David Swanson first became known to progressives in the U.S.back in 2005 when he helped publicize the Downing Street Memos, the minutes of a meeting amongst the British Prime Minister's senior ministers in July of '02 that documented discussions about going to war in Iraq well in advance of when the U.S. and Great Britain said they had any intention of doing so
He's been extremely active in the anti-war movement since then, and has just published a book, Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union. He will be coming to the Tampa Bay area next week, with appearances scheduled for Tarpon Springs, Sarasota and Eckerd College.
We spoke with Swanson via phone about his new book and his thoughts on the Obama presidency, Afghanistan and the state of activism a year after George W. Bush.
You became well known with the Downing Street Memos. Can you tell our readers what that was all about?
We started a coalition in May of 2005 called After Downing Street, to expose and publicize crimes and abuses of power and to push for corrective measures in legislation and Congressional actions and impeachment. The Downing Street minutes is by no means the strongest piece of evidence of that crime of lying us into an aggressive war in Iraq. But it was in May of '05. And it was a moment that a lot of Americans believed that by exposing that information, we might compel Congress to do something about it. Specifically to impeach Bush and Cheney and end the wars.
And given our party-dominated system in Congress, we were led to think so, because we had Democrats in the minority, talking about how they wanted to end the wars and they could only do so if we gave them the majority to do so. So the interests of activist groups and citizens who supported the rule of law and upholding the Constitution and peace and justice lined up for a minute there with the interests of one of the parties in Congress. We worked closely with John Conyers (Democrat Representative from Michigan).
What we did succeed in doing was to take a story that was widely publicized on the internet and in foreign media, and force it into the U.S. corporate media against its will, so that we had editorials in newspapers saying "We will not cover the Downing Street minutes , leave us alone," and then within a week, there were big front page articles (about the memos), because we had not left them alone. We had compelled them to start talking about it, and they did all start talking about it, at least for a few weeks , because we were shutting their offices down, with phone calls and emails and faxes, and protests in the lobby.
But people gradually lost faith that exposing more evidence would make a difference since Congress refused to act, and we gave the Democrats a majority in Congress in January of '07 and they refused to even pretend that they intended to act.
With President Obama contemplating an additional 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, do you see the anti-war movement, which has been pretty quiet of late, coming out strongly against it?
I think that the anti-war movement is beginning to wake up, for a variety of reasons, including the escalation in Afghanistan, and the polling on that. I think there is the potential for what's needed. To begin with, to drop the idea that the president can control things. If Obama escalated in Afghanistan, and does so at the instructions of the military, that also means that Congress is permitting it, and funding it. Nothing happens without Congress' will , or at least stepping aside and allowing it to happen.
We are going to have major protests all over the country in the first, second and third weeks of October, as we hit the 8th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. On October 5th we'll have a major protest at the White House, and a lot of us will likely go to jail.
I was unable to persuade organizers to focus that day on Capitol Hill. People seem to need to get it out of their system the need to yell at the new president like they did at the old president. I think once that happens, we can try to focus on not the president who is almost impossible to influence. Not our senators, who are also difficult to influence, but our House members, and to demand that they stop funding these wars and stop this pretense that they are opponents of war while they still are funding the war.
In June, we had a situation where we needed 39 Democrats to join all the Republicans to vote no (on continuing to fund the war), and we would have stopped the funding and we got 30. I have no doubt in a similar situation we could get 39, and it's possible we will have such a situation.
What about the level of activism in this country? One of the great things I saw coming out of the Obama candidacy was people getting involved in a way they never had before. Now when the president doesn't do things that some people were hoping he'd do, they say they're disappointed, and don't want to get involved. Isn't that kind of a lazy, passive way of looking at the world. Doesn't it let people off the hook?
Yes, absolutely. Getting involved largely involved getting people registered to vote. That's not activism, that's busy work. It's not engagement. It's needed because we don't give people automatic registration. But it's not activism, and to think of it as activism takes away from the areas where citizen involvement is needed, which begin the day after an election. It's really sad, wishful thinking that people believe an election can change anything. Believe the election of a president can change everything, and believe that Barack Obama is some sort of progressive, a populist. These are misguided ideas. People should not have expected anything from an election alone, and should not be disappointed and heartbroken because it didn't give them what they wanted. They should not relate to elected officials as people in popularity contests and like them or dislike them, or approve of them, or disapprove of them as a whole. They should insist on action on issues, and support or oppose any elected official accordingly, so you agree with them on some things and disagree with them on others. The attitude of the past 10 months that "We'll let them act and see what they do," is appropriate following a coup, not following an election. Following an election, your responsibility is to get out there and tell them how to represent you....This idea that elected officials should ignore opinion polls is a sick, anti-democratic attitude. No, they should not be influenced by the corporate media, or money, and their party's leaders, but they should be swayed by the changing opinions of the public....but it means dropping all ideas that we can influence presidents and senators, and focusing on House members where we have at least, a chance.
David Swanson will be in Tarpon Springs at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 7 p.m. on Monday October 12. He'll be in Sarasota at Sarasota Books a Million on Tuesday October 13 at 1 p.m., and he'll be at Eckerd College in Gulfport on Tuesday, October 13 at 7 p.m. For more information go to riseuptampabay.com.