On the Left, Off the Wall

In Miami, the antiwar movement is making some people kooky

These are good days to be a revolutionary socialist. Just ask Mary Ann Schmidt, of Miami's chapter of the Socialist Workers Party. "We signed up four new members at that demonstration," Schmidt boasts, referring to the 100,000-strong rally on October 26 in Washington, D.C., to protest the looming war with Iraq. There's a new mood in the air, she declares, one that's convincing more and more people to consider radical ideas.

Of course, for those of us not quite as thrilled as Schmidt with the prospect of establishing a Cuban-style "workers and farmers state" here in America, the horizon is a bit gloomier. That much was clear from last month's packed house of nearly 300 inside the Coral Gables Congregational Church.

Judging by that impressive Tuesday-night turnout for a teach-in by the Concerned People Opposed to War in Iraq (CPOWI)-- from college students to middle-age professionals to retirees -- an awful lot of Miamians are indeed anxious and full of questions about this imminent conflict. Yet the answers they're getting from this nascent antiwar movement are one-sided at best -- and at times downright bizarre.

If the Bush administration's true motivations regarding Iraq seem to have little to do with the external threat Saddam Hussein poses, much the same can be said for this movement's figureheads. The CPOWI's panel of local academics (oddly rounded out by a creaky John Anderson, proving the erstwhile presidential candidate was -- just barely -- still alive) quickly identified who they deemed the actual villains.

Jennifer Uleman, a University of Miami assistant philosophy professor, angrily decried what she called a post-September 11 conservative assault on free speech. She had worried about mentioning this teach-in to her classes, lest some conservative students "report me for being an ideologue."

"This is how Germans must have felt" during the Weimar Republic, she declared. Living in Bush's America reminded her of "the slow rise of National Socialism" in 1930s Germany: "Something equally powerful is developing today."

Hold on. The Republicans are Nazis? Bush is Hitler? Kulchur waited for at least one guffaw of disbelief from the audience, but instead there was only applause. Is this the type of nuanced discourse for which Uleman's University of Miami students are shelling out $32,000 a year?

Kulchur let out an audible exclamation of surprise, which caught the ear of his neighbor, Doris. "I hope you're not a reporter," she quipped, spying Kulchur's notepad. A thirtysomething mother with her small son and daughter quietly lolling about on the pew beside her, Doris had come to the teach-in hoping for some fresh insight on Iraq. "I don't want to embarrass anyone here, but I think I'd be better informed watching the BBC news at 11:00 p.m.," she whispered with a sigh. Considering herself a leftist, yet discovering just what passed for the Left these days, prompted her to conclude: "It's just so depressing."

The panelists, however, were only getting warmed up. There was plenty of criticism of the government's war on terrorism, but virtually no mention of the 3000 deaths at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania that had prompted it. A woman earnestly asked of Muslim fundamentalists: "How do we all get along?" She was curtly informed by Florida International University professor of religious studies Christine Gudorf that "we need more Muslim immigration."

In fact to hear these panelists tell it, the real threat to world peace isn't Iraqor Muslim jihadists. It's Israel. One Socialist Workers Party member stepped to the microphone and saluted the young Palestinians picking up stones on the West Bank and hurling them at Israelis. "Now that's a war I can support," he crowed. This elicited scattered applause and not a peep of opposition from any of the panelists. Instead we got University of Miami political science assistant professor Pete Moore opining that U.S. war moves were really aimed at "overthrowing the Palestinian Authority" and providing cover for a faction of the Israeli right to exile PLO leader Yasser Arafat and transfer Arab populations out of Israel itself.

Moore conveniently chose not to mention the Palestinian suicide bombers who send body parts flying through Israeli streets, or to consider how that senseless carnage -- week after week -- could drive some grief-stricken families to consider desperate responses.

It was getting harder to differentiate the kooks from the so-called experts. A young man garbed in a vintage German army jacket and officer's cap, handing out flyers that announced, "Achtung! The Fourth Reich Is Here," only appeared nutty if you ignored Professor Uleman's harangue on Bush. A disconnect held sway, one that seemed blithely unaware of how the world had changed since the Vietnam era.

As scholar Paul Berman wrote in the aftermath of September 11: "Should we go to war? Dear friends, we needn't bother. War has come to us.... Even if we adopted Jerry Falwell's most visionary ideas and abolished gay rights and the ACLU (thus eliminating America's putative sins), and even if we followed the left-wing Falwells and stopped trying to preserve the Jewish state and allowed Saddam Hussein to resume his massacres (thus eliminating America's other putative sins), even if we did all that, our enemies would go on attacking. So we had better defend ourselves."

After the teach-in broke up, Kulchur approached Nasseer Idrisi, a post-doctoral marine science instructor at the University of Miami. As Idrisi had explained earlier, he'd left his native Iraq for the States in 1991, but members of his family still remained in the city of Basra. Neither a bloody war of liberation nor the brutality of Saddam's regime were abstract concepts to him.

"If you lift sanctions and let Iraqis get back to a normal life, dissent will develop," Idrisi told Kulchur. Then, he believed, Iraqis would deal with ousting Hussein themselves. But even if that cheery scenario were to begin unfolding, don't expect Idrisi to rush home.

"Have I been back to Iraq since 1991?" he repeated with a surprised laugh, amazed at the stupidity of Kulchur's question. Idrisi exhaled and regained his composure, continuing matter-of-factly: "If I went back -- " He drew a finger slowly across his throat. It was the first dose of reality to be heard all night.

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