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It’s Just Not That Simple

We first saw them on a side street, standing clustered with their signs, looking for all the world like another feeder march waiting to join the seething mass of humanity on Seventh Avenue. Then, audaciously, a bunch of them were in among us, something I’ve rarely seen a counterprotesting group do. Their signs were big, professional, and sarcastic as all get-out. “Saddam only killed his own people—it’s none of our business,” read one. “Communism only killed 100 million people. Let’s give it a second chance,” read another. Their arguments were wildly simplistic, ignored lots of facts (let’s see—how many other leaders we still fund kill their own people? And aren’t we now already putting Baathists back in power?) and deliberately twisted the true intentions of the vast majority of the protesters present. There was a tiny handful of them compared to the hundreds of thousands of people there to protest Bush. Counterprotesters are to be expected. So why did they creep me out in a way that antis (to use protestor slang from all sides of the aisle) usually don’t?

The Protest Warriors (a tightly organized and committed group who started by infiltrating the big antiwar protests in San Francisco) are a little different than the counterprotesters one is used to seeing. Rather than just presenting their own rhetoric—like either the proud families of soldiers or the evangelical wackos down the road who seemed to think the marchers were going to hell for wanting a different president—they were directly attacking the anti-Bush march, and not on a knee-jerk, hippies-go-home level. They were putting forth intellectual (though simplistic, partial, and flawed) attacks on some of the weakest and most questionable rhetoric that does float around in the antiwar and anti-Bush movement. Responding to a wrongheaded war with only “Give peace a chance” does invite signs like “Other than ending slavery, Nazism, Fascism, and Communism, war hasn’t accomplished anything!” (Never mind that war didn’t end communism, even where it did end.)

This is where avoiding complexity in the name of soundbites and internal unity comes back to bite the left.

There is only one simple thing that can be said about issues like war, dictators, foreign policy, political and economic theories, democracy, and trying to push the world at large toward more respect for human rights. None of it is simple. Anyone who says otherwise is immediately suspect, whether you agree with their final conclusion or not.

Granted, mass protests are not the best place for hashing out the subtleties of how to support the indigenous middle class and resistance movements like those that carried out the Velvet Revolution, balancing various economic, diplomatic, and strategic approaches, empowering women, providing alternative education opportunites to schools run by extremists, limiting arms sales, and truly committing ourselves to studying, learning, and practicing nonviolent conflict resolution. They are a place for turning out in numbers to be counted—in this case to show opposition to the direction that a few people’s very, very oversimplified notion of the world is leading us.

On the other hand, that doesn’t exempt us from being thoughtful about what we do say at mass rallies, and being aware of the company we keep.

One example is International ANSWER. Using an incredible organizing prowess and basic, inoffensive messages on the signs they hand out, ANSWER has become one of the largest and most visible voices of the antiwar movement. But its leaders, originally mostly representatives of the Workers World Party, also refuse to acknowledge that there was any problem with Saddam Hussein’s regime (which they manage to construe as socialist, because he nationalized oil), are apologists for Slobodan Milosevic, won’t hear a bad word against Castro or North Korea, and are absolutely inflexible on the issue of Israel and Palestine, going to the length of refusing to have one of the most moderate, level-headed voices on this most complex of issues, Rabbi Michael Lerner, speak at one of their protests because he won’t rule out supporting a bi-state solution in which Palestinians give up their right to return.

They clearly have the right to their opinion, and the right to express it on the streets with the rest of us. Disagreement and debate are healthy. But when the rest of the antiwar movement lets such simplistic nonsense go unchallenged, then groups like the Protest Warriors and others can go on about the “communist” groups funding the left from behind the scenes, and not be as off base as we’d like them to be. (Not to mention that when groups calling themselves socialists start apologizing for Stalin, they smear a long history of workers’ rights victories and valuable contributions to our society made by people committed to an economic theory of communism, as opposed to totalitarian regimes that were also nominally “Communist.”) We can be against the economic blockade of Cuba, and even recognize its successes in literacy and health care, without denying that Castro jails political dissidents, which is clearly a bad thing. The world is complicated.

This is not actually about communism, though, nor about the couple dozen sectarian communist groups that wander these protests. This is about needing to guard against protest soundbite mentality just like we do against prime-time TV soundbites. This is about needing to practice offering and explaining positive alternatives, needing to not pretend that bringing our troops home will actually restore peace and sovereignty to Iraq by itself. We don’t have a monopoly on clever slogans; we don’t have a monopoly on righteous political outrage. Where we can take the high ground is offering answers that don’t pretend the world is a simple place.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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