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Letter From Ground Zero | The Nation

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Letter From Ground Zero

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In the months before the American-Anglo invasion of Iraq, the peace movement was out on the streets demonstrating. Since the fall of the Iraqi regime, it has been less in evidence. But the silence does not mean inactivity. The movement is thinking. What are its responsibilities toward occupied Iraq and its people? What are the occupation's implications for the Middle East? For the world? What should the United Nations do now? What should the target of protest be? What are the connections between war abroad and the attack on civil liberties and social justice at home? What vision of a better world can the movement offer? And then there is the inescapable corresponding question: What should be done? How big should the movement's tent be? Should the global justice and the global peace movements merge? What should the role of the environmental movement be? To what extent should the US movement join the global movement and to what extent preserve a separate identity? What is its role in the 2004 election?

Read special extracts from Jonathan Schell's new book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and The Will of the People.

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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These questions and others are being asked at hundreds of meetings and in an infinity of conversations, memos and e-mails. For example, on April 26 US Labor Against the War passed a resolution stating, "American working families face a domestic crisis. This crisis has been intensified by the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies of military intervention abroad and neglect at home that benefit corporations and the wealthy at the expense of working families." In Jakarta in May, representatives of major peace and justice groups around the world met and endorsed a document called the "Jakarta Peace Consensus." The Green Party is broadening its agenda to include issues of peace and justice. At the University of California, Irvine, the Citizen Peacebuilding Program held a meeting of West Coast peace groups to take stock and plan for the future. In Washington, several conferences have jostled for attention: one held by Tikkun Community, an offshoot of Tikkun magazine, and one called Take Back America, organized by the Campaign for America's Future. The broadest of the US umbrella groups, United for Peace and Justice, is convening a meeting in Chicago to make its plans.

Anybody with ten minutes of experience in politics will recognize that a process of reflection and planning of this breadth is similar to what must occur when people are founding a political party--that is, a collection of people prepared not just to protest an existing order but to change it and to take responsibility for the results. For a peace and justice party, the concentration on "economics" would be replaced by a concentration on justice (the economy must serve society, rather than the other way around), and the concentration on "security" would be replaced by a concentration on peace (that is, security would be sought through peace, not war). Yet such words as "movement" and "party" are themselves under re-examination. A richer understanding of activism and the way it can change the world is developing. "History," Rebecca Solnit comments in her essay "Acts of Hope" in Orion magazine, "is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent." And the same may be true of movements and parties.

But, of course, there is no Peace and Justice Party, not globally and not locally, nor is there likely to be one anytime soon, and so the question of what to do concretely in the near future remains in the foreground. One date that fairly leaps off the calendar is August 30, 2004, when the Republican Party will begin its convention in New York City, just a few miles from the World Trade Center crater. The time and place were chosen by the GOP for their rich symbolism. The peace and justice movement is likely to show up en masse to do the same. A confrontation of epic proportions may be in the making. Medea Benjamin, a founding director of the global justice organization Global Exchange, foresees "a day of action against the empire." She proposes the message, "The World Says No to Bush." Some activists, she reports, are considering a "huge global electronic vote" for or against the United States imperial ambitions. She also wants the global justice movement to "come to Middle America." The question of whether the global justice movement and the global peace movement would merge, she says, was in fact answered by the worldwide antiwar demonstrations of February 15, when the two became one on the ground. The merged stream will come to New York in August 2004.

Other activists are concentrating more on the elections of 2004. David Cortright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and a member of the guiding committee of the antiwar organization Win Without War, proposes concentrated efforts to defeat Bush in swing states. "Everybody's attention is focused on regime change at home," he comments. "How to do that is less clear. On the one hand, it's easy to understand that we have to be in these battleground states, such as Florida, Ohio and Michigan--not so much in California and New York. But the peace movement also has to address the question of security and the threat of terrorism. Bush can't run on the economy and the environment, but he can run on the fear of the threat of terrorism. Bush political adviser Karl Rove has indicated that's what they intend to do." The potential for conflicts between the local and the global strategies is obvious. A substantial portion of the electorate may resent what they would see as "foreign" intervention in American electoral affairs. Asked if she feared a nationalist backlash in the United States, Medea Benjamin answered, "I almost welcome it." The world is affected by American decisions, she explains, and has a right to participate in them. Cortright approves of demonstrations at the Republican convention but wants them to be "handled right." He says, "The message has to be that the people of New York say no to Bush's attempt to exploit their city for political advantage." He also believes, for reasons both principled and tactical, that any and all demonstrations should be rigorously nonviolent. On the one hand, a movement against violence must not itself be violent. On the other hand, a nonviolent movement is less likely to anger voters.

The relationship of the movement to the election presents other questions. In the United States, the movement now represents a minority view. The need, as at other times in recent US history (including the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements), is to bring this minority view into the mainstream. Yet to achieve anything, the movement must first exist. To that end, places for it to exist must be created. It seems unlikely--unless and until another war is launched--that serial mass demonstrations will continue. Demonstrations are well suited to sharply defined objectives, not to broad goals. On the other hand, the needs of the time are too urgent for just the usual fare of speeches, conferences and so forth.

A global protest at the time of the Republican convention has an inescapable logic that is already propelling events but leaves other needs unmet. First, it is more than a year away. What to do in the meantime? In that meantime, the Democratic Party--the only vehicle with a realistic chance of producing a candidate who can defeat Bush--will have chosen its standard-bearer. Second, the New York demonstration blurs the specifically American responsibility for choosing its own government, which will, after all, be selected by American voters on November 2 of that year. Third, the New York demonstration will in its nature emphasize what it is against more than what it is for: Its time and place, after all, will have been chosen not by itself but by Rove.

Additional venues would appear to be in order. One is needed, I suggest, that is a mass event but not only a protest. Call it a working demonstration. Models have been offered on the global scale by the World Social Forum, which last met in Pôrto Alegre, Brazil, and next will meet in Mumbai, India. At a working demonstration, tens of thousands would assemble not to stand facing a single platform listening to speeches (some of which are interesting and some of which are not) or to march in protest but to attend a profusion of speeches and seminars; to scoop up literature from hundreds of booths; to confer in countless formal and informal meetings--to educate one another, to network, to agitate, to plan, to extend, to discover and strengthen common purposes. In such a meeting, the activity of the movement is not merely represented but conducted.

The aims of the event--to promote peace, justice and democracy and oppose the imperial path--would deliberately be defined loosely. It would be diverse and boisterous. It would be highly televisable. It would not be the instrument of any political party, but it would announce to the world the existence of a new political force. It would be a place for free speech, unpopular speech, provocative speech, unbuttoned speech. Timing is important. A choice of this November would still leave time to organize it and would position it to pour energy into the election campaigns about to begin. If a working demonstration is the place for a movement to be fully itself, then elections are the place for compromises--even, it may be, for the choice of lesser evils.

In short, the movement must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. Just because the movement had established places where it could show itself and be itself without reserve, its members would feel free to work for whatever portion of their agenda they judge is really achievable in the elections of 2004. Such intervention in mainstream politics is a sine qua non of a serious movement. But success in the mainstream will not come without first building independent strength. Courage, like fear, is contagious, and those who are afraid to be themselves can never persuade others of the justice of their cause.

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