by Justin Raimondo
The organizing meeting of San Francisco's Ad Hoc Coalition to Stop the U.S./NATO War in the Balkans was held in the Mission district, the hub of the political and cultural milieu that is the Bay Area Left. I got there early, checked out the meeting hall, and went to get a bite to eat. The streets were humming with people, and surely the word eclectic was designed with this neighborhood in mind: scruffy Bohemians, white-bread yuppies, Latinos, and miscellaneous others interacting within a landscape of coffeehouses, tacquerias, bookstores, and newly opened bistros with slick facades and pricey menus. At the corner store the hot chili peppers are hanging from the ceiling, Mexican pastries are piled on the counter, and the vegetable bin is filled with plantains and cactus fruit. I chug-a-lug a carton of milk, as if to fortify myself for the coming struggle. On one level I dread the shockwave that is likely to result from the discovery that the coalition has a self-confessed rightist in its midst: it is all so predictable. On another level, however, I look forward to the ruckus this is going to cause, and not only because it will put me in the spotlight, and allow me to make a grand entrance into the politics of the coalition. It will also confirm my belief that most of these leftists are basically dolts, often charming and hardworking but basically as ignorant and prejudiced as the bourgeois they abhor. One could argue that in anticipating the reaction I was in part helping to create it, but in fact the reality was not exactly in line with my expectations.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
The meeting attracted a large number of people, quite large, apparently, compared to their last meeting; the organizers seemed at once gratified and a little taken aback by their own success in attracting new people, and it showed in the looks on their faces as they looked out over the crowd, about 65 to 70 people sitting in a vaguely circular arrangement of chairs. As the meeting was called to order, the agenda was presented for our approval: an introduction, a political report, an evaluation of Saturday's rally, and a brainstorming session. The first order of business was introductions, an exercise designed to satiate the curiosity of the old-timers: who were all these newcomers, anyway? The two co-chairs introduced themselves, and the first few people gave their names, but as we went around the room people began to identify themselves by name and political affiliation: the people from the International Socialist Organization (ISO) started it, and the Socialist Action people took them up on it. As it turned out, the room was fairly evenly dominated by people from these two groups, with a few from the tiny Organizer grouplet, and a few freaks from "Food Not Bombs," the left-anarchist street people, what the Marxists would call "lumpen elements." And then there was the woman who sat there with a scarf wrapped around her face, her eyes obscured by thick glasses: every once in a while she would surreptitiously lift the scarf, and take a sip of her Coke, and then hurriedly pull it down again.
But every public meeting in San Francisco takes in its fair share of outright wackos and certified mental cases: it is a city that is in many ways one big asylum. Indeed this meeting seemed to have far less of that than many other such local gatherings. The attendees were, for the most part, very articulate and passionately interested in ideas, in fine points of ideology, and very knowledgeable about the war, its causes and history. Perhaps they were a bit too articulate, for the meeting seemed to be endless speeches delivered with one eye to History and the other to Hollywood: at times, we seemed to be living in a remake of Reds and I felt certain that sooner or later Warren Beatty would jump up on a chair and lead us all in a rousing rendition of "The Internationale."
The ISOers, who seemed to have a large number of Brits in their ranks, relished these moments when they were able to exhibit the full range of their erudition. Ralph Shoenmen, the leader of the Organizer grouplet, was in fine form, exhorting his rapt audience to put the war "in a class context." His remarks, which seemed to go on forever, were filled with phrases like "the social gains of the workers, and he didn't seem to be speaking so much as reading or writing an article, and not a very original or stylistically original one at that. At the core of the meeting, bringing it down to earth, giving it structure and direction, was the Socialist Action group, made up of some very dedicated, talented, and hardworking people who have a lot of experience in coalition politics. They came out of the old Socialist Workers Party, which used to be the main Trotskyist party in the United States and which played such an instrumental part in building the massive antiwar mobilizations of the sixties. I had worked with them before: in the antidraft registration and antiwar actions of the late seventies, in the Polish solidarity movement, and, farther back, in the movement against the 1978 Briggs Initiative, in California, which would have banned all homosexuals from the public schools. They are easy to work with, and invariably practical-minded, and I was grateful for their presence in the room.
A BOOK REVIEW
Parenthetically For anyone who wants to see how a political movement developed out of the massive opposition to the Vietnam war, one has only to read Fred Halstead's Out Now: A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War (New York: Monad Press, 1978). Halstead was a top SWP leader and organizer who fought ruthlessly and largely successfully for the formula that built a massive antiwar movement from the ground up: a single issue coalition designed to attract and mobilize the broadest sectors of society into a movement that could defeat the War Party on the home front. A grizzled veteran of the Old Left's political wars, Halstead had to put up with the childish antics of the yippies and hippies and the sectarian antics of the ultra-lefts, who could not see the difference between building a political party and a broad movement to oppose the war.
OUT OF THE CLOSET
The occasion for my own intervention was the discussion of the recent German Green party convention, which had endorsed the war policy of the German government, whose foreign minister is now a Green party leader, Joshka Fischer. How could a party ostensibly devoted to pacifism be won over to the side of the War Party? We should direct our attention and our arguments to this Green-quasi-"pacifist milieu, and challenge them to debate. With this suggestion, I could hold it in no longer, and I raised my hand to speak. It was some time before I was called on, however. Although much was made of the "democratic" nature of the proceedings, with everyone supposedly given a chance to speak, in practice the leaders of the various grouplets were given preference, and new people were looked on with outright suspicion by the male co-chair, who squinted at them as if he were wondering whether they had wandered into the wrong meeting. Finally, by means of sheer persistence, I managed to get the floor. It is foolish to believe that the antiwar movement is the exclusive preserve of the Left, I averred. Not when the American Legion has taken a militant stand against this war "although they were somehow absent from the speakers' podium of your rally." Such people as Arianna Huffington, Pat Buchanan, and Ollie North not to mention the Republican majority in Congress have come out against this war in no uncertain terms. I gave a brief evaluation of the recent rally, comparing it to a company picnic at which everybody knew everybody else, and a good time was had by all but really just a beginning. Naturally, in coming up with number, the proud creators of this event exaggerated the numbers: it was estimated at the meeting that as many as 2,000 showed up for the march and rally, whereas the truth is more like 800 to 1,000 (tops). It was also claimed that this was by far the biggest antiwar event that had taken place in the Bay Area to date, but clearly this is wrong: I attended the International Action Center (IAC)/Workers World Party (WWP) rally held a couple of weeks ago, and that was clearly bigger, at around 1200. While I was not impolitic enough to point this out, I was dumb enough to make a few snide remarks about the "cultural moments," opining that the performance art billed as "poetry" was not music to every ear. This raised a laugh, but also raised the hackles of the organizers, who in their subsequent remarks made a point of endorsing the "cultural component" of the event. I was, of course, more than half-joking, but then ideologues are notoriously humorless and I should have known how they would react. My main point, however, was not lost on them: the absolute necessity of reaching out to the broad masses Commies love phrases like "broad masses," which I suppose translates into "ordinary people," i.e. people quite unlike themselves. My main point was that instead of reaching out to the Birkenstock crowd, who have followed Bill Clinton this far down the garden path and obviously intend to go all the way, we should be reaching out to the American Legion and to the local "talk radio" crowd which is on our side to begin with.
A MINORITY OF ONE
If my aim was to shock some of the leftists there, I certainly succeeded in that but then again, after the fall of Communism and the complete demolition of the Marxist project, one gets the feeling that nothing could possibly shock them anymore. You could see the shock on their faces, at least some of them, but what could they say? I was, after all, quite right: most of the opposition to this war on the national level is coming from the Right, from the Republican Congress and conservative commentators who oppose it virtually to a man. The discussion soon shifted away from general comments and assessments of the past action, and on to future actions: a very big issue was what attitude to take toward the June 5th demonstrations called by the International Action Center/Workers World Party, which has set up a rival "Emergency Committee Against the War in the Balkans." The ostensible difference between them, and the point of unity of the Ad Hoccers, is their differing perspectives on Milosevic and the Kosovars. The real difference, however, is more strategic and stylistic than ideological. The IAC group, as I have written before, is completely sectarian, and wouldn't think of sharing the same stage with a reactionary like myself. The Ad Hoccers, on the other hand, insist on doing everything democratically, with everyone given their say in theory, at least and a policy of nonexclusion. This principle of democratic procedures and open debate was put to the test, however, by the emergence of an open Right-wing presence, and I must say that the Ad Hoccers did not fare very well. For I found that after my initial remarks it was almost impossible to get the floor. After about an hour and a half of trying, I asked the chair on a point of information what was the order of speakers: he replied that he had a written list. "Read the list, please." He pretended not to hear or understand what I was saying, but that wasn't going to work with me. My voice got louder and more insistent: "Would you read the list of speakers, please? I think we all have the right to know who is speaking in what order." He then admitted that there was no such list, and that he had it all in his head, i.e. he was arbitrarily calling on the same people over and over again. This became apparent in the next half hour, as he still refused to call on me in an obvious and insulting manner: undeterred, I kept my hand aloft. Finally shamed into a semblance of fairness, the co-chairs gave me the floor: why, I asked, do we have to take a position on the Kosovar national question? We are simply against this war, period: let each of the groups involved in the coalition come up with their own position on this complex question, but the way to forge a unified and effective antiwar movement is to oppose our own government's actions. This visceral leftist hostility to Serbian nationalism is, of course, the same hostility that animates support for the war in Clintonoid-Social Democratic-Green circles. The lone Frenchman was vehement in denouncing all Serbs as being "fascists" and seemed fixated on the idea that we needed to exclude them from our events. That this outrageous suggestion albeit raised by a single person was seriously discussed, and not dismissed out of hand, is proof positive of just how far the demonization of the Serbs by the American media has gone. I then realized just why the Serbs had not been much in evidence at Saturday's demonstration, and why the IAC seemed to have the Serbs as practically their captive constituency. Someone made a snide remark about the few Serbian flags that had been flown at the rally but why shouldn't a people cling to their flag as a symbol of resistance when their country is invaded?
I am loath to describe the following incident, but since this is a diary, and thus a kind of confessional, I cannot omit it no matter how bad it makes the Coalition look and in spite of the fact that I am going to be exhorting you to join that Coalition in the very next paragraph. It happened like this: after the meeting, smoking outside the front door, I fell into conversation with a young man who seemed eager to discuss the meaning and significance of the new antiwar movement. He was bright, knowledgeable, sincere, and we got into quite a discussion: he had seen Antiwar.com, and visits us with some regularity, and was complimenting me on the site (I should explain to him, now, and to everyone else, that this site is mainly the work of Eric Garris, and not me, all my energies being used up in this column). At any rate, we both decided to attend the "Outreach Committee" meeting, to be held in a local cafe: I was eager to let them know that I could let them have a page on our site to post whatever they want, and keep in constant communication with their local constituency. However, I didn't get the chance. On the way to the coffeehouse, but a block away, the chair of this committee the same male CO-chair who had shown such reluctance to give me the floor remarked that he wasn't sure that he wanted to get on the same platform with right-wingers, who as everybody knows are notorious racists. "Well, gee," I said, "I'm a right-winger. Does that mean you are calling me a racist?" "Well, I don't know." "You don't know?" "No," he said, "I don't know you." "In other words," I said, "stopping in the doorway to the coffeehouse, "your answer is yes, you are accusing me of being a racist." He admitted it to the astonishment, I might add, of the other people in the group and by that time I had had it. "Well, until you decide whether I am or not, why don't you let me know, and then I'll attend your committee meeting." As I turned to leave, I could hear the nice young man who had been so interested in what I had to say protesting to the committee chairman: "But you can't do that!"
THE EXCEPTION PROVES THE RULE
Oh well, it was getting late, anyway just as it is getting late right now: Good Lord, it's after four in the morning! Time to finish this up! and I caught a cab home. Far from discouraging libertarians and conservatives from joining in a leftist-dominated coalition such as this one, my experience should egg them on: for the majority of people, I think, were not hostile to the idea of broadening the antiwar movement to include anti-imperialists of the Right, so long as they are sincerely opposed to this war and dedicated to stopping it. This one jerk was the exception that proves the rule: the left will have to acknowledge the validity of rightist opposition to the war, or else it is in danger of completely losing touch with reality.
ALEXANDER COCKBURN WILL DEBATE THE WAR PARTY
In spite of all the palaver, some real decisions were made: plans for a June 26 debate featuring Alexander Cockburn, the eccentric and acerbic Marxist critic-at-large, whose Counterpunch articles have made so many "Spotlight" pieces for Antiwar.com (including today's). But who do we get to debate him? I am on the committee in charge of that, and tomorrow I will be calling the office of Congressman Tom Lantos (D-CA), one of the most belligerent and obnoxiously self-righteous partisans of the War Party, and certainly the one with the biggest mouth and the most pretensions. Wouldn't you just love to see that particular bag of hot air punctured? Or how about our own Congresswoman, the ever-loyal Clintonian foot soldier, Rep. Nancy Pelosi? She wouldn't dare take on Cockburn would she? Now that is one massacre I would truly love to see.
LIVE AND LEARN
And so my expectations were not fulfilled, at least not in the way I expected. As it turned out, the leftists in the coalition, far from being in the least bit doltish, are quite intelligent and not at all as bigoted as I would have liked to think. Perhaps they, too, have learned that preconceptions are often barriers to true understanding, and that at least some of their more unreasonable prejudices have no basis in reality. Is a Left-Right coalition against the war really possible? We shall see. I only know that it is necessary if this war is going to be stopped before it really gets into high gear.
TO BAY AREA READERS
Okay, I did that alone, my friends: ventured into what one might consider hostile territory, and, as you can readily see, I sure could have used some help. Well, it isn't too late: the Ad Hoc Coalition has weekly organizing meetings, and there is plenty of work to be done: outreach, literature production, fundraising, tabling. The Coalition is also in the planning stages of a July 10 rally. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, we really need you to get involved. Please show up at the next meeting, on Monday, May 24th, at Centro del Pueblo, 474 Valencia Street, in San Francisco (near the 16th and Mission BART station). The meeting room is in the auditorium, on the second floor. Come help build an ideologically diverse and spirited antiwar movement that has the gumption and the imagination to successfully oppose the "humanitarian" extermination of the Serbian nation. For more information, call the Ad Hoc Coalition: 415-765-7650.
Please Support Antiwar.com
A contribution of $20 or more gets you a copy of Justin Raimondo's Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans, a 60-page booklet packed with the kind of intellectual ammunition you need to fight the lies being put out by this administration and its allies in Congress. Send contributions to
Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (forthcoming from Prometheus Books).