Something Happening Here? Political Moment Makes Us Feel Off Balance

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

-- from "For What It's Worth," by Stephen Stills, Buffalo Springfield

If you are feeling overloaded with public crises and politics is causing you free-floating anxiety, you are not alone. We are in the middle of a political hyper-moment.

Control of Congress is totally up for grabs in Tuesday's elections; war drums continue to beat loudly, advocating interventions considered insane by many Americans; we have a group of leaders who often sound like a right-wing military junta bent on global domination; and the topper, Paul Wellstone's death, was an incredibly shocking and disorienting jolt.

Wellstone's death provokes feelings of déjà vu, as so many liberal and progressive political leaders have fallen by the wayside (while Sen. Strom Thurmond persists into his nineties).

The shocking timing and symbolism of Paul's family and staff dying on that small plane in Northern Minnesota also provoked many who otherwise disdain conspiracy theory to wonder, fleetingly, if foul play could be behind the incident. This may be a paranoid anxiety, springing from the painful loss of one of our beacons of hope. But that sabotage came so quickly to mind says something about our political environment.

In May, John Nichols wrote a haunting article in the Nation about Wellstone: "Paul Wellstone is a hunted man. Minnesota's senior senator is not just another Democrat on White House political czar Karl Rove's target list, in an election year when the Senate balance of power could be decided by the voters of a single state. Rather, getting rid of Wellstone is a passion for Rove, Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the special-interest lobbies that fund the most sophisticated political operation ever assembled by a presidential administration. 'There are people in the White House who wake up in the morning thinking about how they will defeat Paul Wellstone,' a senior Republican aide confides. 'This one is political and personal for them.'"

When AlterNet's article by Michael I. Niman, Was Paul Wellstone Murdered?, drew such a multiplicity of responses, some challenging Niman's thinking and others thanking us for posting it, we knew we had hit a national nerve.

Part of the job of publishing public interest information is to raise what some think are unraisable questions. In the end, what we think about what happened with Wellstone, or Mel Carnahan or Martin Luther King and JFK for that matter, has a lot more to do with who we are as individuals than some presentation of "competing facts." When we don't know what really happened, then all we can really learn is something about ourselves.

By all accounts, except those of Republicans and Jesse Ventura, the Wellstone memorial on Tuesday was an extraordinary event, and many across the country watched it on CSPAN. But as my friend Colin Greer points out, some of the speakers -- especially those in power like Tom Harken -- talked much about Wellstone's awesome principles and integrity but did not claim them for their own, as in, "I will go forward like Paul Wellstone." They seemed to imply that Wellstone was wonderful -- but we don't really want to be like him; that would require too much bravery, or too much principle or sacrifice.

Silver Linings

Fortunately, there is a bright side to the current mess. The emergence of some of the ingredients essential for a peace movement is encouraging. The numbers, diversity and enthusiasm visible at last Saturday's demonstrations provide the elements for a counterbalance to Bush's armchair warriors. But this is just the beginning. The really hard work comes next.

There clearly is peace momentum as polls show shrinking support for war. Even the New York Times finally realized that something was happening, and compensated for its pathetic story by Lynette Clemetson on Sunday. In a glowing article on Wednesday, Kate Zernike acknowledged that 100,000 to 200,000 people marched in Washington and that the DC event was a '60s moment, raising the specter of young and old working together for peace.

At least the Times is smart enough to realize that it had alienated many tens of thousands of readers by reflecting a reality that was out of line with everyone's experience, and the editors needed to make amends. That's a consequence of momentum

But a full-fledged peace effort with serious political clout has to grow much wider and deeper than the first blush of Saturday's successes. The marginalized, sectarian subtext of the peace movement was very evident in San Francisco, constantly threatening to pull the whole effort off-message with talk of defeating the pro-capitalist political parties and the raising of every political mistake and adventure the U.S. has screwed up from Panama to Grenada to the Middle East. People, especially those marching, don't need a history lesson; they need a clear path to how together we can stop this war.

Leading trade unionists must come forward and invest time and resources because many of their organizing efforts will be forced to the sidelines and money for social issues will be stolen if we embark on this latest global misadventure.

Hopefully many leading environmental NGOs -- Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Earth Island Institute, Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club, NRDC, Environmental Defense Fund, World Wildlife Federation and the hundreds of regional green groups nation-wide -- will not see the war in Iraq and the overall conflict in the Middle East, as "distraction" from "our" issues. The problem is that war is more than a "distraction." A war in Iraq will be bigger than a fire-a-few-missiles-at-Sudan. The war and occupation of Iraq will cost billions -- some estimates are as high as $200 billion.

We need to see environmental leaders step up and take strong anti-war stances, like John Passacantando, the head of Greenpeace. Passacantando wrote on AlterNet, "We oppose the use of violence by all nations and believe that each and every one must abide by international law if we are to avoid the massive human carnage seen in the 20th century."

The word on the street is that the Sierra Club's board of directors is considering voting on an anti-war resolution. Taking a position on war issues is not without precedent for the conservation group: The Club came out for nuclear freeze many years ago. Let's hope the board finds the courage to make a strong statement against war in Iraq.

And let's also hope that at a time when many Democrats are opting for political expediency, some of our progressive political leaders take a deeper inspiration from Paul Wellstone, not just in words that honor his memory, but in deed and action.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.

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