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POLITICS OCTOBER 1, 2001

Cambridge Dispatch

At first blush, it seemed like one of those town meetings staged for Dateline: about 35 people, sitting at neatly arranged desks, explaining how they first reacted to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The answers were somber and heartfelt. The emotions--rage, fear, sadness--were familiar. Except that these weren't generic middle Americans. They were left-wing activists, meeting in a classroom at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And when they talked about rage and fear, they weren't only referring to the terrorists. They were also referring to their rage at the U.S. government, and fear at its likely response.

"I felt nothing but anger at the U.S. government because they allowed this to happen," said one participant. "Now they have an excuse ... to do whatever the fuck they want." A young man seized upon the Pearl Harbor analogy, but used it to warn about coming suppression of civil liberties and discrimination against Arab-Americans. "The political repression [of the war on terrorism] will be like nothing we've ever seen," he said. There was sympathy for the victims of the attacks, but a barely hidden satisfaction that, for once, the American public had gotten a taste of its own government's medicine. "Now we know what the people of Belgrade and Baghdad felt like," suggested one woman.

When this meeting was planned several weeks ago, war was not on the agenda. Sponsored by several local anti-globalization groups, it was supposed to be a teach-in about the ways in which the U.S. government helps multinational corporations exploit the developing world. But now, four days after the World Trade Center attacks, all anyone wanted to talk about was America's anticipated retaliation--and how to protest it. Indeed, on campuses and electronic bulletin boards across the country, large swaths of the anti-globalization movement are turning into an antiwar movement. The transformation is unlikely to alter U.S. foreign policy dramatically. But it might just unravel the anti-globalization movement itself.

The metamorphosis owes its speed in part to a coincidence of timing. The entire spectrum of anti-globalization organizations--from mainstream groups like the afl-cio to more radical ones like the Mobilization for Global Justice--had been gearing up to disrupt meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington at the end of September. But protesting just weeks after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history seemed destined to provoke a hailstorm of negative publicity, particularly if the protests turned violent. It would seem insensitive, while taxing Washington's strained resources and inflaming its raw nerves.


And so a few activists suggested an alternative to cancellation, one that saw in the attacks not merely tragedy but opportunity: "Let's turn this protest into a vigil for all international victims of violence whether at the hands of extremists or elite governments," wrote a participant in one popular anti-globalization e-mail list. "We can disseminate information and photographs of the recent US atrocities in combination with previous international atrocities like those in Guatemala, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Palestine, Panama, etc." On the bulletin board of Mobilization for Global Justice, another activist explained that, "We should march to mourn those who died this week, and also those who die and suffer everywhere around the world because of those who would make living beings suffer for the sake of abstractions, be they Islamic fundamentalism or capitalist ideology or national security... This is a unique opportunity to show that our movement is based on peace and justice, while the present world order is based on power and violence."


If all this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Since its coming-out party two years ago in Seattle, the anti-globalization movement has been frequently described as a new force in American politics, the product of a new generation with new arguments and concerns. And it is true that the movement's focus on corporations and global finance, as opposed to governments and armies, represented a change from the leftist campaigns of the 1970s and '80s. But last week, when the terrorist attacks put governments and armies back at the center of American politics, the fresh-faced radicals sounded just like their generational predecessors. And so on Friday, when United Students Against Sweatshops pulled out of its planned demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank, it also urged members to participate in "peace-oriented events" over the coming weeks: "We stand firmly against sentiments of military retaliation," the organization said, sounding exactly like the student activists of 1968 or 1991. Last spring a group of Harvard students seemed to break new ground in campus activism when they staged a sit-in to protest low wages for the school's custodial workers. Now some members of that group are starting the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice; vigils and letter-writing campaigns against military action are already in the works.


But not all of the anti-globalization left is on board. Mindful of its membership's sentiments--not to mention the police officers, firefighters, and other union workers killed in the attacks--the afl-cio not only canceled its planned IMF/World Bank demonstrations, but it also endorsed, in no uncertain terms, military reprisal. "We deplore the assault," said afl-cio President John Sweeney, "and we stand fully behind the President and the leadership of our nation in this time of national crisis." The afl-cio has asked its door-to-door canvassers, initially dispatched to drum up support for the anti-globalization cause, to collect donations on behalf of the terrorism victims instead. On Capitol Hill, some of globalization's fiercest critics, like Marcy Kaptur, the congresswoman from the Rust Belt city of Toledo, are morphing into some of the Democratic Party's biggest hawks.


All of which represents a very serious problem for the left. One of the anti-globalization movement's primary goals--and primary successes--in its short life has been repairing the generation-old gulf between intellectuals and labor. Students have flocked to union-run organizing camps; a group of labor-friendly intellectuals established Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice. Now, with one awful attack, that alliance is splitting at the seams. The hard hats and the hippies are on opposite sides of the barricades once again. At the teach-in at MIT, activists seemed to be gearing up for their generation's Vietnam--a chance to take on U.S. militarism and imperialism in their own time. They seemed to have forgotten that until last week, that was precisely the debate the American left was trying to avoid.

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