By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
She has a caustic, sharp-edged wit. Or so I gathered during the Take Back America convention, when she, Moby and another guitarist played Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” at the gala dinner. After the guitarist, who appeared to be fairly new to the instrument, had stumbled through a painfully protracted solo, Dawn leaned into the microphone and asked, “Are you done?” With her pale skin and fiery-red hair, she had a strikingly dramatic presence.
But now it’s all work. She joined MoveOn last September and went full-time in January. She puts in 15-hour days, she’s got a problem shoulder and her arms hurt. She pulls out a Treo and a laptop from her backpack and shows me rough cuts of some of the new ads MoveOn is working on. “The idea is to combine writers and directors and artists in a meaningful way and produce something that’s really unique in terms of political advertising,” she says. The image on her laptop screen is barely larger than a plus-size postage stamp, and the noise in the caf√© overwhelms the sound.
In the first ad, directed by Benny Boom, a group of young African-American men are gathered in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Dawn says it has a hip-hop soundtrack, and she calls out one or two lines of dialogue, for my benefit, as it goes along. “What’s the problem?” somebody asks the men. “No problem,” they answer. “We’re here to vote!” Another ad, by “Child’s Pay” director Charlie Fisher, depicts a world in which everyone from pregnant women to Olympic athletes has a cigarette in their mouth. “While Bush dismantles the Clean Air Act,” comes the voice-over, “Americans are smoking the equivalent of 20 cigarettes a day.” And then in “Going to Iraq,” MTV’s Jimmy McBride plays a greasy Boston cabby riffing on George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq rather than Saudi Arabia, where the September 11 hijackers were actually from, or any of the other al Qaeda strongholds, like Indonesia or Pakistan or Yemen. I ponder the fact that though the caf√© we are sitting in is owned by an Italian, half the stores on the block are owned by Yemenites. “George Bush. He’s NOT on our side,” the ad concludes.
“I can’t think of anything more important to do with my time,” Dawn says, closing her laptop. “What we just did in Iraq is terrifying. We invaded a sovereign country, and I just couldn’t live with that. And now I don’t get any sleep and I’m tired as hell.”
“And what will you do if Bush wins in November?” I ask.
“I’ll tell you after I stop banging my head against the wall,” she replies.
Dawn works mostly with Eli Pariser, the gangly, bearded 23-year-old who shot to Internet fame when, shortly after 9/11, he sent out an online petition pleading for “moderation and restraint” in response to the al Qaeda attack. Pariser sent his petition to 30 friends, who passed it on. Within a fortnight, 100,000 Americans had signed up, another 400,000 overseas, and Pariser was getting calls from the BBC and the South China Morning Post. Wes Boyd took note, and a few months later hired Pariser as his campaigns director. It was a characteristically smart decision.
The people who signed Pariser’s petition weren’t Democratic Party activists; they were anti-war activists, and their failure first to stop the war in Afghanistan, and then the war in Iraq, only made them more determined to at least stop Bush. They seethed for a new outlet, for a way to pursue their struggle in an alternative form. By funneling these people into the Howard Dean campaign, the new, improved MoveOn gave it to them. And when Dean went down in flames, MoveOn simply moved them over to the Kerry campaign. In this way, MoveOn transformed an anti-war campaign into an electoral campaign. It translated the fervor that makes people take to the streets into the fervor that makes them contribute money. And now it is translating it into the fervor that holds “house parties” all over the country, swells the attendance for Fahrenheit 9/11and Outfoxed, and more importantly, perhaps, gives up its own time for such humdrum tasks as operating phone banks and calling voters in swing states. Many anti-war activists who contributed money to the Dean campaign were amazed at themselves — they’d never done that before.
One person I spoke to recalled standing in line at a movie theater and telling a friend how he’d just donated money to a political campaign for the first time in his life — “It feels so bourgeois!” he told her — when the woman in front of them turned around and said, “I know exactly how you feel. I just did the same thing!” Somehow, this election season is making left-wingers feel fulfilled. You could see it at the Take Back America convention in D.C., where they were having a grand old time. Old warhorses like Julian Bond gave barnstorming speeches, and though their words suggested anger, their faces frequently radiated joy. Having someone to hate is fun.