Year of the Insurgents

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One word brought together the disparate events of 2004: insurgency. It's a strange term — but we've got quite used to it. Think of it as not quite a revolution but more than mere discontent. The dictionary describes it as "a condition of revolt against a recognized government that does not reach the proportions of an organized revolutionary government." Yep, a war that is not a real war, a halfway, inconclusive revolt without end, a battle of attrition that polarizes as it goes essentially nowhere.

In Iraq it had a literal meaning. Each month the number of attacks on coalition troops went up, after a wildfire revolt in the spring. Slowly, sovereignty shifted toward the Iraqis, but just as slowly, attempts to eliminate resistance seemed merely to move it around. Even after the climactic battle to retake Fallujah in November, violence spiked in Mosul and Baghdad. Progress in reconstruction and political engagement is now measurable. Smart observers see flickers of hope in the possibility of elections next month. But the insurgents remain — increasingly organized, angry, yet still distant from any semblance of real power.


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In the U.S., insurgencies of a different and metaphorical kind flourished as well. This was a year in which establishments of all kinds were thoroughly rattled yet stayed precariously intact. Remember Howard Dean? This time last year, he was riding a crest of youthful, bloggy discontent, determined to change the rules of politics forever. But the logic of insurgency is that in the end, it's about fighting power, not gaining it. It lives for the challenge. And so the Dean moment fizzled in an Iowa screech, and the Establishment endured. Now Dean wants to switch sides and run the Democratic National Committee.

Others weren't so easily co-opted. On the Internet, a volunteer army of bloggers escalated their guerrilla war against the mainstream media. They had previously spooked the (now former) executive editor of theNew York Times Howell Raines and even the (just as former) Senate majority leader Trent Lott, but when they helped push Dan Rather into early retirement, their real moment seemed to have come. Nevertheless, they stay on the margins — because, like all insurgents, they're about sniping, not governing.

Similarly, Mel Gibson and Michael Moore launched movies outside the big studios, deploying amateur word of mouth to juice the box office. The audiences caught on — showing up not just to see movies but to send a message. They weren't alone. In the spring, the mayor of San Francisco began his doomed assault against the existing order by simply declaring he would ignore the law and grant marriage licenses to gay couples in city hall. Thousands lined up day after day for a simple civil rite most Americans — Britney Spears included — tend to take for granted. They knew the licenses would almost certainly be revoked. But they got them anyway. They and their fully legal brethren in Massachusetts provoked a counterinsurgency by the social right. A federal amendment to ban civil marriage for gays was introduced in Congress. In 11 states, constitutional amendments were passed by grass-roots Christian groups to do the same. But again, ultimate success was elusive on both sides. The federal amendment failed badly, but Karl Rove promised to fight again.

Did any of these people really expect victory? I doubt it. Gibson knows America is unlikely to become a place where people regard John Paul II, as a handful of far-right Catholics like himself do, as a flaming liberal. Dean self-destructed as he came close to success. Even the members of the religious right seem to embrace the losing nature of their struggle. Do they really believe wives are about to declare obedience to husbands or that gays are about to go back to the 1950s? Or is it the very smell of cultural gunpowder that keeps them alive?

The ethic of revolt was infectious nonetheless. Shock jocks like Howard Stern moved to satellite radio to duck government monitoring of the public airwaves. Fox News continued its guerrilla war against its rivals and ended up beating the networks at G.O.P. Convention time. Jon Stewart's fake news show took on real news shows — and won. Richard Clarke waged a lone, self-righteous battle against his former bosses in the Bush Administration. The swift-boat vets launched a publicity-seeking missile at one of their own — John Kerry. On the other side, George Soros helped bankroll a million points of protest ads against the Bush Administration — and came up short in November. So did MoveOn.org, which signally failed to move on.

Did anyone win? Well, the President did. But the insurgency against him — fanatically deadly in Iraq, peacefully feisty at home — merely took a deep breath. And fought on.