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Commentary :: International : Organizing : Politics
William Pitt Responds to Boston Hecklers at Dhar Jamail event
06 May 2005
Don't let me change my heart,
Keep me set apart
From all the plans they do pursue.
And I, I don't mind the pain,
Don't mind the driving rain.
I know I will sustain
'Cause I believe in you.

    - Bob Dylan, 'I Believe in You'

    An interesting thing happened to me last week. I got heckled while giving a speech. Now, don't get me wrong, I've been heckled before. I've given speeches in most of the Red States across the country, and have gotten quite adept at the call-and-raise verbal jousting required when addressing an unfriendly crowd. I've been heckled by irate conservatives in Texas, in Montana, in North Carolina, in Colorado, in Arizona. I've been called a Socialist, a Communist, a Fascist, and a Communist Fascist, my own personal favorite. It's actually fun once you get used to it.
  Last week was a different thing, however. I got heckled by people on the Left.
[Originally published on]

    I was there to introduce Dahr Jamail, the reporter who is pretty much the only reason we really know what is happening in Iraq. In my talk, I adamantly stated that we have to get American forces out of Iraq, and went into a detailed plan on how that might be done. In the front row were two white guys with Palestinian scarves wrapped around their necks. As I laid out the plan, careful to say at the outset that this was not 'the' plan but 'a' plan, the guy on the left yelled, "Get off the stage with your pro-war (expletive)." His friend wadded up the program for the evening and threw it at me.

    As I said, I enjoy hecklers. I find it personally satisfying to leave little pieces of them hanging from the rafters. This, however, was a whole different thing. In the second after the expletive and the program went sailing past me, I thought: "I wrote a book six months before the war started saying there were no weapons in Iraq and no reason to go to war there; I've written probably half a million words since then to reinforce that truth; I worked for Dennis Kucinich on his Presidential campaign and pushed that message there; I've traveled nearly 200,000 miles to rally people against the war; I've cashiered a good portion of my health and sanity in the process; finally, I believe with all my heart and soul that we have to get the hell out of Iraq. Pro-war?"

    For the first time since I started speaking publicly about this stuff, I was gape-mouthed and silent. The hecklers got me. I staggered through the rest of my speech, introduced Jamail, and scuttled off the stage like a whipped cur. The little resume review that flashed through my mind was not some personal ego-reinforcement, and I didn't feel any outrage about the whole thing until later. I was genuinely confused and hurt.

    A day or so later, I was able to slot that odd and disheartening experience into a larger picture. When all was said and done, it didn't surprise me. The Lefty hecklers were part of a much broader phenomenon taking place within the ranks of liberals and progressives all across the country. To put it bluntly, the Left is in the process of eating itself. I've been watching it happen over the last few months. At meetings, at rallies, in online forums, via email, and among friends and family, the Left is tearing itself apart.

    The war issue is causing a good portion of this. The reason those guys heckled me, for one example, was because I think 'Out Now!' makes a great slogan but isn't nearly enough of an actual plan to get the job done, and thanks to Bush & Co, 'Out Now!' is a pipe dream regardless. They disagreed, vehemently it seemed, and because I tried to go beyond slogans to an actual plan for exiting Iraq, I was somehow empowering the war machine.

    The war, however, is not the only issue dividing the Left. A good portion of the splintering that is taking places stems from a lingering election hangover. Those who backed someone besides Kerry are bitter because they think their candidate would have won, those who backed Kerry are bitter at those who attack him and are likewise bitter at Kerry for the blunders he made in his campaign, those who do not cleave to the Democratic Party are bitter because they see the Democrats as little more than the pro-choice wing of the Republican Party, and even that distinction is getting muddied.

    The root of the infighting, however, is deeper. Beyond the candidate/party squabbling is the feeling that no matter who the candidate may be, the system itself is broken because elections are now controlled by GOP-allied corporations and easily-rigged voting machines. Beyond that is the corporate media, with its 24-hour distraction machine pumping out raw sewage by the long ton while toeing the line for the status quo. Scandals that would have caused previous Presidents to be impeached, imprisoned and then impeached again wither by the side of the road on an almost daily basis.

    Beyond the media is the bleak reality that some of the worst people this country has ever seen now control the White House, Congress, a fair chunk of the Judiciary, the Justice Department and the Pentagon. Combine that with the sense that elections cannot dislodge them because the game is fixed, and further add the fact that a majority of the American people have been made snowblind by the gibberish pouring forth from the media, which protects the powerful from the consequences of the truth.

    The Left is appalled, disgusted, horrified and deeply, deeply frustrated. Right now, the Left feels like it is facing a fortified bunker armed with a slingshot and some small pebbles. Faced with this apparently unassailable foe, and filled with the desire to do something, anything to move the pile, people on the Left are doing the only thing that seems available: They are kicking the crap out of each other. That frustration, that woe, that horror and rage require an outlet somewhere.

    I don't have any solutions for this. Being contrarian, being an island-unto-self, is one of the hallmarks of people on the Left. Permit me a poor analogy: Folks on the Left are like cats. They are loveable, affectionate, strong and independent-minded. They are also pointy on five out of six sides and liable to use their claws at strange and seemingly random moments. It has always been this way and will always be this way, and it cannot and should not be otherwise. Combine that with the thundering frustrations that have accumulated over the last months and years, and the outcome is predictable.

    I don't have a solution for this, but I do have a story.

    Those familiar with the fight against electronic touch-screen voting machines will know the name Andy Stephenson. Andy has spent the last several years traveling from hoot to holler and back to hoot again, trying to inform people of the dangers these machines pose to the fundamental principles of participatory democracy. He even ran for Secretary of State in Washington using this issue as the basis of his platform.

    A few weeks ago, Andy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, one of the more dangerous varieties of the disease. His doctors told him he needed a Whipple procedure to get at the tumor, and only a few hospitals in America can perform this complicated procedure with the required competence. To compound the problem, Andy shares the plight of millions of others in our disgusting for-profit health care system and does not have health insurance.

    A friend with connections was able to get him a slot at Johns Hopkins, one of the premier medical facilities in America that specializes in Whipple procedures. Johns Hopkins, however, required a $25,000 down-payment before they would let Andy onto an operating table. Furthermore, they required the payment immediately, and wanted another $25,000 once the surgery was done. Andy and his friends spiraled into despair as they faced this seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

    And then, something remarkable happened. Friends of Andy posted the details of his plight on a few Left-leaning websites. Left-wing talk-show hosts Mike Malloy and Thom Hartmann filled their listeners in on the situation. Donations for Andy started to come in, and then pour in, and then flood in. People without jobs, and themselves without health insurance, raided their piggy banks.

    Within 100 hours, Andy Stephenson had the $25,000 down-payment he needed to save his life. It came as nickels, as dimes, as dollar bills, but it came.

    The moral? That which unites the Left is far, far greater than that which divides them. Yes, there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles standing in the way. Yes, frustration and despair are rampant. Yet when the righteousness, passion and strength of the Left are combined, they can stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of their hand.

    Remember that.

This work is in the public domain