Review of Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin, Basic Books: 174 pp.,$22.50
Two years ago, I was invited to the South Australian desert to meet a group of Aboriginal elders who were fighting a radioactive waste dump on their land. I went to Coober Pedy expecting to be bombarded with alarming facts about toxic waste leaking into groundwater, cancer risks and the half-life of radium. Something else happened instead. Immediately upon my arrival, I was scooped up by a group of young environmentalists who dressed like "Mad Max" characters and took me camping.
For five nights we slept by a bonfire on the cracked red earth under the stars. During the days they showed me secret sources of fresh water, plants used for bush medicines, hidden eucalyptus-lined rivers where the kangaroos come to drink. It was amazingly beautiful, but by the third day I started getting restless. When, I asked 22-year-old Nina Brown, were we going to get down to work? She replied that the senior Aboriginal women, who called themselves the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, had taught her that before you can fight, you have to know what you are fighting for.
On April 6, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz spelled it out: There will be no role for the United Nations in setting up an interim government in Iraq. The US-run regime will last at least six months, "probably...longer than that."
And by the time the Iraqi people have a say in choosing a government, the key economic decisions about their country's future will have been made by their occupiers. "There has got to be an effective administration from day one," Wolfowitz said. "People need water and food and medicine, and the sewers have to work, the electricity has to work. And that's a coalition responsibility."
The process of getting all this infrastructure to work is usually called "reconstruction." But American plans for Iraq's future economy go well beyond that. Rather, the country is being treated as a blank slate on which the most ideological Washington neoliberals can design their dream economy: fully privatized, foreign-owned and open for business.
As a kid, I had trouble understanding why my parents and siblings lived in Montreal and the rest of my family – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – were scattered across the United States. On long car trips to visit relatives in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, my parents would tell us about the Vietnam war, and the thousands of US peace activists who, like us, snuck across the border to Canada in the late sixties.
I was told that the Canadian government not only stayed officially neutral during the war, it offered sanctuary for US citizens who refused to fight in a war they believed was wrong. Derided as “draft dodgers” at home, we were welcomed in Canada as conscientious objectors.
My family’s decision to emigrate to Canada was made before I was born, but these romantic stories planted an idea in my head when I was far too young to fend it off: I believed that Canada had a relationship with the world that was radically different from that of the United States; that despite cultural similarities and geographic proximity, more humane and less interventionist values guided our dealings. In short, I thought we were sovereign.
On a muddy piece of squatted land in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Florencia Vespignani is planning her upcoming tour of the United States, where she will be speaking with students and activists about Argentina's resistance movements.
"I'm a bit scared," she confesses.
"Of the war?" I ask.
"No. Of the plane. We have wars here all the time."
Vespignani, a 33-year-old mother and community organizer, is a leader in the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados (MTD), one of dozens of organizations of unemployed workers, known as piqueteros, that have emerged out of the wreckage of Argentina's economy. When Florencia describes life as war, it is not a metaphor. In a country where more than half the people are living in poverty and 27 children die of hunger each day, she has simply learned that to stay alive, you have to go to the streets and fight-for every piece of bread, for every student's pencil, for every night's rest.
At the Pentagon they call it the “Voila Moment.”
That’s when Iraqi soldiers and civilians , with bombs raining down on Baghdad, suddenly scratch their heads and say to themselves: “These bombs aren’t really meant to kill me and my family, they are meant to free us from an evil dictator!” At that point, they thank Uncle Sam, lower their weapons, abandon their posts, and rise up against Saddam Hussein. Voila!
Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work, according to the experts in “psychological operations” who are already waging a fierce information war in Iraq. The “Voila Moment” made its first foray into the language of war last Monday, when a New York Times reporter quoted an unnamed senior U.S. military official using the term.
Poor Endy Chávez, outfielder for the Navegantes del Megallanes, one of Venezuela's big baseball teams. Every time he comes up to bat, the local TV sportscasters start in with the jokes. "Here comes Chávez. No not the pro-Cuban dictator Chávez, the other Chávez." Or "This Chávez hits baseballs, not the Venezuelan people."
In Venezuela, even color commentators are enlisted in the commercial media's open bid to oust the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez. Andrés Izarra, a Venezuelan television journalist, says that the campaign has done so much violence to truthful information on the national airwaves that the four private TV stations have effectively forfeited their right to broadcast. "I think their licenses should be revoked," he says.
The key word at this year's World Social Forum, which ended yesterday in Porto Alegre, Brazil, was 'big.'
Big attendance: more than a hundred thousand delegates in all! Big speeches: more than 15,000 crammed in to see Noam Chomsky! And most of all, big men. Lula da Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, came to the Forum and addressed 75,000 adoring fans. Hugo Chavez, the controversial president of Venezuela, paid a 'surprise' visit to announce that his embattled regime was part of the same movement as the forum itself.
"The left in Latin America is being reborn," Mr. Chavez declared, as he pledged to vanquish his opponents at any cost. As evidence of this rebirth, he pointed to Lula's election in Brazil, Lucio Gutierrez's victory in Ecuador and Fidel Castro's tenacity in Cuba.
But wait a minute: how on earth did a gathering that was supposed to be a showcase for new grassroots movements become a celebration of men with a penchant for three hour speeches about smashing the oligarchy?
How do you celebrate the anniversary of something that is impossible to define? That was the question faced by tens of thousands of Argentinians on December 20 2002 as they marched from all corners of Buenos Aires to the historic Plaza de Mayo. It was a year ago to the day since the first “Argentinazo”, a word that is completely untranslatable into English or, for that matter, Spanish. The Argentinazo was not a riot exactly, although it sure looked like one on the television, with looters ransacking supermarkets and mounted police charging into crowds; 33 people were killed across the country. It wasn’t a revolution, either, although it sort of looked like one on the face of it, with angry crowds storming the seat of government and forcing the president to resign in disgrace.
But unlike a classic revolution, the Argentinazo was not organised by an alternate political force that wanted to take power for itself. And unlike a riot, it pulsed with a unified and unequivocal demand: the immediate removal of all the corrupt politicians who have grown rich while Argentina, once the envy of the developing world, spiralled into poverty.
Well, it could have been true.
That's what Senator Hillary Clinton had to say after finding out that five Pakistani men did not actually sneak into the United States through Canada so they could blow up New York on New Year's Eve. Because they were never in the United States at all, and they weren't terrorists, and the whole thing was dreamed up by a man who forges passports for a living.
At the height of the search for the professional liar's imaginary nonterrorists, Clinton had blamed Canada and its "unpatrolled, unsupervised" border. But even when the hoax came to light, Clinton didn't rescind the accusation: Because the Canadian border is so porous, she reasoned, "this hoax seemed all too believable." It was, in other words, a useful hoax, helping US citizens to see how unsafe they really are. And that is useful, especially if you are among the growing number of free-market economists, politicians and military strategists pushing for the creation of "Fortress NAFTA," a continental security perimeter stretching from Mexico's southern border to Canada's northern one.
A bunch of people have written to the site and asked me if I planned to respond to the attack on me in the current issue of The Economist. Frankly, I think the article
is so nuts, it’s not even worth responding. But I would like to add some context that might help explain why an article so personal and childish was allowed to go to press in a publication that prides itself on being a cool voice of reason and authority on all matters economic.