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Thursday, January 23, 2003

A Recurring Debate: Associating with Radicals

I've had at least two discussions in the last week with people who think that International ANSWER is much too radical an organization to be spearheading the anti-war movement, and that many of the speakers at Saturday's rally, like Al Sharpton, were going to hurt the movement by espousing causes that most of mainstream anti-war America oppose. While I'm sure that some people stay away for these reasons, I believe that the impact of the radicals on the a-w movement is at worst neutral and probably beneficial. I'll present first a practical argument and then a philosophical one.

The Practical Argument: First and foremost, without the radicals of ANSWER there would have been no rally or march. The Democratic party didn't organize one. Neither did the ACLU, the Green party, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, TrueMajority, MoveOn, the Quakers, the Catholics, or any other large national group which opposes (or should oppose) war with Iraq. I don't mean to put down any of these groups (I belong to four of the ones I mentioned), and they have organized effective mail campaigns and local events. But ANSWER, which most people had never heard of before October, had the vision and the energy to organize the huge rallies and marches in DC and San Francisco in October and January. They took on and accomplished the huge tasks of hiring and filling buses, getting permits, publicity, and all of the many other things necessary to make the events large and effective.

And I argue that only a radical organization could have done it. There are pro-Bush hawks in many of the mainstream groups who would vigorously oppose the groups even supporting, much less organizing, a major anti-war rally. The Sierra Club faced major dissension before finally supporting the wimpiest of the anti-war movements (Win Without War). The ACLU's mission is supported by prominent hawks like Bob Barr, Dick Armey and William Safire. And the last thing the Catholic church wants right now is one more divisive issue. So only a group sufficiently radical that it has no pro-war or pro-Bush faction will be able to focus its energy on organizing a big march rather than infighting.

In addition, although one of the people I discussed this with immediately disagreed with it (and he may be right), I think that each of the "radical" speakers represented some group which contributed hundreds of marchers to the rally. That is, without all of the yellers, you have a smaller and therefore less effective rally.

My final practical argument is that the possible negative impact of the speakers was minimal. Most repeated the anti-war message frequently and added in their own agendas. So everyone there could at least find something to cheer, since the whole crowd was anti-war. And even if there were radicals on the stage, the crowd was amazingly mainstream, maybe too much so. It was mostly white, all ages, very little spiked hair, body piercings, tattoos, etc. As a middle-aged white male I felt more out of place at the last Michigan football game I went to than I did in the rally. And while I was able to hear the speakers well, I'm sure that many others could not, and they probably didn't care. The important thing was to be there and to march through the streets. And the marching was a blast. While I'm sure that everyone would have preferred to hear speakers that mirror their own sentiments exactly, most people there would probably put up with having Fidel Castro or Rush Limbaugh speak if they had to to take part in the march. The worst negative effect was probably with the televised coverage on C-Span, where you could see and hear the speakers perfectly but not be a part of the crowd or participate in the march. And of course, right-wing journalists and radio personalities have probably jumped all over some of the more radical statements. But they would have found something to complain about anyway.

The Philosophical Argument: I've read some of Noam Chomsky's work and watched his video "Manufacturing Consent." He points out how the supposedly “liberal” media sets the left limit to debate: anybody more liberal than Sam Donaldson or George Stephanopoulos is a whacko radical and can be safely ignored. So while it may be barely safe for newscasters or politicians to call for “slowing the rush to war,” it is still treacherous to question larger parts of the US policy. “Win Without War” is a good example. That message basically says that through continued bullying of the United Nations, continued harsh sanctions which kill thousands in Iraq, and continued military buildup to threaten Saddam, maybe it will be possible to just steal Iraq and its oil without conquering it militarily. That is as far left as the Sierra Club, among many others, is willing to go.

The reason for this is that the mainstream debate has been continually pushed to the right in the past 25 years. Ralph Nader points out in his book “Crashing the Party” that many of Al Gore’s positions in 2000 were more right-wing than Richard Nixon’s were in 1972. This has been accomplished in large part because the right has not suppressed its radical whackos: Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, etc. These people introduce blatantly absurd ideas into the national debate and continue to repeat them until people either believe them or at least accept them as starting points. (“I don’t believe Hillary is a feminazi antichrist, but I sure wouldn’t trust her with my children.”)

Now I’m not calling for a progressive Rush, someone who combines half-truths about Republicans with nasty lies and repeats them ad nauseum. But free speech is, or should be, a key element of the progressive agenda. I am unfamiliar with some of the causes that were represented by the speakers in Washington and might well disagree with some of them if I knew all of the facts. But I do know that these people have very little opportunity to be heard before large live and TV audiences. And just knowing that there are people out there who are way more liberal than Sam Donaldson or George Stephanopoulos frees people to investigate the middle ground between those two and the radicals (what used to be known as the Democratic Party). If we don’t have “radicals” continually pushing the limits on the left and dragging others behind them, we will end up with the dreadful possibility of Bush against Lieberman in 2004, which is really no choice at all.