SMART-MOBBING THE WAR
By GEORGE PACKER
You can find America's new antiwar movement in a bright yellow room four floors above the traffic of West 57th Street -- a room so small that its occupant burns himself on the heat pipe when he turns over in bed and can commute to his office without touching the floor. Eli Pariser, 22, tall, bearded, spends long hours every day at his desk hunched over a laptop, plotting strategy and directing the electronic traffic of an instantaneous movement that was partly assembled in his computer. During the past three months it has gathered the numbers that took three years to build during Vietnam. It may be the fastest-growing protest movement in American history.
On the day after Sept. 11, Pariser, who was living outside Boston at the time, sent an e-mail message to a group of friends that urged them to contact elected officials and to advocate a restrained response to the terror attacks -- a police action in the framework of international law. War, Pariser believed, was the wrong answer; it would only slaughter more innocence and create more terrorists. Friends passed his letter on to more friends, it replicated exponentially, as things tend to do on the Internet, and Pariser woke one morning to find 300 e-mail messages in his in-box. A journalist called him from Romania. ''I've
received this from five different people,'' he said. ''Who are you?''
Almost simultaneously, a recent University of Chicago graduate named David Pickering was posting a petition with a similar message on a campus Web site. By Sept. 14, Pickering's petition had 1,000 signatures. On Sept. 15 it reached Pariser, who got in touch with Pickering and proposed that they join forces, with Pickering's petition posted on a Web site that Pariser set up as a conduit for responses to his own e-mail. They called it 9-11peace.org. On Sept. 18, 120,000 people from 190 countries signed the petition. By then, the server was beginning to crash.
By Oct. 9, when Pariser finally lugged four copies of the petition to his local post office -- one each for George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Kofi Annan and the secretary general of NATO -- it was more than 3,000 pages long, with more than half a million signatures. There was no response from the White House, which had already begun the war in Afghanistan. But Pariser had happened upon an organizing tool of dazzling power. ''It was word of mouth,'' he says. ''This is why this system of organizing
In the fall of 2001 the idea of a measured response to the attacks along the lines of a criminal-justice model was a distinctly minority view. Only one member of Congress, Barbara Lee of California, voted against the war resolution. The petition created a network for the war's isolated and beleaguered opponents that let them know they were not alone as history rolled over them.
A little more than a year later, the pressure of a war with Iraq has turned the underground spring into a genuine social convulsion. At the end of 2001, Pariser was appoached by another dot-org that had been watching the heavy traffic on his Web site -- a group called moveon.org, started in Berkeley in 1998 by married software entrepreneurs, Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, to stop the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Pariser joined them as a consultant and merged the two sites. Last fall moveon.org caught the growing wave of antiwar feeling and its membership doubled, so that it now counts almost 1.3 million worldwide and 900,000 in this country. Moveon.org became known as the mainstream of the growing movement, joining a larger coalition called Win Without War, whose name seems expressly designed to ward off any charges of anti-Americanism.
Moveon.org organized meetings around the country between members and politicians, calling for tough inspections as a rational alternative to war, and its influence began to be felt in Congress. Its Political Action Committee raised more than $700,000 for Paul Wellstone's re-election last October after the Minnesota senator voted against the Iraq war resolution, and
when Wellstone died in a plane crash, moveon.org used its database to raise $200,000 for his replacement on the ballot, Walter Mondale, in just two hours.
All this electronic activity went largely unnoticed by the press. The nationwide antiwar rallies on Oct. 26 and Jan. 15 were dominated by far more radical groups, like International Answer, that had gotten out in front of the protest movement, turning out a core of of activists under the perennial anti-American slogans. But as fall turned to winter and the threat of war frayed nerves across the country, moveon.org formed a tactical alliance with the radical groups, with which it had nothing in common
other than opposition to war in Iraq. ''We've changed the way that we do organizing in the last eight months,'' Pariser told me. ''One of the things is to move past e-mailing and phone calls and get people back out on the street and use the Internet as a backbone for catalyzing that.''
Last November, at the European Social Forum in Rome, antiwar groups chose Feb. 15 as a day of continent-wide protest. The American wing of the movement learned of the plan through e-mail from European antiwar groups like Stop the War Coalition and Attac France. United for Peace and Justice decided to sign on in December, though organizing here only started on Jan. 9, a mere five weeks before the date set for the demonstrations. To anyone who hadn't been paying attention -- not least, those in the mainstream media -- the hundreds of thousands who braved the cold near the United Nations on Feb. 15,
and the several million more around the world, came as a revelation.
But popularity has a history of killing American protest movements. When history refuses to bend to their will, frustration leads the majority to drift away, while grouplets in the vanguard grow more extreme in their ideas and their tactics. On the left in particular, from the Popular Front of the 1930's to the antiwar mobilization of the 60's, mass movements have a way of self-destructing in factional fights just when they've begun to acquire a national following. These are old ghosts, and 22 is young
for anyone to have to figure them out.
Then Pariser had his 90 seconds onstage at the Feb. 15 rally, he seemed to literally bounce on his toes in the frigid air, unable not to smile. ''For each person who's here, there are a hundred who weren't able to make it,'' he told the throng that filled First Avenue from 51st to 72nd Street. ''I know -- I get e-mail from them. They're ordinary, patriotic, mainstream Americans.''
Eli Pariser seems to exist so that patriotic, mainstream, duct-tape-buying Americans can't dismiss the antiwar movement as a fringe phenomenon of graying pacifists and young nihilists. He has a copy of the Constitution on his bookshelf. He says things like, ''It's not the internet that's cool -- it's what it allows people to do.'' He is unfailingly polite and thoughtful, careful to acknowledge what he doesn't yet know, and only the way he holds his face away and fixes you with a sidelong look as he speaks, a gleam of challenge in his eyes, tells you that this is an ambitious and slightly cagey young man.
Pariser says that when he was 5 he picketed in his own driveway in rural Maine with a sign that said, ''Nature's great -- don't take it away.'' He descends on his father's side from Zionist Jews who helped found Tel Aviv, and on his mother's from Polish socialists. His parents, co-founders of an alternative school and amicably divorced when Pariser was 7, were Vietnam protesters. But an interesting generational split inverts the 60's order of things: the son is less rebellious, less estranged from his
country, than the parents. His mother used to argue with him to do less homework, and after Sept. 11 his parents couldn't understand why Pariser insisted on calling himself a patriot.
In 2000, after graduating from Simon's Rock College in western Massachusetts, Pariser and a handful of friends toured the country for three months in a renovated school bus, recording the stories of ordinary people in order to find out what makes Americans tick politically. The idea was yet another Web project (americanstory.org -- it hasn't happened yet), but the effect on Pariser was much larger: in the midst of a national campaign that left most people bored and disenchanted, he found that opinion polls and political rhetoric didn't come close to doing justice to Americans' beliefs. ''There's all this gloss and spin and whatever, and then there's actually what people think,'' he told me. ''Even when we talked to people who are racists, pro-gun folks, I couldn't make myself dislike them just because of their political views.''
Internet democracy solves the problem of how to focus political activity in a vast country of extremely busy and distracted citizens, because what keeps so many Americans busy and distracted these days is the Internet. In late February, my in-box received a forwarded message
with the subject line ''Virtual March: Heading to 200,000. SEND FAX~a5646u63431t0~.'' The ''Virtual March on
Washington'' was a campaign that Pariser and moveon.org held on Feb. 26: more than 1 million Americans around the country, moveon.org reports, flooded the Washington offices of their elected officials with antiwar messages, timed by electronic coordination so that phone lines wouldn't jam up. Internet democracy allows citizens to find one another directly, without phone trees or meetings of chapter organizations, and it amplifies their voices in the electronic storms or ''smart mobs'' (masses summoned electronically) that it seems able to generate in a few hours. With cellphones and instant messaging, the time frame of protest might soon be the nanosecond.
Dot-org politics represents the latest manifestation of a recurrent American faith that there is something inherently good in the vox populi. Democracy is at its purest and best when the largest number of voices are heard, and every institution that comes between the people and their government -- the press, the political pros, the fund-raisers -- taints the process. ''If money is
what it takes to get attention, we'll do that,'' Pariser says. ''But we'll do it the grassroots way.''
Pariser says that he and other organizers are less political propagandists than ''facilitators'' who ''help people to do what they want to do.'' Even the structure of moveon.org -- more than a million members and only four paid staff members -- embodies the idea that a simple and direct line connects scattered individuals and the expression of their political will. With an interactive feature on the Web site called the Action Forum, members regularly make suggestions and respond to the staff's and one another's ideas. Automated reports are generated by the server every week, moveon.org's staff looks at the top-rated
comments -- and somehow, out of this nonstop frenzy of digital activity, a decision gets made. And, in a sense, no one makes it. Dot-org politics confirms what Tocqueville noticed over a century and a half ago: that Americans, for all our vaunted individualism, tend to dissolve in a tide of mass opinion.
Behind the stage at the Feb. 15 rally, Pariser made a point of introducing himself to Dennis Kucinich, the boyish-looking Democratic congressman from Cleveland who is running for president on an antiwar platform. Kucinich has followed Pariser's rise, and he declared: ''Eli has proven we're in a new era of grass-roots activism. The basis for human unity is not just electronic -- the human unity precedes the electronic, and then is furthered by it. Eli represents 'the advancing tide,' which
Emerson said 'creates for itself a condition of its own. And the question and the answer are one.' ''
The spirit of Emerson was on First Avenue, and it hovers over the new antiwar movement as it has infused so much protest politics in American history. There is a very old American type of protester -- think of Emerson's friend Thoreau, or of John Brown -- who sees politics as an expression of personal morality.
Part of the success of the Feb. 15 demonstrations, and of the movement itself, lies in the simplicity of the message. L.A. Kauffman, a staff organizer at United for Peace and Justice, the coalition of more than 200 organizations that endorsed the rally, designed leaflets and banners reading ''The world says no to war.'' The slogan says nothing about oil, or inspections, or Israel -- or Saddam. ''It's not a paragraph of analysis,'' she points out. ''It's not a lengthy series of demands.'' The simplicity allows groups that have nothing else in common politically -- that might even be opponents -- to work together.
Leslie Cagan, a founder of United for Peace and Justice (which is only fourmonths old) and a veteran antiwar activist, says that in 1991, during the gulf war, the ideological infighting was much more bruising. The attitude in this movement, for now, is to submerge political disagreement. ''We all see what a nightmare this war would be,'' she says. ''That's bigger than any of the
differences between us.''
When a group like International Answer -- whose leader, Ramsey Clark, has defended many of the world's dictators, including Saddam -- calls for a day of protest on March 15, United for Peace and Justice doesn't base its decision about whether to join based on the politics of the original sponsor. A leader of the most mainstream coalition in the movement, Win Without War, of which moveon.org is a part, is urging members to participate in the Answer demonstration.
This strategy of openness is unquestionably the best way to increase numbers in the short run. But it has its perils, and inevitably it forces ideological choices even when the movement seeks to avoid them. In the planning for Feb. 15, for example, a Bay Area coalition of groups refused to include Michael Lerner, a rabbi and editor of Tikkun magazine, among the speakers because he had publicly criticized one of the groups, International Answer, for its anti-Israel views. The coalition's policy was to exclude anyone who had attacked a member group -- which meant that the peace movement had to choose between Lerner and Answer.
The night before Feb. 15, at the midtown offices of a labor union where rally leaders were making last-minute preparations, Bob Wing of United for Peace and Justice told me: ''Anti-Semitism is not tolerable. I don't think it's a huge problem, but it is a problem and something to be aware of. But we're not talking about thought control -- we're talking about making this as big as we can.'' When I asked Leslie Cagan whether pro-Saddam speakers would have been allowed on stage, she said, ''We try not to edit them.'' Pariser put it this way: ''I've always been a real believer that the best ideas win out if you let them happen.
I'm personally against defending Slobodan Milosevic and calling North Korea a socialist heaven, but it's just not relevant right now.''
The strongest tendency at the Feb. 15 rally (and in the movement generally) was not anti-Americanism or antiglobalism or pro-Arabism; it was simply a sense that war does more harm than good. A young woman from Def Poetry Jam shouted: ''We send our love to poets in Iraq and Palestine. Stay safe!'' The notion that there is little safety in Iraq and, strictly speaking, there are no poets -- that the Iraqi people, while not welcoming the threat of bombs, might be realistic enough to accept a war as
their only hope of liberation from tyranny -- was unthinkable. The protesters saw themselves as defending Iraqis from the terrible fate that the U.S. was preparing to inflict on them. This assumption is based on moral innocence -- on an inability to imagine the horror in which Iraqis live, and a desire for all good things to go together. War is evil, therefore prevention of war
must be good. The wars fought for human rights in our own time -- in Bosnia and Kosovo -- have not registered with Pariser's generation. When I asked Pariser whether the views of Iraqis themselves should be taken into account, he said, ''I don't think that first and foremost this is about them as much as it's about us and how we act in the world.''
For now, clarity and a sense of righteousness have created the most potent American protest movement in a generation. What isn't clear is how the new movement will sustain itself once a war begins. Ask movement organizers about their planning for the next few crucial weeks, with a war seemingly imminent, and the answers are very vague. ''We don't think a month in advance,'' Pariser says. ''We can capture the energy of the moment better at the moment'' -- a notion echoed by Wes Boyd, who explains that moveon.org's great strength is flexibility and speed, not ''scenario-planning.'' L.A. Kauffman of United for Peace and Justice says, ''If war does break out, you are going to see a global day of action like you've never seen.'' Pariser and other coalition leaders stay in touch with their European counterparts, e-mailing every few days, but for now the movement seems to be trying to catch up with its own success. Other than the demonstration planned for March 15, no mass mobilization was scheduled as of last week.
After an invasion, moveon.org's Wes Boyd believes the movement may become more polarized. Perhaps groups like ANSWER will continue to oppose American foreign policy in its totality, while moveon.org's membership will turn its fund-raising power to Democratic presidential politics. A number of potential Democratic antiwar candidates have started to emerge, including Kucinich, Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois and the Rev. Al Sharpton. While Pariser is too cautious to declare any political ambitions of his own, the party would be foolish not to pursue a young activist with his talents.
In the yellow room on West 57th Street, Pariser's bookcase is heavy with fiction that tends toward large, bleak visions: Orwell's ''1984,'' DeLillo's ''Underworld,'' David Foster Wallace's ''Infinite Jest.'' The literature seems out of tune with Pariser's optimism about democracy and his own temperament. Pariser says he read them to experience bleakness vicariously ''because my life was good. It was a way of kind of seeing what it's like to not be happy. There's a part of me that's drawn to
kind of big stories, sort of epicness -- this sense of this sweeping narrative. If I want to get an instant adrenaline rush, that's the way that I do it -- thinking about my work now: this is huge, we've got so many people and there's such big stakes.''
George Packer, a frequent contributor, last wrote for the magazine on the prospects for democracy in a post-war