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Crazies Can Spoil a Movement (June 19, 2003 commentary)

Crazies Can Spoil a Movement

by Casey Lartigue, Jr.
At an anti-war "teach-in," a Columbia University professor called for the defeat of American forces in Iraq and said he would like to see "a million Mogadishus" - a reference to the Somali city where American soldiers were ambushed, with 18 killed, in 1993.

"The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military," Nicholas DeGenova, assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University, told the audience at Low Library Wednesday night. "I personally would like to see a million Mogadishus."

The crowd was largely silent at the remark. They loudly applauded DeGenova later when he said, "If we really believe that this war is criminal... then we have to believe in the victory of the Iraqi people and the defeat of the U.S. war machine." (New York Newsday)

Some have remarked that the war brought out the nuts. I say they were always there.

It seems to be pretty typical of movements for the crazies to take over, outflanking the moderates. The moderates in any movement, especially those complaining that their voices aren't being heard, will not want to silence the dissenters among their own ranks.

I saw this happen in the various liberal social causes I used to participate in, where people complained about society stifling their voices or not recognizing their concerns. Then, those same folks bent over backwards to accommodate the radical nut in the room complaining that they - the people in the room - don't recognize the "reality of the situation." Yeah, we ain't gotta be afraid to speak "truth to power." All we gotta do is (fill-in-the-blank with something that won't work).

Then, they started a rambling ten-minute rant that makes some in the room uncomfortable but emboldened others. The leader meekly tried to cut the person off, waiting for the right moment instead of just telling them to sit down and shut up.

I don't hang out with conservatives when it comes to social causes, so I haven't observed them as much. But I'm sure they have their own crazies. I'm thinking of someone who stands up and says this country is great because of God, guns, and guts, and let's keep all three! And then, after a long tirade, will say, "Now I don't know exactly what we gotta do, but I know we gotta do 

There is a split (most recently, within the environmental and anti-abortion movements) between moderates who want to convince people to come to their side and the crazies who want to burn stuff down, spike trees and shoot doctors. As with most movements, the moderates gain early control. After a while, especially after some successes, the crazies will complain that things aren't progressing fast enough and that more radical action is needed. The moderates have already pushed for change, and they don't know how to push back when their crazies challenge them.

Groups don't want to shout down their own crazies because the crazies can still be useful foot soldiers. But then they do want to spend time focusing on the crazies of the other side.

Of course, the embarrassment is when one of the crazies gets up at a protest and starts pulling against the country on camera or when a crazy movie director dumps on the President during an internationally televised awards ceremony. The moderates will usually cheer the crazies on solidarity, but they worry they are undermining their message with such radical tactics.

Of course, I'm not saying it always plays out this way. I didn't pay close attention to the people outside of the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices inside debated the fate of affirmative action, but I bet it had a combination of intellectuals and activists. And at least one crazy stood up and talked about telling "truth to power" and saying all we gotta do is (fill-in-the-blank with something that won't work).

(Casey Lartigue, Jr. is a member of the National Advisory Council of Project 21 and an educational policy analyst with the Cato Institute. Comments may be sent to


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