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A March to Irrelevance

Great article about the recent RNC protests. We need to get our shit together.
Hey, you assholes: The '60s are over!

I'm not talking about your white-guy fros, mutton-chops and beads. I'm not talking about your Che t-shirts or that wan, concerned, young Joanie Baez look on the faces of half of your women. I'm not even talking about skinny young potheads carrying wood puppets and joyously dancing in druid circles during a march to protest a bloody war.

I'm not harping on any of that. I could, but I won't. Because the protests of the last week in New York were more than a silly, off-key exercise in irrelevant chest-puffing. It was a colossal waste of political energy by a group of people with no sense of history, mission or tactics, a group of people so atomized and inured to its own powerlessness that it no longer even considers seeking anything beyond a fleeting helping of that worthless and disgusting media currency known as play.

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea. I admire young people with political passion, and am enormously heartened by the sheer numbers of people who time after time turn out to protest this idiot president of ours. But at the same time, I think it is time that some responsible person in the progressive movement recognize that we have a serious problem our hands.

We are raising a group of people whose only ideas about protest and opposition come from televised images of 40 years ago, when large public demonstrations could shake the foundations of society. There has been no organized effort of any kind to recognize that we now live in a completely different era, operating according to a completely different political dynamic. What worked then not only doesn't work now, it doesn't even make superficial sense now.

Let's just start with a simple, seemingly inconsequential facet of the protests: appearance. If you read the bulletins by United for Peace and Justice ahead of the protests, you knew that the marchers were encouraged to "show their creativity" and dress outlandishly. The marchers complied, turning 7th Ave. into a lake of midriffs, Billabong, bandanas and "Buck Fush" t-shirts. There were facial studs and funny hair and man-sandals and papier-mache masks and plenty of chicks in their skivvies all jousting to be the next young Heather Taylor inspiring the next Jimi Hendrix to write the next "Foxy Lady."

And the New York Post and Fox were standing on the sidelines greedily recording all of this unbowed individuality for posterity, understanding instinctively that each successive t-shirt and goatee was just more fresh red meat for mean Middle America looking for good news from the front.

Back in the '60s, dressing crazy and letting your hair down really was a form of defiance. It was a giant, raised middle finger to a ruling class that until that point had insisted on a kind of suffocating, static conformity in all things - in sexual mores, in professional ambitions, in life goals and expectations, and even in dress and speech.

Publicly refusing to wear your hair like an Omega house towel boy wasn't just a meaningless gesture then. It was an important step in refusing later to go to war, join the corporate workforce and commit yourself to the long, soulless life of political amnesia and periodic consumer drama that was the inflexible expectation of the time.

That conformist expectation still exists, and the same corporate class still imposes it. But conformity looks a lot different now than it did then. Outlandish dress is now for sale in a thousand flavors, and absolutely no one is threatened by it: not your parents, not the government, not even our most prehistoric brand of fundamentalist Christianity. The vision of hundreds of thousands of people dressed in every color of the rainbow and marching their diverse selves past Madison Square Garden is, on the contrary, a great relief to the other side - because it means that the opposition is composed of individuals, not a Force In Concert.

In the conformist atmosphere of the late '50s and early '60s, the individual was a threat. Like communist Russia, the system then was so weak that it was actually threatened by a single person standing up and saying, "This is bullshit!"

That is not the case anymore. This current American juggernaut is the mightiest empire the world has ever seen, and it is absolutely immune to the individual. Short of violent crime, it has assimilated the individual's every conceivable political action into mainstream commercial activity. It fears only one thing: organization.

That's why the one thing that would have really shaken Middle America last week wasn't "creativity." It was something else: uniforms. Three hundred thousand people banging bongos and dressed like extras in an Oliver Stone movie scares no one in America. But 300,000 people in slacks and white button-down shirts, marching mute and angry in the direction of Your Town, would have instantly necessitated a new cabinet-level domestic security agency.

Why? Because 300,000 people who are capable of showing the unity and discipline to dress alike are also capable of doing more than just march. Which is important, because marching, as we have seen in the last few years, has been rendered basically useless. Before the war, Washington and New York saw the largest protests this country has seen since the '60s - and this not only did not stop the war, it didn't even motivate the opposition political party to nominate an anti-war candidate.

There was a time when mass protests were enough to cause Johnson to give up the Oval Office and cause Richard Nixon to spend his nights staring out his window in panic. No more. We have a different media now, different and more sophisticated law enforcement techniques and, most importantly, a different brand of protester.

Protests can now be ignored because our media has learned how to dismiss them, because our police know how to contain them, and because our leaders now know that once a protest is peacefully held and concluded, the protesters simply go home and sit on their asses until the next protest or the next election. They are not going to go home and bomb draft offices, take over campuses, riot in the streets. Instead, although there are many earnest, involved political activists among them, the majority will simply go back to their lives, surf the net and wait for the ballot. Which to our leaders means that, in most cases, if you allow a protest to happen... Nothing happens.

The people who run this country are not afraid of much when it comes to the population, but there are a few things that do worry them. They are afraid we will stop working, afraid we will stop buying, and afraid we will break things. Interruption of commerce and any rattling of the cage of profit - that is where this system is vulnerable. That means boycotts and strikes at the very least, and these things require vision, discipline and organization.

The '60s were an historical anomaly. It was an era when political power could also be an acid party, a felicitous situation in which fun also happened to be a threat. We still listen to that old fun on the radio, we buy it reconstituted in clothing stores, we watch it in countless movies and documentaries. Society has kept the "fun" alive, or at least a dubious facsimile of it.

But no one anywhere is teaching us about how to be a threat. That is something we have to learn all over again for ourselves, from scratch, with new rules. The '60s are gone. The Republican Convention isn't the only party that's over.

homepage: homepage: http://www.alternet.org/election04/19840/

nice 13.Sep.2004 14:21

..

Nicely written article.
Lots of self-proclaimed individuals dancing is great if that's all that you hope to achive.
On the other hand voting is rediculously out of the question, since voting Kerry isn't revolutionary. Sometimes I feel like Geroge W. Bush is a liberal conspiracy to divert attention away from the problems with government (as a whole) and towards one almost comicaly moronic "evil" man. Democrats everywhere have this idea of an almost utopian American government, they have this belief that republicans are the cause of all of our woes. (The bumper stickers that say "Nobody died, when Clinton lied"... appearantly nobody remembers the penicilin factory incident, or the bombing of Afghanistan, etc. etc.)
They will apatheticaly support limmited 'liberal' or 'leftist' causes, as long as they can keep their safe suburban home and SUV. Sadly, this idealism is on the same level as the Republicans vision of a perfectly American, perfectly Fascist world. Nither has any hope of serving the majority of humans in this nation, or any other.
Geroge W. Bush has done some radical things in his presidency, but most of these actions were indeed inevitable for our current way of life to continue. He did these things in a way that outraged thousands, unlike many of his democratic apponants likely would have done, and he did them much more rapidly than his opponants would have, but in the end, democrat or republican, our government is only capable of murdering millions of people for the betterment of a few.
I'm not saying lets get really crazy and *gasp* vote Nader, I'm saying lets think about the dynamics of hierarchy, violence and oppression, things wich everyone must deal with, and everyone is capable of perpetuating. Democrats are blinded by the want of a "better" pResident, instead of a great society.

Peace.

Not only the "demonstrators" but the "mainstream" has changed 13.Sep.2004 14:58

observer

Matt Taibbi makes some interesting points,

but it's not about 'grooming' ourselves as demonstrators with real conviction.

the fact is, the so-called 'mainstream' has changed.

today, there are plenty of wealthy gay libertarian potheads out there who drive HUMVEES and support Operation Iraqi Freedom.

American society - and global Western Capitalist society - is no longer stratified clearly into 'us' vs. 'them'. and neither are many of the behaviors / lifestyles previously associated with '60s social change and upheaval. In fact many of those former 'radicals' and challengers of established mores have become set in (perhaps only some of) their ways - but at least enough to support de facto fascism.

are you fascist,

or anti-fascist?

corporate,

or anti-corporate?

to me, those would be the two essential distinctions.

(not such arbitrary, superficial, or irrelevant categories as 'politics', 'Democrat/Republican', 'freak' vs. 'straight', 'creative' vs. 'uniform' etc.)

hmmmm 14.Sep.2004 20:15

m m m m

> Back in the '60s, dressing crazy and letting your hair down really was a
> form of defiance. It was a giant, raised middle finger to a ruling class
> that until that point had insisted on a kind of suffocating, static
> conformity in all things - in sexual mores, in professional ambitions, in
> life goals and expectations, and even in dress and speech.

There have been Bohemians in America since the mid-19th century. "Until that point" really just mean the '50s & '60s? And even then wasn't this conformity only expected of the middle class -- "middle class" not meaning "most people" but meaning "that larger minority that the ruling elites rely on to deal with their managerial work for them"?

The '50s & '60s were an unusual period in a few different ways. Television was developing gradually the whole time from a strange toy for early adopters into a mass medium. Popular culture was suddenly dependent on video imagery, and elite & middle-class Americans developed an odd sort of amnesia about anything that happened before "Ozzie & Harriet" and the Andy Griffith Show went on the air -- an amnesia that persisted until the mid-'90s -- and a bizarre belief that they actually lived in the antiseptic whitebread world portrayed on those kinds of programs. The faith in TV didn't slack for 40 years, but after a while the programs got a little more plausible.

Another thing that happened in the '60s was the establishment lost control in the universities, first of the students and then of entire faculty departments. (I guess universities were once regimented "in loco parentis" style boot camps for the middle class. Now they're -- uh -- something else.) The kinds of people who write for the National Review are still pissed about it now, but the mainstream ruling class has figured out that it doesn't really matter if half the student body freaks out, acts out, and flunks out. There's plenty of time to screen that half out of positions of real responsibility later, and the other half is still going along with the same establishment program it always has been.

I'm not old enough to actually remember the '50s & '60s, but it's possible that the Cold War imposed a kind of ideological requirement to impose middle-class standards on EVERYBODY in order to prop up the suddenly-useful myth of America as a "classless society." Suddenly the establishment was trying to maintain much more strict and detailed controls on many more people's behavior, unintentionally handing dissidents more opportunities to demonstrate the limits of establishment power.

Not that I think the author of this article is necessarily "wrong" -- just thought I'd throw my two cents in.