Saturday, November 14, 2009

From Active Resistance to Civil Disobedience to Play-Time Protest

Emma Goldman is famous for, among other things, saying, “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be in your revolution”. And that seems such an endearing slogan, beseeching us to retain our humanity on the battlefield. But sometimes it looks like there is an awful lot of dancing, and not very much revolution. There is a lot of crap going on in the world that could use attending to. Ever rising rates of carbon emission. Military “adventuring” for material gain. The economic gutting of working people. Governments moving ever further away from the public good toward corporate interest. Environmental regulations being dismantled. Food production slowly evolving into a kind of biological warfare. In 2009, we might be better served by a slogan more along the lines of “If you won’t get down to work then you have no place at the dance”.

I read in the news recently, that a protest group was declaring a hunger strike because the Copenhagen climate talks are taking on the character of a vaudeville routine (Who’s on first. What’s on second). Hunger strikes may be of dubious value, but they do tend to garner attention and they offer a pretty strong statement of commitment on the part of the protester. Being willing to starve, risk kidney damage, and possibly death does effectively shout “guys, this is really really important to me, I need you to listen”. It’s often overlooked that one of the handiest things about this form of resistance is it is simple and requires little in the way of effort or knowledge. As long as you are somewhere that people will notice, all you do is stop eating. Watching someone waste away, consumed from the inside out does make people uncomfortable in today’s world of delicate sensibilities.

I read a little further. It turns out that this group decided to fix something that wasn’t broke. They devised a rotating system of shifts: You starve today, I take my turn tomorrow and we’re letting Jack Sprat sit this one out, because he’s already a little on the thin side. More of a peckish strike than a hunger strike. The advantage of this strategy is you can keep up a hunger strike indefinitely instead of the previous hard limits of 30 to 50 days. Unfortunately, since it takes about three days for your body to even get past burning this morning's gummy bears, your previously visceral statement is turned into a lame metaphor and the cameras will move on to the topless protesters down the block.

What prompted this post was waking up to an email from Adbusters, with a bold 18 point font headline: “Buy Nothing Day Morphs into a Wildcat General Strike”. Wow, what’s this? Things have grown dire and we have to step up our efforts to bring down the “capitalist consuming machine”(otherwise known as ‘us’). While recognizing my noble efforts in the past, valiantly completing my immediate shopping needs by the 26th or else focusing my will to put them off until the 28th, the think tank in the Adbuster War Room calculates that we now need a hard push if we are to turn the tables on. . .on. . . well, I am still a little unclear on who the recipient of this message is, but I digress. This year, on November 27th, I need to go even further beyond the call of duty and “turn off all non-essential appliances”. Whoah, the kid gloves are off. I'm not sure how to differentiate between essential and non-essential though. Hospital life-support machines, ok, they’re probably essential. It gets a little grey when I think about the blender which provides my organic-whey-protein-with-açaí power shake in the morning(hey, I'm not in the hunger strike battalion). If Joan of Arc had had this hammer in her toolbox, just think how things could have turned out. More tools is good, isn’t it?

One of the benefits of the broad application of post-secondary education to the young adult consumer market is that there is just a hothouse of fertile creativity in the protest movement. Back around the time that unions started to gain strength, protesters were uneducated and had to resort to carrying two-by-fours and bricks and engaging in a kind of urban warfare to gain the attention of their oppressors. Remember those Wildcat Strikes! Today though, in a more enlightened age, we have Puppet Theatre. This is arguably a more complex form of protest, but education filled that ingenuity gap. Basically, the night before the protest, you pull on your best Che Guevera(TM)t-shirt, then you gather your cell members, pick up some markers, glue, scissors, fabric and a couple of six packs of local micro brew and then you just let your creativity run wild in an explosively anarchic synergistic collaboration. Then, at the protest, you stage a drama, rich in symbolism and mythic allusion and really let the enemy know you mean business.

Author Derrick Jensen cuts right to the heart of the matter. He poses the question, What if, in the Star Wars Saga, the rebel Alliance had used the tools of the environmental movement? Some highlights are the promoting of eco-tourism on Endor among the storm troopers, setting up fair-trade coffee stands on the death star, and letter writing campaigns imploring Vader to give up his destructive ways. Jensen’s telling of the story underscores the absurdity of it all. As amusing as it is, your laughter gets hollow and an uncomfortable feeling creeps into your gut when he gets to the more radical protesters. The hardcore of the movement go down to planets slated for destruction, link hands, sing give peace a chance and project "waves and waves of loving kindness" at Vader.

I do understand the value of protest. Sometimes it raises awareness on an issue. It gives people a chance to declare their non-support. Occasionally, with enough of a groundswell, it gets politicians itchy under the collar as they wonder where the voter heart lies. And it is an opportunity to build community ties, human bonds and to learn you are not alone in your discontent. But the flip-side is the mistaken sense of what it can accomplish, and its vulnerability due to media filtering (when the news reports a protest, it usually doesn’t identify the cause, but instead focuses on how “they” thwarted “you” by disrupting traffic). There are other liabilities too. It can cause complacency in the casual witness who may feel sympathetic but is comforted that “something is being done”. Worst of all, it becomes a substitution for the real work involved in change. A good portion of this cohort don’t vote and don’t “believe in” politics or institutions (wake up call: they are real, powerful, organized and effective and they don’t require our belief). For the most educated generation ever, there is a flabbergasting naivety concerning how things work, how things get done. If the limits of your political discourse are “hey hey, ho ho, blank-blank has to go”, and the limits of your resistance activities are token protest gestures and you are blind to how supportive to “the enemy” your complete civic absenteeism is, then you will always have a growing number of protests to attend. Because the world will keep merrily on in its terrible way, guided by the people who are actually doing things.

Years ago, I was sitting with some friends. Decent, intelligent, kind, educated middle class adults. All very concerned with the state of the world. My disgruntled peer group was highly identifiable by their fashionable blend of post-punk and nerd-chic. They considered the “anti-conformism” of their store bought clothes to be part of their “political” statement(yes, with enough education, you can simultaneously disbelieve in politics, yet believe denim is a political statement). A very ordinary looking guy in white shirt and tie walked up to us. Turns out he was a former classmate of the group. Nobody had seem him hanging around in a long time, and they asked what he had been up to. As it was, he had gone off to law school and was well on his way to becoming an environmental lawyer. After he left, they jeered about how he had sold out, and wondered what he hoped to accomplish. There was even a lament, that he “had been so cool, what happened to him"? If the whole group had all become environmental lawyers, would Canada have gotten away with re-designating a bunch of lakes, “tailings ponds”, as a clever cost-effective solution to toxic pollution by resource industries?

Incidentally, Emma Goldman wrote, spoke and did an awful lot of pretty impressive revolutionary stuff, but most likely never said that quote in the opening. She did however try to assassinate a corporate industrialist CEO that she had identified as one of the enemy.

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