WASHINGTON — Last Friday night, I attended the opening panel of the National Conference on Organized Resistance, expecting to find the Youth Chapter of the Angry Left. Instead, I found a defeated, Sad Sack Left.
Since the panel was held at American University in the heart of “blue” territory (Kerry got around 90% of the D.C. vote), I anticipated throngs of radicals. Surely they’re emboldened and eager to consider “Beyond the Indefinite Empire: Post-Election Organizing.” In the absence of such crowds, I passed the correct building, but doubled back when I saw two young men with water bottles, one of whom wore long underwear under his T-shirt. Eureka!
Trailing them, I found my way to a 300-person-capacity lecture hall. Maybe 75 folks milled about. Late? No, 6 p.m., right on time. The revolution must not be in a hurry. I felt suspect even incognito, in jeans and Carhardt jacket. I had no piercings, no deliberate dishevelment, no “Not My President” t-shirt, no radicals-in-arms. My beard was my only saving grace. Scanning the room, I saw pink bracelets. Registration? The revolution must not be free. As we waited, one young man protested business casual: “I’ll wear a button-down, but I won’t tuck it in, just to let them know I’m still human.”
They got rolling at 6:15, at which point it would have been generous to estimate that the room was a third-full. The first speaker was Chris Crass, admired by the crowd for his anti-racist work with white parts of the global justice movement. Sporting black suit and tie, blue shirt, and mustache/chin strap facial hair, he greeted the revolution, “Hi comrades.” They replied with a murmur.
And so began an hour of self-recrimination. They didn’t yell. They didn’t cry. But they sure came close. Nation contributing editor Liza Featherstone, a tallish woman in all black — hair, shirt, jacket — plugged her book about the left “suffering from a lack of engagement with ideas.” Even though the left proudly professes its lack of a worldview, she said, its ideology is all-consuming. It’s a deviation she calls “activistism.”
The left constantly examines its own race, class, and gender, she said, but it fails to ask: What’s the point of action? The Million Worker March, she quipped, was more like a couple thousand. About the counter-Inaugural protests, she noted, “What were we saying? That the people have spoken and we disagree?” The right wing builds structures the left neglects, such as think tanks and journals, she said. “Have you been to the Heritage Foundation?” she asked. “It’s opulent, but it shows the importance they accord to such ideas.”
Notorious University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen — the prototypical post-9/11, Blame America Firster — was also sulking. He recalled his great sacrifices for the radical cause, like giving up hair cuts and shaves. “I looked like a lunatic,” explained Jensen. But in spite of such advances, he conceded, “We failed. We’ve gotten the s*** kicked out of us for the last 30, 40 years. … The other side out-organized us and out-thought us.” Jensen said he pushed past the typical post-election temptations — “drunkenness, Canada, suicide” — but he’s still on a multi-week bender. The answer isn’t more organization, he stressed. The left needs some deep reflection: “Take some time to mourn the consequences of our failure.” Preaching to the choir can’t be the problem, he added, since there is no choir anymore.
Cindy Milstein, a board member for the Institute for Anarchist Studies, attempted a little hope: Radicals have harassed meetings of world leaders, raised the cost of business, and shut down streets. They marched between national party conventions. People were more political than ever last year, but there was no thought or vision behind their politics. They need to learn from Bush. He embodied values, albeit “white, English-speaking, terroristic fundamentalist” ones. The right has a consistent program and values. They’ve captured the hearts, minds, and policy of “a geographic area we call the United States.” The visionary plan of the “Christian right” worked on single issues in institutions, the culture, and the economy “in a hell of a strong way.” They dominate the schools, radio, books, music, think tanks, and city councils.
That’s how it went. This crowd couldn’t even summon Ohio conspiracy theories. What was billed as a rally seemed more like a funeral.
It was time to leave when Crass announced the next disappointment. The crowd eagerly expected all-star activist Jaggi Singh to show up, but he was denied entry into the United States. Nary a peep from the choir. Crass ranted about systematic harassment of the left, but couldn’t muster the anger for a battle cry. Requesting a moment of silence, Crass asked the assembled to “send a whole lotta love” to Jaggi. A scattered few bowed their heads. On the Christian right they would call that a prayer.