Monday, March 23, 2009

Speaking Out

Two decades ago, Phil Donahue played a major role in helping end the Cold War by introducing American and Soviet citizens to each other in historic international television talk shows watched by tens of millions of people. Fired by MSNBC in February 2003 for being too antiwar on the eve of war in Iraq, Donahue has continued conducting his peacemaking talks with much smaller audiences.

“We have to stop it now. We have to stand up,” Donahue, 73, said at a recent community meeting in Teaneck, NJ attended by about 130 people. Donahue spent much of Friday evening with an overflow audience at a small art gallery in the Puffin Cultural Forum, as part of his grassroots campaign to show Americans his “riveting” (Fox News), “superb” (Time magazine), “heart-wrenching” (New York Times) documentary about a severely wounded, antiwar veteran of Iraq, titled Body of War. An award-winning documentary released in 2007, it was not widely shown in movie theaters, Donahue noted. His appearance and showing of the film were sponsored by the Bergen Peace and Justice Coalition and local chapters of Military Families Speak Out and Veterans for Peace as part of a week of actions marking the 6th anniversary of the war in Iraq.

“What happened to dissent?” Donahue thundered to an appreciative audience of gray-haired activists and a sprinkling of younger folks. “That’s the whole point of the First Amendment. And by the way, if you are not going to use your right of free speech, then stop sending these young men and women to war to fight for it,” he continued to an outburst of applause. “We’re wasting their lives. We’re wasting their blood.”

Donahue has made the rounds of TV shows to plug his documentary. But he clearly relishes the intimacy of wading into a live audience with a hand-held microphone. “I’m not cynical,” Donahue said in response to a man who jumped to his feet in the Teaneck gathering in an outburst about political conspiracies. “And you can’t be either. Because if we get cynical, that’s the end of us.”

In response to a woman who asked how to help veterans with post-traumatic stress deal with a problem that carries severe stigmas in and out of the military, Donahue strode into the narrow aisle as though to comfort her with a hug. Acknowledging the severity of the problem, he added: “This war is going to rattle around this nation for the rest of this century. What we can do about it—First thing is to raise our voices, to get smart, to not sweep anything under the rug, to demand a media that tells us things that we don’t want to hear. We have to have a media that is not so rewarded for being popular. That’s the problem.”

Repeatedly, Donahue circled back to how powerfully he had been affected by doing a film about Tomas Young, a 25-year-old soldier from Kansas City who was paralyzed by a bullet on his first mission in Baghdad and later became a wheelchair-bound activist with Iraq Veterans Against the War. “I discovered a great American in Tomas Young, a warrior turned anti-warrior, a voice of courage rising above the war drums, a voice to ‘be heard behind the White House gate’ in the words of the song Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder wrote for this film,” Donahue previously wrote in a statement on the film’s website.

As he did in the film statement, Donahue lambasted national leaders for waging a war that has torn up Iraq and, with much less focus by the news media on cause and effect, much of America. “You know, we’re spending $500 billion a year on things that go boom—and that does not include the $150 billion which is a supplemental for the war,” he said in Teaneck, a suburb of New York City that is now struggling in the economic turmoil sweeping the nation. “That also does not include nuclear, which is in the Energy Department. It does not include the cost of the VA and health care. It does not include the cost of the CIA secret budget. We are spending one trillion dollars a year on the Defense Department. This is hysteria—and it is killing our young adult children. And we’re having a hell of a time breaking through the loud megaphone of corporate media.”

Downplaying his own ability to figure out what to do about these problems, Donahue paid tribute to his audience. “You are the core. You are the people who have been out there speaking to a lot of empty chairs, and you stood in a lot of small groups on street corners. You are the patriots. You are the people who believe in America….If you put the Bill of Rights to this crowd, it would pass,” he said to an explosion of laughter and clapping.

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