that is the problem. I believe that the American left needs to get over its reliance on gender and race as the most productive fault lines around which to organize its activism. I have ideas about how to articulate the primary contradictions of our time, but what they are is hardly the point. The main thing is–and what emphatically did not happen during this particular panel–we all need to be proposing new analyses which acknowledge the identitarian fault lines as secondary. This is the fact: when Condoleeza Rice becomes one of the primary mouthpieces for a war of aggression, when Colin Powell is deployed to make the case for an unjustifiable war, and when Barack Obama institutionalizes many of the Bush regimes power grabs, then identitarian politics as an a priori emancipatory narrative are simply finished. It is over. The contradictions can no longer be articulated accurately in those terms. Any serious interrogation of political failure on any front of struggle, including on the anti-war front, will lead to this problem.