Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Playing Catch-Up

Finally got around to reading Matt Taibbi's "Spanking the Donkey." At dinner I read his 2004 commentary on the ineffectiveness of sixties-style street protests decades after their time had passed:
We are raising a group of people whose only idea about protest and opposition come from televised images of forty 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 does not work now, but it also doesn't even make any 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 Seventh Avenue into a lake of midriffs, billabong, bandannas, and "Buck Fush" T-shirts. There were facial studs and funny hair and man-sandals and papier-mâché 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."
Such display after an age of conformity scared the hell out of people in the 60s. But not now. Taibbi's criticisms echo one of my pieces published in the Asheville Citizen-Times a year later - September 24, 2005 - on the weekend of a large protest in Washington. I think we're on the same page:

Friends I describe as all-natural, vegetarian chain smokers have attended protest rallies since college. It’s a kind of hobby. They are probably in Washington right now, marching against the war in Iraq. Sometimes they would invite me along to protest [your favorite liberal cause here], promising it would be fun.

Sure. I can think of lots of things more fun than protesting foreign wars and abuses of power. Or listening to impassioned speeches with rhetoric so threadbare that you can close your eyes and imagine yourself at any street rally since 1966.

This weekend major U.S. cities will see protests against the conflict in Iraq. The usual cast of characters will be massing in Washington: squads of pall bearers with mock coffins, Grim Reapers, pets in drag, and clowns for peace.

Friends, would you please consider doing something effective for a change? If you like playing dress-up, there's the Society for Creative Anachronism. For fun, rent a Jackie Chan film. We've watched you get arrested earning your merit badges in civil disobedience long enough to figure out that what's really arrested is your political development.

It's not that your issues aren't worthwhile. Most are. And sure, protesting can be cathartic and promote a sense of solidarity with your tribe. You go home feeling better about the issues. But wouldn’t you rather go home having done something with half a chance of resolving them? If you want to effect change, you have to influence political leaders and win the hearts and minds of American voters.

Face it, America is not swayed by mass die-ins dramatizing the loss of life caused by war. Or by coeds dressed as "corporate whores" to satirize conglomerates prostituting after Defense Department dollars. Or by indoctrinating children through activist puppet dramas with all the subtlety of temperance plays.

How do I know? Because you've been staging these sideshows for decades and the red states keep getting redder. These are time-tested wastes of your energies and talents, public curiosities, local color on the news at six. I'd rather go bowling.

Meanwhile, the other guys have been planning, organizing, raising money and building a movement. Talking points from their thinks tanks appear in the e-mail and fax machines of sympathetic radio and television pundits, and within hours their base is on message. You’re not even sure what your message is.

It’s past time to stop playing dress-up and start playing catch-up. So here’s some unsolicited advice.

Call forth the best in yourselves and you will call it forth in others.

Voters are not stupid. Think they are and you’re just spitting into the wind.

Listen to people outside your clan. Find out what they want. Try visiting flea markets and listening to coworkers. Read widely, including "The National Review and "The Weekly Standard" online. Avoid best-selling screeds.

Speak with people, not at them.

Think bigger. You get whipped because you are a loose coalition of narrow interests without a big picture. Center for American Progress founder, John Podesta, heard from one businessman, "All you guys do is show individual products. You never show a brand." Your opponents have spent thirty years and billions of dollars crafting and marketing their "brand."

Work better with others. You’ll need allies. The sun doesn't rise and set over your pet issue. If you take your ball and go home when your issue isn’t on top of the agenda, you still lose. Don’t let the little stuff get in the way of the big stuff. (James Carville puts it more colorfully.)

"Never just oppose, always propose," he suggests. Give people something positive to vote for: community, justice, fairness, corporate and personal responsibility, clean air and water, and tolerance. Don't cede these to interests who view every human interaction as a market transaction. And walk the walk on tolerance. How many times must we wince at antiwar students shouting down speakers with opposing views?

Don’t get angry; get involved. Volunteer for and donate to local campaigns. Donate to strategic planning groups. Nag your representatives.

Hurricane Katrina cast things in stark relief. If you expect to keep America from becoming even more of a haves and have-nots nation, playtime is over. Put away the costumes, roll up your sleeves and get down to work.

But Taibbi goes me one better. The powers that hold sway no longer fear outrageous sartorial displays, they're eager to supply them. They fear only one thing, Taibbi says: 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 scare 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.

[. . .]

Protests can now be ignored because our media have learned how to dismiss them, because our police know how to contain them, and because our leaders know that once a protest is peacefully held and concluded, the protestors simply go home and sit on their asses until the next protest or the next election.
Got to rush out and buy some black slacks. A protest with 300,000 liberals marching in slacks and white shirts? It would send Bill-O to the dressing room for fresh tighty-whities.

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