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anti-war activism, once and again

Chicago mobilizes against war - and an activist reflects on the U.S. Left and U.S. wars, then and now.
This evening [September 18] I attended a "community anti-war forum" called by the Chicago Direct Action Network. There were easily 400 people, maybe more, in attendance - it had to be moved from its original location to a conference room in the UIC student center, and then the divider in that room had to be opened because there was still not enough space for everyone. In my break-out group alone there were represented leftie teenagers, leftie grandmothers, Cuban immigrants, Palestinian immigrants, queers, trade unionists, anarchists, communists, Greens, Quakers, immigrant rights activists... I ran into professors of mine from the Art Institute. There was a gray-haired woman who talked of being arrested countless times protesting the Vietnam War, and kids not old enough to remember the Gulf War. To my recollection, the only political meeting I have ever been to that approached this in size was Act-Up New York, circa 1989.

It seems that while I was busy spending most of my twenties in grad school, trying to be a good, complacent citizen, trying to have people not hate me for my beliefs anymore, trying to liberate myself through cynicism, or whateverthefuck it was I was doing, the Left got its shit together. I remember my jaw dropping in disbelief 2 1/2 years ago as I stood in front of a TV in the student lounge and watched the footage from Seattle. How did my cherished gaggle of punkrock kids talking revolution in a grimy lower Manhattan basement turn itself into a huge, multivalent, visually and tactically sophisticated, global fucking movement while I wasn't looking? Has an anti-war movement that seemed utterly defeated and ineffectual ten years ago - while Iraqis were ravaged to support our petroleum habit and "the American people" proudly waved their yellow ribbons and patted activists on the head for so quaintly illustrating the precious freedoms our boys were allegedly defending - picked itself up, dusted itself off, and learned from its mistakes? Has the so-called anti-globalization movement of the past several years prepared the American Left for the unique challenges not only of addressing the current crisis, but of waging peace in an age of infotainment and instantaneous co-optation?

I don't know the answers to these questions, at least not yet. I do know that in the past week I have understood my own turn away from activism in the early 1990s more clearly than ever. Perhaps due to the perspective of age, I now see so clearly the ways in which refusing to be silent while taking a radical or simply unpopular stance can be not only inconvenient and uncomfortable, but painful in very real ways. I have had friendships damaged, possibly irreparably, in the past week. I have had basic understandings that seem so clearly common-sensical to me met with incomprehension by some of my closest family and friends. I have remembered how deeply it hurt and scared me, at 19, to have my grandfather, who ran from the Nazis to Palestine in the 1930s, who died last year and who I miss terribly, fly into a violent, blind, bellowing rage at me for expressing my opposition to the Gulf War. I have wondered about who I can count on, about what will happen to me and my friends and allies as the civil liberties we have as of today begin to erode.

And every time in the past week that I have expressed a dissenting view over the networks of electronic communication that the U.S. government is even now legislating to open to surveillance, I have wondered whether I shouldn't download some encryption software, invent a catchy pseudonym, and toss my cell phone in the lake. I wonder whether I'm being profoundly naive and dangerous, not only to myself but to those I associate and work with, just by typing this essay on AOL, one of the telecom companies that is collaborating with the FBI in circumventing privacy controls. In a culture that already sees no difference in meaning between "terrorist" and "anarchist," with a wartime government, can I really assume I have nothing to worry about? Does the name Cointelpro ring a bell to anyone?

Also perhaps due to the perspective of age, I see how the Left is flawed, how it stands in its own way, how stale notions of what constitutes effective organizing and action continue to hang on and sometimes hold sway. I see, immediately, all of the egotism and infighting and powertripping and general annoyingness that made me turn away in disgust before. I see all the things in which I *don't* want to become involved.

But if there *is* one thing that most every American has experienced in common in the past week, I think, it is *not* the sense that military action on the part of our government is the only logical solution, not the sense that our safety is gone (as there are many people in America for whom this has never been a safe place), but the sense that something has changed in us, permanently. For me, this is a shift from feeling that ideals were nice and beliefs were interesting but acting on them on a civic - rather than simply interpersonal - basis was a waste of time because the Postmodern condition had precluded the possibility of real change, to feeling that there is a job to be done.

I don't harbor illusions that an anti-war movement can stop the coming war, any more than I believe the anti-globalization movement can single-handedly stem the tide of global capitalism. I don't have romantic notions that I can or want to drop everything - my job, my life - to organize 24/7 like I did when the Gulf War broke out. I don't think I'll ever again be able or inclined to call myself a revolutionary with a straight face. But I do now feel that it is necessary, our obligation, to act as though we can, would, and are.

Some more things I know: That war, however the leaders of the First World end up choosing to re-define it, will lead not to safety or stability or the triumph of some fantasized benevolent free market, but to death and suffering for thousands more both in this country and throughout the world. That the U.S. government, the terrorists, the forces of fundamentalist fanatacism in *all* its forms, and the forces of global corporate control share *equal* culpability in the tragic attacks of one week ago. That if Americans across the board do not begin to understand our role and the role of our government and our corporations in the gross imbalance of power globally, the horrific September 11 attacks will be neither the last nor the worst, not by a long shot. That because of all these things, it is once again, and more than ever, simply right to rebel.

After tonight's meeting I also have the sense that the Left today is not the Left I knew as an anti-racist activist, then a peacenik, then an anarchist, in New York in the 1980s, nor the Left I knew as an environmental and anti-war activist, then a queer activist, then a feminist on a rural Midwestern college campus in the early 1990s. Something has been learned in the tight and savvy tactics of Seattle, in the culture jamming and the decentralized organizing, in the bloodbath of Genoa. I think a lot of utopianism has been lost, and this is sad, and a good thing. Maybe the Left finally has its eyes, or one of them at least, open. Tonight I saw an unfamiliar, patient, and intelligent willingness to work until some real possibility for action had been established, an insistence that action is possible even in light of profound non-sameness and non-agreement, and a tenacious openness to complicated analysis. From where I suddenly find myself standing, again and with considerable reflection and astonishment, it looks as though the Left will not be silenced by the illogical collapse of meaning between nationalism and mourning, between grief and revenge, between being anti-war and being pro-terrorist, between opposing the actions and policies of the U.S. government and condoning the actions of terrorists. We can resist this collapse of meaning by modeling ways to be both anti-war and anti-terrorist, both in mourning and in opposition to waging war as a means to address that mourning. We won't prevent this war from starting, but if there's any cause for hope at all, we may be able to reduce the scope of its destructiveness, to prevent it from erasing the possibility of dissent, and possibly even make the Left viable again in the process.




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