Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Useless protests and effective action

Snopes on the efficacy of the "Not One Damn Dime Protest":

Some protests are functional; they involve people taking direct action to achieve the desired result, such as chaining oneself to a tree to prevent its being cut down. Other protests are symbolic; they seek to inform the public or call attention to an issue through activities such as holding marches or making speeches. Sometimes protests are a combination of the two: chaining oneself to a tree is a functional but necessarily short-term solution, yet such an event is usually covered by the media and thus helps to publicize the cause of conservation.

So which form of protest is this supposed to be? Its ostensible purpose is a symbolic one — to "remind the people in power that the war in Iraq is immoral and illegal" — which leaves us wondering how this form of protest is supposed to help effect any change in circumstances The merits and conduct of the U.S. war with Iraq have been endlessly debated, in every medium, since the U.S. invasion of Iraq nearly two years ago. The war in Iraq was the primary issue in a long, contentious, headline-dominating presidential campaign that ended just a few months ago. The war is still one of the lead stories in the news nearly every day. Many different polling organizations and major news outlets regularly survey public opinion on the issue. If the result desired by those who would engage in this protest hasn't yet been achieved, it's not because the issue hasn't received enough publicity or those "in power" are insufficiently aware of it.

All that aside, the suggested scheme is one of the least effective forms of symbolic protest one could devise: it literally proposes that people do nothing, and doing nothing generates little, if any, publicity or news coverage. Massing thousands of people in one place and engaging speakers to make rousing public speeches provide vivid, well-defined images for the news media to pick up on, but pictures of people not spending money just don't make compelling fodder for newspapers and television. (Images of normally bustling malls, restaurants, and airports standing eerily devoid of human traffic might make for a good news story, but public opinion on this issue is far too divided for this protest to be able to bring all business to a grinding halt.)

As a functional protest, this one is equally off the mark. Although a boycott can be an active form of protest (even though boycott participants are in effect doing nothing, they're following a course of action that directly affects the object of their protest), boycotts succeed by causing economic harm to their targets, thereby putting them out of business or at least requiring them to change their policies in order to remain in business. But the target of this boycott isn't an entity that has the power to bring about the desired resolution (i.e., the government) — those who will be economically harmed by it are innocent business operators and their employees. These people have no power to set U.S. foreign policy or recall troops from Iraq, but they're the ones who would have to pay the price for this form of protest, incurring all their usual overhead costs (e.g., lighting, heat, refrigeration) to keep their businesses open and paying employees' salaries, all the while taking in little or no income. (And no, it doesn't all even out in the end — restaurants, for example, aren't going to recoup their lost business through boycott participants' eating twice as much the next day.)

Whether the desired goal is laudable or not, a protest that has little chance of succeeding at its purpose but a high likelihood of harming innocent parties does no one any good. As we always say about these kinds of things, results are generally proportional to effort: If the most effort one is willing to put into a cause is to do nothing, then one should expect to accomplish nothing in return.

There's not getting around the fact that if the protest is so innocuous that no one will feel any effect from it, then it also so innocuous that it's worthless as a protest. On the other hand, if it's a rousing success, then the people who are hurt by it are NOT the people at whome the protest is aimed.

You really can't have it both ways. That's nothing to do with beign overly sensible, it's mere logic.

General stikes, of which this is a variation, are a pretty useless form of protest, because they're too amorphous and unfocused unless they pass some sort of tipping point, and when they do, they harm all sorts of people, and the economy, in ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with the aim of the protest.

What message are we sending by not spending money? -- that we're so pissed off about the policies of the Bush administration that we're willing to hurt innocent third parties by denying them our usual payments. Hey, maybe we should kidnap some doggies and kitty cats while we're at it and hold them for ransom, that'll show Bush he can't trifle with us. That should be effective too.

Now, if everyone were to go to Washington DC that day, not to protest, or march, or organize a demonstration with the usual stage and speakers and puppets and singers with guitars and sideshows and side issues, but simply with everyone standing in the streets with their backs turned to Bush's motocade and the White House, as I've heard some talk about doing, that would, in my opinion, be an enormously effective and powerful statement. It would generate striking images for the media to use, and that's a vital part of protesting -- what pictures are local news casts supposed to broadcast to illustrate the story that people are not spending money? They'll show pictures of people not at the mall, maybe, which will by their very nature be pictures of other people at the mall, or they'll use some kind of stupid stock footage, or they'll shoot some local loonies playing flutes and tambourines in the park. These images which send precisely the opposite message from that desired, which is that large numbers of average, everyday people are upset enough to do something.

The "middle class riot" on Bush's behalf in Florida in 2000 was enormously effective because it did appear to be the usually complacent bourgeois getting roused enough to do something. Never mind that the protest was a complete phoney arranged and paid for by the GOP and consisting of people they bought and paid for, it worked,it achieved its goals.

Sorry to be a "killjoy" about this, but that's just precisely the problem. This "protest" isn't about sending a message, or making a difference, or getting someone to reconsider, or attracting media attention, it's all about bringing ourselves some measure of joy by making us all feel better about ourselves. In other words, it's selfish and self-centered and narcissistic, about on the plane with eliminating world hunger by humbly praying for it to stop -- it makes the protestors feel good they they've done something, when, in fact, they've literally dropped a pebble in the ocean, from which no one ever sees the ripples.

I don't want to feel better by making useless symbolic protests that do nothing and mean nothing, I want to feel better by kicking the ruling oligarchy in the balls, by seducing away some of their outlying members into change parties, or getting some of their more sensible members to adopt positions that go against the official party line -- and, most of all, I want to elect people to office at the local, state, and federal levels who will stand firm against the raging neo-con ultra-interventionism and the neo-Guilded Age corporatism that Bush represents. A bulwark can be built brick-by-brick, but not if we're expending our energy on petty useless protests and expressing inchoate anger at party officials.

P.S. There's talk of impeachment, which I've said is another useless exercise, because impeachment will die on the vine, and the only signals that will be sent are (1) Democrats are just as out of control as the GOP was during Clinton -- totally partisan and unreasonable, and (2) The Democrats are the epitome of powerlessness. Those don't seem to me to be useful messages to be broadcasting to the general public.

We can talk privately about impeachment until we're all blue in the face, who gives a damn what we say? But as a public strategy for public officials who represent us, that's a far different thing. For them to harp on impeachment would be, in my judgment, a serious mistake, since I'm serious about wanting to win a fucking election now and again.

Afterthought: There's a certain amount of the culture of narcissism in this country -- and especially in liberal circles -- in which making oneself feel good or "validating" one's feelings is seen as just as important (perhaps even more so) as dealing with facts and getting things done.

In my opinion, that's booshwah -- one turns oneself inward, into a self-fulfilling coccoon, and the other turns us outwards, towards the rest of society, the people we have to live with and work with, and the culture we need to change. One's contemplative and ineffectual (except, perhaps, for achieving some preferred inner state of being) and the other is social and productive and gets things done.

I'm all for inner satori, but I'm much more interested in living in a just and moral world, and, despite any number of koans to the contrary, a balanced inner life can only lead to that if positive, practical steps are taken. Otherwise we're just staring at our navels or jerking off -- because the enemy surely isn't spending his time worrying about the niceties of inner peace, he's out there raping and looting the environment, unduly influencing government through the great financial power of large corporations, and invading foreign countries at the drop of a hat. He's totally and completely outer-directed, and is satisfied by the prosaic meat-world rewards that come with it (i.e. wealth, power, fame). Anyone who thinks we're going to fight a power like that, directed in that manner, but doing things that feels good is, I believe, very mistaken.

Those folks don't particular cares how something "feels" internally, they want results and they know how to get them. We want results and we putz around doing what feels good. Who's going to win that contest?

(Recently, my behavior was criticized by a close personal friend, but because the criticism was expressed in the language of "feelings" -- this person "felt" that I did such-and-so when I shouldn't have -- they were appalled that I would dare to contradict their accusation and offer a defense of my actions. Appalled because one isn't supposed to contradict "feelings," one is supposed to respect then and validate them, they are held to be inviolate and beyond criticism, when, in fact, in this case they were merely the sham outer clothing for what was an explicit criticism of my behavior. Personally, I refuse to be drawn in by this ploy -- everyone's got the right to have feelings, but there's not particular reason why everyone else has to respect them without reservation.

Eliot Gelwan recently linked to this Scientific American article which says that research now seems to indicate that high self-esteem -- until now the sine gua non of contemporary education, and part of the culture of narcissism I referred to -- may actually get in the way of academic achievment. This doesn't suprise me when one sees the high value placed in street culture on respect and the constant concern with being dissed [disrespected]. Such concerns get in the way of communication and understanding, and sometimes quite deliberately so: they're used as an aggressive tool for promoting conflict and resulting violence. A little less emphasis on being respected and promoting self-regard and a little more on respecting the disciplines of civil society might be helpful.)

Ed Fitzgerald | 1/11/2005 02:04:00 AM | | | del.icio.us | GO: TOP OF HOME PAGE


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