Chad Beck

I. The problem

Waiting in line for the 'Not in Our Name' rally at Cooper Union on October 3rd, I encountered a conspiracy theorist sitting at a table, passing out leaflets, and screaming.

"Bush knew about 9/11. It's all right here!"

I had heard the voice before. It felt like I had come across this guy at every protest or rally I had attended in the past year.

"The Bush administration was responsible for 9/11!"

This loudmouth is the scourge of earnest, socially conscious Americans wanting to take a stand and raise the level of debate about the impending war on Iraq. Would it be a violation of free speech to ask him to shut up?

At one point, someone of some apparent authority walked up to him and asked his affiliation. I sighed with relief. Someone was taking a stand against one of these ubiquitous kooks who ruin our rallies with their absurd claims! Mr. prophetic conspiracy-theorist stuttered…something about voices and wilderness… wait no…. actually he was on his own… wait… something inaudible. The activist/organizer left him alone and he continued with his rant. I was tempted to intervene, but shook my head and walked away, feeling simultaneously guilty and angry for not approaching him with my thoughts and strategies.

The example I just illustrated raises a problem for organizers and activists (myself included) that is central to the anti-war movement's ineffectiveness. We are not presenting our agenda through mainstream media or reaching out to the public in a sensible manner, with well-conceived messages that can appeal to the citizens of all fifty states. Afraid to confront conspiracy theorists and other fringe elements that all too often undermine the larger goals that most of us are working for, the anti-war movement concedes ground to the right wing, who seize on the kooks as a pretext to bash the left in general.

The problem is the Left's ideology itself: A movement grounded in dissent cannot and should not silence voices within its own ranks. But only by taking an active role in confronting fringe elements and focusing on a centralized message can we produce a voice for sensible alternatives that breaks through to the public. Otherwise, we and our principles will fast become irrelevant.

I was waiting in line that October 3 to hear speakers including historian Howard Zinn and playwright Tony Kushner, articulate voices whose integrity I respect. But I never got in. While they preached to a small choir inside closed doors, I, along with many others, hadn't reserved and came too late to gain entry.

I had managed to attend the large-scale rally at Union Square a few weeks earlier. I was hoping that some of the more egregious facts of the Bush administration - the $380 billion Pentagon budget, the racist INS, the unprecedented secrecy of the Executive branch - would be given voice to a wide audience. Maybe someone would manage to say what the mainstream "Left" seems too cowardly to admit: that this war is nothing more than a cynical "Wag the Dog" strategy intended to divert our attention from the plutocracy-sponsored recession. But no. Instead, the rally felt like a high school talent show. The first speaker's broken English was barely audible. The second speaker sang a folk song (bout the state of the world making her feel all…down. Soon, most of us were all anxiously filing out and jumping back on our subways to our regular lives within minutes. I went home and watched Showdown: Iraq on CNN. Or maybe it was Fox.

The anti-war movement and other movements that compose "the American Left" seem stuck in a college seminar mentality, somehow expecting the rest of the country to come around and appreciate guitar ballads about bombed villages in Afghanistan and appeals to a higher morality. Revolt against patriarchal imperialist corporations killing poor gay black Indonesian sweatshop working Palestinian refugees in the WTO's war-mongering American empire! End capitalism NOW!! We are all terrorists!! Oh. Right. Without concisely and convincingly framing the voice, effective messages will never reach the people who might actually support the cause. Is it any wonder most Americans, fed a ratings-driven caricature of us by the corporate media, think we're a bunch of faded hippies?

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November 2002

jay's head
josh ring