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Opinion: Body Politic


Published October 12, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Call me a meat puppet, but I like my politics corporeal. Before the Internet, activism meant bodies in a room, arguing, scheming, flirting, drinking. Taking on a task, you made a commitment to people who could hold you accountable. The "movement" was a network of thousands of rooms, thousands of relationships.

One commitment you made was, literally, to move your body out of the room and into the street, voices and fists poised for raising.

It still thrills me to be on the barricades, inside a beast of many bodies. So I signed up to join United for Peace & Justice's September 24 march on Washington to end the Iraq war. The papers might report a crowd a tenth its real size, the TV news give equal time to the 39 counter-demonstrators. The government would likely ignore us. (Leaving town, Dubya averred that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.) But we would have an effect -- a crucial one, now that fear and disaffection are the Bushies' best weapons.

If nothing else, a demonstration tells its participants they are not alone. The people united shall never be defeated. Solidarity forever. This knowledge enables them to make those slogans true.

It can't happen online. Howard Dean and MoveOn's Eli Pariser claimed during the 2004 elections that they'd invented a virtual political community unlike any in history. When it came to mustering the teams and tabulating the canvassing sheets, though, live kids and union members did it the old-fashioned way.

After the elections, I attended a MoveOn "meetup," where little groups across the country watched a computer map light up with other meetups, then watched Eli talk, then voted on what to do next (repair voting machines? save the environment?). There was no way to discuss how to accomplish anything. Eli would get back to us.

And from time to time, he drops me an email, to which I respond, or not. MoveOn turns out to be a communications tool, not a community. And in what community it does create, activism is like online dating. No hard feelings.

As for the former cyber-candidate, he can still be found on the web, making wishy-washy statements for the Democratic Party.

On September 24, I didn't make it to Washington. My group, Take Back the Future -- about 40 writers and artists from New York, my part-time home -- boarded a reserved Amtrak car in Penn Station at 6 a.m., alongside a clutch of Queerleaders from Burlington.

At 6:15 we budged -- 10 yards -- then backed up. Every half-hour after that, a conductor offered information, much of it contradictory, about faulty wires in the tunnel, repairs, consolidation of trains. Each dispatch ended with the assurance that we'd be on our way in 20 minutes.

The Queerleaders took out their garbage-bag-plastic pom-poms and cheered ("U-G-L-I! They ugly. Uhn-uhn, they ugly! G-R-E-D! They greedy. . ."). Someone called Amtrak on her cell and learned that a power line was down in New Jersey, halting all southbound travel. This was news to the conductor.

A rumble was rising among us. Factions were arranging car rentals. Our affinity group, which in various incarnations had marched together for 30 years, needed to act.

At 9, I stood on a seat and tried to quell rumors of a conspiracy any more sinister than the Repub-lican Party's to overthrow the U.S. government by privatizing it out of existence. By 9:10, we had consensus. The Amtrak people, through no fault of their own, couldn't be trusted. More delays were inevitable. We'd reach D.C. in time to catch our train home.

By 9:30, with our bagels wrapped and signs in English, Spanish and Arabic retrieved from the overhead racks, we had disembarked and started organizing. Some of us talked up the would-be protesters in the terminal. Others called the press. The Queerleaders ducked into phone booths and emerged with pink hair and pleated skirts.

By 10, 60 marchers were on Seventh Avenue and 34th Street, chanting, "Money for trains, not for war!" Shoppers stopped, drivers honked. The New York Times sent its guy, NBC its gal. Writers for The New Yorker and London's TLS were on our train; they took out their notepads.

That night, NBC gave us equal time with the 300,000 anti- and 39 pro-war marchers in Washington. Next day, the Times ran a photo of our signs and a quote to the effect of "Money for trains, not for war."

"Joining" MoveOn or another online activist group is like using an Apple computer or wearing Nike shoes -- what brand manager Douglas Atkins calls "joining a brand." The brand sends an email promo, you type in your name, press Send and, presto, you've fulfilled your civic duty. An auto-reply arrives, thanking you for your opinion -- a receipt. The "community" is as big as a consumer demographic, and no bigger than an email box.

Hannah Arendt wrote about the oikos, the forum in which speech becomes "deeds." The web, we are told, is the forum of the future. But too often, online speech swallows itself; it can't emerge as deed. In a train, a terminal or on the street, bodies meet to act. This form may seem to take us back from the future. But, on the ground, we can seize the day -- to take back the future.