During the cold war, protest movements in the West were inevitably dismissedif not attackedas "communist inspired." Whether the Fair Play for Cuba Committee or the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it was simply inconceivable to the media that thousands of people could have come to their own conclusions and organized without the assistance of the Kremlin. In the mutated political climate of the cold war, conflating protest movements with the Evil Empire disqualified them at once. They were dangerous and profoundly un-American, bordering on treason.
With the death of the Soviet bogeyman, new smears have had to be developed. Either protestors are the naive dupes of dictatorssuch as those "apologists for Saddam" who oppose sanctions against Iraqor, in the new vogue, Anarchists, irrational agents of disorder; practically terrorists. The highly visible and disruptive presence of small groups of anarchists at the Battle of Seattle and the recent IMF/World Bank conference has resuscitated the tradition of banging activists over the head with a dreaded "-ism." In case middle Americans were confused by conflicting claims about global capitalism, these Molotov cocktail throwing, black masked punks offer a convenient excuse for replacing analysis with ridicule. Anarchists, eh? Why, their a threat to us all! Lock 'em up!
By merging Noam Chomsky with the Unabomber and concentrating gratuitous attention on a handful of small rock throwing cliques, the major networks and newsweeklies are able to skirt the complexities of the protests as well as the fact that they represented a vast cross-section of the Americanand worldpublic. It should be obvious to anyone who has paid even minimal attention to the protests that anarchism was no more a unifying philosophy than was vegetarianism or lesbianism; it was merely one of many minority philosophies subsumed under a common dislike for market dictatorship. One would have to be blind to claim, as one incompetent SPIN journalist did, that anarchists "took center stage in Seattle." Those 30,000 unionists were merely bodyguards for the 12 teeny bopping smash-the-statists from Eugene, Oregon, you see.
Dismissing critics of corporate-style globalization as 'anarchists' is less than compelling, especially coming from establishment commentators who continuously berate protestors for not adequately addressing the issues. Calling them "smelly anarchists," as the National Review did, or saying they are "really, really stupid," as an otherwise intelligent Franklin Foer did in the New Republic, does not elevate the discussion any more than the placards of the more joky protesters. But if serious critics of unrestrained global capitalism are to come to terms with this criticism, they must be ready to admit that there are indeed some joky protestors. Maybe too many.
Suspects include: violence prone neo-Weathermen kids who are against everything and hence nothing; naked ass people whose philosophies are spelled out in masking tape; the kids who show up with dreads and drums but painfully little evidence of having read a book in the past year. These people present easy targets for those eager to write social justice movements off. Their presence can be partially attributed to the carnival atmosphere of recent protests as well as to the increasing complexity of the issues. Thirty years ago it was simple for someone to be against the invasion of Vietnam and know why; today if a random protestor gets a microphone stuck in his face, he is as likely as not to spew forth an impassioned but discombobulated mess of half-digested abstractions. Listening to some of the protestors in Washington, it is clear we need more nationwide teach-ins. Lots of them.
Which does not vindicate claims that all or most of those in the emergent movementThe Last Left?should go back to being passive consumers of politics as usual. Of course everyone should stay and learn and fight. But the presence of buffoonsand yes, a few anarchistsshould be addressed in some fashion, either by somehow lowering their profile, which is debilitating, or by forming an organization with a platform that sets some boundaries that can be referred to by potential members and the media. A loose, widely varied collection of people is certainly colorful and represents the ideal of pure democracy, but it may be less than efficient in winning the hearts and minds of the millions who must be won over. I fully appreciate drum circles, but they better damn well be backed up some sort of program and serious commitment on the part of the drummers and the dancers. Otherwise cheap attacks on the movement as a group of benighted middle-class freaks, however unjustified, will continue to be made and continue to cause unnecessary rot.
The fact that this "image problem" is largely the fault of big media focusing on image over substance and fringe over core does not make it disappear. In the developed world, students protesting corporate globalization are vulnerable to charges that it is very easy for them to protest, and that they should be disqualified by their privileged, 'uninformed' position. The corporate media will continue to seek targets that make this case easier to make. Until that changes, we must give them as few targets as possible.