Attention Starved | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Attention Starved

Mike Butler isn't eating -- but we're the ones going hungry.

It's easy to ignore the fact that Mike Butler is going hungry. It's easy to walk down the 3700 block of Forbes Avenue in Oakland and pay no attention to his protest.

Which means he has a lot in common with Iraq War he opposes: It's easy to avert our gaze from each.

Butler, an antiwar activist for the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, has been on a water-only fast for two weeks. Along with supporters and friends, he has been standing just outside the military-recruitment center on Forbes Avenue, handing out anti-enlistment brochures and talking about the war to anyone who will listen.

Not everyone wants to. As Butler -- propped up against a wall for support, and holding bottled water for nourishment -- talks about his protest, a cane-wielding woman walks by and shouts "IDIOT!" at him. (Though in fairness, she might have been talking to me.)

Meanwhile, Butler says, police have threatened him with arrest upward of 10 times. He's also been cited for obstructing the sidewalk -- although even at the height of rush hour, Oakland crowds hustle past without a glance. The ACLU has twice warned the city not to cite Butler, and as this issue went to press the organization was planning to file suit. ("The city declared war by citing people who were not blocking the sidewalk for obstructing it," says the ACLU's Vic Walczak.)

Butler says that most people he speaks with respect his passion, even if they don't support his goals. But what's saddest is that many of those who accost him don't denounce his political beliefs. They denounce him for publicly expressing them at all.

"It's amazing how many 'Get a job' comments we get at 2 o'clock in the morning," Butler says.

The more thoughtful sidewalk cynics ask Butler whether he thinks his protest can stop the war.

"People say to me, 'Congress tried to stop the war, and didn't succeed; how do you hope to do it?' And my response is, 'Congress didn't try.'"

Butler had hoped for more. His fast was timed to coincide with Gen. David Petraeus's testimony before Congress this month. The outcome of that testimony, it seems, will be more Republican stalling tactics, and more Democratic fecklessness.

"I'm angry about it," Butler says. "But it's energizing to me, because it's just another reason that we need to fight."

I wish it were energizing for me, or for the majority of Americans who tell pollsters they want to see the war wind down. It was one thing to lose political battles a few years ago, back when war skeptics were in the minority. It's somehow worse to know that most Americans now agree with us, yet we still can't get anything changed. Before, the political system was against us, but at least we could believe that it worked. Now we no longer have even that illusion.

Years of large-scale marches have changed nothing. Voting seems to have only made things worse: Democrats took control of Congress last year thanks to concerns about the war, and the result was more troops in Iraq.

You'd almost call the situation intolerable, if it didn't seem so easy to tolerate. Except for those with loved ones in the military, the war asks for nothing but our complacence as we go about our daily lives. "It is one thing to endure abuses and to carry on in spite of them," writes Garret Keizer in the current Harper's magazine. "It is quite another thing to carry on to the point of abetting the abuse."

So while the rest of us prove there's almost nothing we can't stomach, Butler has stopped eating. At this point, there may be simply nothing left to do. Keizer himself proposes that Americans go on a general strike, refusing to come to work on Election Day this November. When the only way to support the war is to go about your daily routine, perhaps withdrawing from that routine is the only way to oppose it.

I have my doubts. But as Butler talks in the late-afternoon sun, he doesn't seem at all dispirited. Maybe it's just the light-headedness that comes from not eating, but he seems less downtrodden than the people who mutter at him as they pass by. He's the one who has gone two weeks without eating. So why is it the rest of us who seem anemic?