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Beyond the Salon
October 18, 2002
By The Plaid Adder

Michelle Goldberg's article "Peace Kooks," which appeared yesterday at Salon.com, presents itself as a well-meaning attempt to wise up unsuspecting liberals to the dangers of the radical fringe that lurks in the midst of an apparently innocent anti-war movement. While the piece is aimed at moderates, the tone throughout is anything but moderate, as her use of the heavily loaded term 'hijack' attests.

To the left of the liberals, as far as Goldberg is concerned, all you find are "fanatics" who, "enthralled with tyrants and terrorists," "shriek" or "scream" their ideologies instead of articulating them. The overall thrust of her piece is, "Watch out, all you middle-class white liberals and 'harmless campus Marxists,' if you keep turning up at these rallies, you're going to catch lunatic fringe cooties."

While I respect the work that Goldberg - or rather Gitlin, on whose book she is heavily relying - has done in tracing the connections between the various organizations on the left who have contributed to the success of the Not In My Name project, I think the "nascent anti-war movement" she says she wants to protect is liable to suffer more from this kind of lefty-bashing than it will from the IAC website. In order to move forward, you have to stop chasing your own tail; and if the Americans who oppose this war are going to organize, they are going to have to understand a few things.

1) If you only want to fight alongside people who agree with everything you believe, your army is going to be very small.

The right learned this early. There are a lot of ways to be conservative in this country; from the Log Cabin Republicans to the Christian Coalition, the right is made up of a number of different constituencies, some much more radical than others. They no doubt savage each other in private; but when election time rolls around, they're all cramming themselves promsicuously into one big tent for a big ol' right-wing lovefest, because they know that organization is what gets results.

The left has got to learn what the right already knows: when there's work to be done, you cannot waste all your time obsessing over ideological purity. We have to get over the idea that being progressive is about what we think, and take the approach that it's about what we do. If what this movement does is stop us from going to war with Iraq, does it matter that we can link it to the Shining Path by playing six degrees of separation? How many degrees of separation would it take to get from Dubya's administration to the Aryan Nation?

2) A movement cannot survive on moderates alone.

The reason that radical groups are behind the recent protests is that it's the radicals who know how to organize. That's because it's the radicals who are committed enough to disrupt their personal and professional lives in order to work for political change. The more of a 'kook' you are, the more willing you will be to give up money, time, blood, sweat, and tears for a cause which for a long time has been considered by most of America to be irretrievably lost.

That's why a movement needs its radical fringe. It worked on the right; Operation Rescue may be wall-to-wall lunatics, but it has probably done more damage to reproductive freedom in this country than sane people ever have. Similarly, the 'average American' may deplore the war, but is not going to spent five nights a week raising money, postering the neighborhood, applying for parade permits and contacting other organizations.

The radicals are 'behind' this movement because they are the ones who are willing to stay involved. The 'kooks' are necessary, because if it weren't for them, when all the nice normal people that Goldberg describes in her account of the NYC rally decided they wanted to protest, they would have no place to march.

A movement can't survive on radicals alone, either. Goldberg is right about that much; for the movement to succeed it will have to be broad and inclusive. But centrism alone does not effect change. The powers that be are only interested in talking to the moderates once they are sufficiently afraid of the radicals. It was that way with the civil rights movement, it is even thus with the gay rights movement, and even so will it be with the anti-war movement.

3) If you don't like the radicals in charge of your movement, then why not become the radicals in charge of your movement?

In politics, power belongs to those who are most involved. The IAC will not be able to 'hijack' the Not In Our Name Project if enough people with different views get involved and STAY involved. You want to set the agenda? Go to the meeting. Bring along 200 friends who talk a lot. All of these organizations have undoubtedly already been infiltrated by the FBI; you can infiltrate them too. All it takes is commitment.

4) Protesting is not going to make you popular.

It just won't. You will alienate people; they will yell at you from the sidelines, write angry letters to the editor, call you un-American and all the rest of it. They will do this whether you are a nice safe middle class liberal or a scary radical Communist. What's more, people will start to think that you, yourself, are a peace kook, a lunatic, a pathetic loser who can't get with the program. And let's face facts: they'll do it with some justification.

Peaceful protest is an incredibly dorky activity. You go out and listen to a load of speeches which are never going to be uniformly exciting, then you team up with a bunch of strangely-dressed people carrying gigantic placards and then march in a big amorphous blob while chanting singsong nursery-rhyme caliber slogans. It's about as hip as marching band. There is only one reason to do something this ridiculous, and that is that it works.

It works despite the fact that the media will do their best to portray your event as the eccentric outburst of a lonely band of loonies. It works because of what it teaches the people who are in the protest as well as the people who watch it. With our Congressional representatives rolling over for Bush's resolution and our unelected President helping idiocy run rampant all over both foreign and domestic policy, it's easy to feel voiceless, powerless, and helpless. Protest teaches us different. We can act. We can help. We can speak. We do have a voice. And we can make it heard, if we all yell at once.

Secure in our belief in democracy and American liberalism, we have been approaching politics for too long as a discussion, an abstract debate that's important in terms of forming our own opinions, psyches, and consciences and can then be translated through our votes into representative government.

When things are normal, that works. Things are not normal. This is a crisis, and this is when politics have to move off the bulletin boards and out from the dining rooms and onto the pavement. We are and will be held responsible for what our leaders are about to do. If we want some agency with that responsibility, we have to make our consciences real. We have to get outside our own skulls. We have to get out of the salon and into the street.

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