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
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.