February 17, 2003
The U.S. anti-war movement that appears in the headlines and feature
stories of the corporate media is not the same thing as the U.S. anti-war
movement that actually exists in real life.
The real-life movement is composed of hundreds of thousands of people across this country, women and men of all nationalities and backgrounds and sexual orientations, of the working class and the middle class and even a few bourgeoisie, and of all political backgrounds to the left of Dick Cheney's.
We organize rallies, we charter buses and ride on them together, we talk with each other like civilized people. We do the mundane ordinary things of movement-doing. We make signs, we copy leaflets, we put up unskilled-looking websites or even good-looking ones if there is somebody on hand with some skills. We appreciate each other's work. And we get together at the same time and place and shout down the war.
We do these things rather unhindered by the fact that some of us are churchgoers and others are long-time Marxists and others are Al Gore Democrats, by the fact that some of us are anti-imperialists and others are pacifists and others are merely horrified by this particular illegal war of conquest. Some of us recognize the need to oppose war and occupation and sanctions in all their forms; others have not gotten to that stage. But is not a secret to any sector of us that the other sectors are on the bus. It is not a tremendous sacrifice for us to get along with each other. We get along with our relatives at holiday dinners, even the irritating ones; we get along with our co-workers; we can get along with the other people in our unions, our churches, our college classes. And we get along with the rest of the people on the bus, or in the meeting, or at the demonstration, who share with us a sincere opposition to this war.
In some places we organize ourselves in a single coalition, and in other places in several. Our coalitions are generally at peace with other, and co-operate as much as we compete. We often publicize and support each other's events, and our representatives speak on each other's podia; and we co-operate to stage larger and more successful events. When our political differences emerge, we do not allow them to ascend to the level of divisive acrimony, because we all know very well that our real opponent is the U.S. war machine, and when all is said and done we have to work together against it.
In fact, the truth is that most people in the real-life movement are not "in" any one coalition. They are "wise participants" in anti-war activity. They are aware of the activities of several organizations, neighborhood, metropolitan, and national. They will participate in the campaigns that they see as effective, exciting, knowledgeable, and non-sectarian. They have a sound, common-sense bias toward unity and away from divisiveness. Therefore, no organization or coalition which wants to exercise influence or leadership can possibly get it through divisive or sectarian means, by bare denunciations, trickery, or quarrelsomeness. People just don't want to hear that. This clear and correct preference on the part of the independent masses has generally been listened to by leaders of the real-life movement. Political differences are important, and must and will be discussed, but it will be a matter of persuasion, not of busting up the movement.
The media-story movement is quite different. For one thing, it's about one tenth the size of the real movement. Where the real movement brings out hundreds of thousands, the media-story movement brings out 'tens of thousands' or even 'thousands'.
Furthermore, the media-story movement is always divided, racked by rifts, seeking for its soul. In the media stories the coalitions are at war with each other like the ancient Greek city-states. The media are at pains to pick out which are the "extremists" and which are the "mainstream" and to speculate on the outcomes of the supposed wars among the coalitions, just as they speculate about the threatened holocaust in Iraq, or on a football game.
The media-story movement is sick. It is always being diagnosed by pundits-of-the-movement, people who are not in the movement but who are incessantly writing and speaking about its supposed problems and inadequacies and diseases. The pundits-of-the-movement never find the movement to be too timid, overly patriotic, or too narrowly focused. They invariably diagnose the movement as suffering from the disease of left extremism. They 'expose' communists and pro-Palestinians and anti-imperialists and unpatriotic people for the edification of the readers of the Washington Post or the New York Times. They grimly point to speakers on the podium who make links with other struggles and other wars, in Palestine, Colombia, the Philippines, Vieques, Korea, or the oppressed communities here in the US, or who read the words of imprisoned revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal, and they declare that the movement cannot grow and recruit 'normal people' until that cancer is excised.
And yet, like the bumblebee which rudely persisted in flying even when theory demonstrated that its wings were inadequate to the task, the real-life movement DOES grow, and organize, and even recruit 'normal people', and demonstrate, often quite unconscious of the life-threatening illnesses which afflict the media-story movement. As to the speakers who so offend the pundits-of-the-movement, the real-life people generally listen to them like diners sampling a new cuisine, and either are convinced or undecided or unconvinced, but if they are unconvinced they do not get disgusted and leave the demonstration; they stay and cheer for their own favorite speaker.
The Lerner affair exemplifies the divergence between the real-life movement and the media-story movement. This was like a 24-hour virus, spread by e-mails, that hit the U.S. anti-war movement and drove some people slightly crazy for a brief time. Then the antibodies began to circulate, the infection was fought off, and the real-life movement is healthier and wiser, although the media-story movement may be gravely ill with it for a long time.
Every generalization is an exception, and Michael Lerner, of Tikkun, is the exception to my generalization that participants in the real-life movement respect each other and value their unity. Lerner has tried to stake out a third-camp position between the Palestinian liberation movement and the oppressive Israeli state. He opposes the war with Iraq, but within the anti-war movement his chief concern is to combat those who are too forgiving of the use of violent means by Palestinians, and to label such people as anti-Semitic.
In a New York Times story on the divisions in the media-story movement, published after the real-life January 18 demonstrations initiated by the International ANSWER [Act Now to Stop War and End Racism] Coalition, Lerner was enlisted as a pundit for the purpose of maligning ANSWER's supposed 'anti-Semitism'. ANSWER was painted as the bad, extreme coalition, and United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) was painted as the good, moderate coalition.
In San Francisco, resisting the desires of the media for an intercoalition fight, four coalitions came together to organize the February 16 protest: United for Peace and Justice, Not in Our Name, International ANSWER (all national coalitions), and Bay Area United against War. With unity at a premium, they agreed at an early stage not to nominate as speakers individuals who had engaged in "public attacks" on their coalition partners. UFPJ, at a meeting in which Tikkun was represented, decided not to nominate Lerner to speak, opting for other people with similar views who will in fact speak.
But in the week before the action, Lerner launched a nationwide e-mail campaign falsely blasting ANSWER as having 'banned' him from speaking because of his pro-Israel views, and blasting all the other coalitions, including UFPJ, for their "unprincipled" acquiescence in ANSWER's supposed anti-Semitism. This campaign was immediately seized upon by pundits-of-the-movement David Corn and Marc Cooper, of The Nation, to whom ANSWER is a personal bête noire. Acting in coordination, Corn posted a column on The Nation's website repeating Lerner's charges, while Cooper got up an Internet petition in association with Penn State academic Michael Berubé attacking ANSWER's 'unfitness' to lead antiwar demonstrations. The column and the petition were posted to all sorts of progressive lists.
Berubé then enlisted the aid of arch-right-winger David Horowitz to publicize the petition on his website. The San Francisco Chronicle published an article on the "rift" in the movement. The Wall Street Journal published Lerner's attack as an op-ed piece. Within hours, a layer of progressives across the country was gripped by Lerneritis, swapping e-mails, addressing this unexpected charge, four days before our historic opportunity to stop the war. E-mail lists were gripped by debate. And if you believed the media stories, you would believe that the movement against the war on Iraq was being riven apart over the issue of Palestine.
But then it went away as quickly as it had come; or, more precisely, was quickly and efficiently fought off.
The four coalitions issued a joint statement explaining the facts, which spread on the Internet as quickly and as widely as the slander had. Other summaries and supporting notes were circulated by e-mail. The simple facts proved to be an effective vaccine against Lerneritis. People woke up, slightly hung over, some slightly apologetic, and went on with their business. And, in fact, most of the people in the real-life movement had never seen it.
The 'rift' had not been within the real-life movement. It had been between Lerner, some pundits-of-the-movement, and the media, on the one side, and the movement, on the other. The movement was not nearly so gullible, so brittle, so easy to fracture, as they had banked on. And -- let's face it -- a lot of people in the real movement have caught on to the fact that there really is a connection between Bush's war on Iraq and the Bush/Sharon war on Palestine. Realization of this fact is not a precondition of participation in the antiwar movement, but discussion of it is never going to be driven out of the movement again.
This attempt to divide our movement will not be the last. If the U.S. war drive is not stopped, we can expect ever increased pressure from the media, attempting to pit us against each other, always with the aid of pundits-of-the-movement of the Corn and Cooper variety. It might even ascend to the COINTELPRO stage, in which government agents pick physical fights, forge letters, and so on. On the other hand, successfully fighting off an infection leaves antibodies behind and increases the body's resistance. The next virus may be even less effective.
· · · · · ·
[Ed. Note (March 2): We have received a letter from Michael Berube in which he categorically denies having contacted David Horowitz with regard to Michael Lerner.]
Iraq on Swans
Lou Paulsen is a long time peace and political activist. He is a technical worker living in Chicago and a member of the Workers World Party since 1972. As an activist, he has frequently worked in coalitions and helped to organize demonstrations. Paulsen has reported for Workers World newspaper and written on Internet lists, most frequently at marxmail.org. This is Paulsen's first contribution to Swans.
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