Message for the left: Sit down, shut up and focus on common goals | First Person | Indy Week
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Message for the left: Sit down, shut up and focus on common goals 

The energy and vision still motivating the peace and justice movement was evident from Randall Williams' report on the organizing meetings in New York City in May ("What's Going On With the National Anti-war Movement?" June 4). Unfortunately, the vision was often obscured by mulish disagreements of the sort that have frustrated efforts of the left to act in concert since the days of Victor Hugo.

The phrase, "politically correct," was invented not by the "neo-cons" (please don't call them "conservatives") to ridicule those who dare to disagree with their radical views, but by leftist factions to defend their own narrow and doctrinaire views against those of other leftists. Sometimes this provincial and shortsighted attitude seems to be the one thing that all left-wing groups have in common. By contrast, it has been the ability of right-wing groups with widely differing agendas to organize around their common goals, and to accept and even endorse the goals of others that they might not fully support that has enabled them to build a broad and formidable coalition for more than two decades.

But some of the disagreements in NYC over which issues (and whose) are most important are due less to political intransigence than to lack of understanding of the fundamental logical distinction between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. No clearer illustration of the significance of this distinction could be found than the example at hand.

In Williams' article, Ron Ali of Washington, D.C., and Albert Cahm of New York City are cited as favoring an exclusive focus on the defeat of George the W. in 2004, while Brian Becker of the International Action Center is quoted as saying, "Did the slaves in the Roman Empire think, 'Gee, if we could only get a new Caesar?'" International ANSWER, which has organized many of the major anti-war demonstrations in the United States and of which IAC is a part, likewise prefers to "focus" on an absurd mix of issues great and small.

Surely no one who has been even half alive for the past 30 years believes that simply replacing Bush in 2004 (with Joseph Lieberman?) would assure peace, social and economic justice, and a habitable planet for 7 billion people and their descendants: The defeat of Bush by itself is not a sufficient condition for that outcome to occur. On the other hand, anyone who has read the manifesto of The Ones Who Stand Behind the Shrub (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz, Kristol., et al. ) at www.newamericancentury.org should realize that if they remain at the levers of government for another four years, such outcomes may be precluded for all time: The defeat of Bush is a necessary condition if we are to have any hope for peace, justice, and a habitable planet--ever.

This used to be taught in a class called "rhetoric," which was once a part of every college curriculum, and more recently of college-preparatory curricula in many high schools. Such a distinguished social scientist as Todd Gitlin could certainly be expected to understand it. Gitlin argues that ANSWER should be repudiated and ostracized by honest opponents of Bush and Bush's agenda because it is an outgrowth of groups with a questionable past, and because it has positions he considers questionable on some peripheral issues such as retrial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. In so arguing, he is saying that ANSWER's past and certain parts of its agenda are sufficient to disqualify it from participation in the broader movement to stop the drive of Bush and his PNAC backers for military and economic empire abroad (or "hegemony," as Duke professor Robert Keohane prefers to call it), and corporate-theocratic oligarchy at home. Alternatively, he is arguing that freedom from positions that he deems too controversial or politically incorrect is necessary for the inclusion of ANSWER in this broader movement.

This argument does not hold water. First, it is subjective, hinging on the degree of one's personal objections to aspects of ANSWER's background and agenda. Objectively it ignores the fact, clear to anyone who attended any of the major demonstrations organized by ANSWER in New York, D.C., and elsewhere, that those matters to which Gitlin and others object were indeed peripheral at most. At those demonstrations, both the official speakers and tens of thousands of individual placards focused overwhelmingly on the reasons for objection to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and on the threats posed to democratic government in the United States by the Patriot Act and its proposed expansion. Other issues of concern to ANSWER--such as North Korea, the occupied West Bank, the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Iran and Syria, the proposition that current U.S. policy in these areas increases rather than decreases the likelihood of terrorist attacks against the United States, and the treatment of Arab and Muslim citizens and visitors in the United States, as well as the incompetence and disingenuousness of the president--were also of concern to many protestors. The various communist factions and the fate of Mumia were barely in evidence at all.

A more serious charge against the ANSWER steering committee, which has resulted in calls for the repudiation of ANSWER from segments of the Jewish community and some others, is its exclusion of Rabbi Michael Lerner from the list of speakers at a demonstration in San Francisco. This issue has been reported and discussed at great length in The Nation and elsewhere. The question, both for those who condemn ANSWER on this ground and for ANSWER itself, is still, "How much political correctness is necessary in order for you to collaborate with someone on a common goal; how much disagreement is sufficient for you to refuse to collaborate on those matters on which you do agree?"

My advice, and my urgent plea, to Professor Gitlin--my academic better, by far--and to all others who quibble over what groups and what individuals and what views are to be included in the effort to reverse the course upon which the Republican Party has set the Republic, is this: Sit down, shut up and get to work on the goals we all share in common and the objectives most central to those goals, starting but by no means ending with the defeat of Bush in next year's election. Our common voice on our common goals will inevitably drown out discussion of peripheral issues by groups on the fringe.

This is no small task. We will have to claim our rightful place as the patriots and defenders of the Constitution and of historic American ideals. We will have to emphasize the contrast between those ideals and the policies of the current U.S. administration. We will have to convince the people who buy into the fear on which the fearmongers trade how those policies incite hatred against the United States that will inevitably make us more vulnerable, not less, to terrorist attacks. We will have to convince them how those policies set the United States against virtually all other nations in the world, set large corporations and religious extremists against law-abiding citizens of our own country, and diminish our own safety and physical security, our livelihoods and future financial security, and the very freedoms and democratic process which the present administration claims falsely to defend. I submit that anyone who is actively pursuing this agenda is our ally, whatever their other shortcomings. EndBlock

Scott Weir lives in Durham and teaches math at Pamlico Community College. At age 57, he's working on a Ph.D. dissertation in economics.

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