PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — After spending last week here with 50,000 others at the World Social Forum — what the press has dubbed the ”anti-globalization summit“ — it would be easy to make fun of the guy who was wearing a red-and-blue Che Guevara cape.

Or the clumps of balding, middle-aged Belgians and Danes with Che T-shirts stretched across their paunches as they ambled about in short pants, black socks, and sandals. Or the little bottles of local rotgut booze for sale re-labeled with, yes, images of Che. Or the crudely drawn and even more primitively translated wall propaganda posters shrieking that the ”Yankee state is worldwide center of outrage, torture, strokes, [sic] bombardments, militar [sic] interventions and slaughter of innocent millions.“ Or the scraggly squads of ”reporters“ from various ”indymedia“ centers, frenetically capturing one another on video- and audiotape that they earnestly post on Web sites read only by themselves.

Or that the feverish rock-star welcoming rained on Noam Chomsky by an auditorium full of screaming fans swarming for his autograph made you cringe and wonder if the 73-year-old MIT professor would reciprocate by tossing a sweat-soaked handkerchief out to the front row.

But to focus on any of the above would be misleading. Those antics were strictly trivial and mostly amusing sideshows. This second annual World Social Forum, organized as a grassroots alternative to the elite World Economic Forum in New York, turned out to be a refreshingly serious and sober five days of discussion, debate and meditation over the meaning of the global-justice movement and where it is heading in the post-911 world.

In other words, delightfully little of that burdensome, depressing crapola that you could certainly expect when you lock up several thousand American activists in a couple of big lecture halls for five or six days. The World Social Forum survived the entire week with none of the usual circular firing squads our American left has become so expert at organizing. No Women’s Caucus, or African-American Caucus, or Latino Caucus, or Asian–Pacific Islander Caucus, or LGBT Caucus spontaneously formed to exhibit its ”outrage“ over the lack or excess of — fill in the blank — within the Forum organization. Mercifully, no gruesome game playing of Who‘s the Bigger Victim?

No process-freak crybabies whining about too much hierarchy or too many experts on the dais (I don’t know about you, but when I sit for hours at a stretch to hear a panel of speakers, they better damn well be experts). No trust-funder Black Bloc–ers in ski masks claiming to be smashing international capitalism by breaking the windows of a Starbucks. No Food Police forcing tofu lunches on you. Or Nicotine Nazis snuffing out your ciggies. And, praise Jesus, none of that damn ”twinkling“ going on — the infantile and wholly idiotic process now in vogue among American activists whereby they raise their hands and wiggle their fingers to show approval of what‘s being said in one of their endless, process-laden, mind-deadening meetings.

Maybe this World Social Forum conducted itself with such studious maturity because it was organized and dominated not by Americans, but by Latin Americans and Europeans. The history of both groups has taught them that politics is a deadly serious business and that you better get it right. For when you screw up, the consequences can be devastating and include getting tied to an iron mattress with an electrode connected to your scrotum, or becoming one more number in, say, the Holocaust. That sort of experience leaves little time for sloshing around in the preferred American sandbox of identity politics or fancying yourself as some sort of historic martyr because the Seattle Police Department made you cry with a whiff of tear gas, or confusing some dimwitted, mildly dangerous, yick-yack like John Ashcroft for a real, live ”fascist.“

Writing in last week’s The Nation magazine, one of the Forum organizers, Paris-based author Susan George, confessed that after September 11 she had hoped that the leadership of the wealthy countries of the world would begin taking global inequity more seriously. But, she wrote, that was naive. ”Those who hold our futures in their hands are not serious. They see no farther than the noses of their bombers,“ George wrote. ”Frightening though the prospect may seem, citizens must accept the risk of being serious in their place.“

Wow, what a great line: the risk of being serious. That challenge was bravely assumed this past week here in Porto Alegre. Some 15,000 ”delegates,“ and an equal number or more of ”guests,“ filled one Forum venue after another, from 8 in the morning until late into the night, listening, learning, reflecting, taking notes and asking smart questions.

The intellectual menu offered up was simply staggering. Hundreds of seminars, conferences, workshops and panel discussions held throughout the city filled a 155-page tabloid-size guide. Some overflowed university auditoriums with 3,000 seats. Others took place in small classrooms. If you didn‘t want to join the throngs worshiping Chomsky, you could go next door and hear from Indian activist Vandana Shiva; or Philippine economist Walden Bello, who dared to sketch a new, alternative international financial architecture; or a panel of Argentine trade unionists; or Asian water-rights activists; or some stunningly well-prepared presentations from the Americans who did show up — a wonderful deconstruction of the WTO by Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach or a detailed critique of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas by Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies.

Five times as many people attended this year‘s Forum as did last year. The U.S. delegation was the fifth biggest, with more than 400 representatives; last year, only a few showed up. And labor-backed groups, such as Jobs With Justice, went out of their way to bring along some of the more engaged U.S. activists and leave behind, well . . . the more self-absorbed wankers.

”I’m here because I‘ve seen that our more successful campaigns happen when we tie into what’s called ‘common rights,’“ said Tracy Yassini, associate director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, one of the few Angeleno delegates. Her group has been effective in fighting for a living wage in L.A. and Santa Monica. ”Up to now I haven‘t been involved in the anti-globalization campaigns,“ she said. ”But coming out of this Forum now, I feel I have an obligation to get linked up.“

No blueprints or battle plans came out of the Forum. Everyone takes back with them whatever they can from a week of intellectual engagement. And the overall lesson that we always do better when we stress what unites us rather than what divides us.

This week’s World Social Forum reminded me of what, in the first place, attracted me to the left as a teenager in the ‘60s — the notion that you were connected to something much bigger and more important than yourself. And for the first time in a long stretch, this week’s World Social Forum made it feel good again to still be part of that.

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