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Well That Was Fun

A March To Irrelevance

What positive effect did the protests during the Republican convention really have?

by Matt Taibbi, September 10, 2004

Hey, you assholes: The ‘60s are over!

I'm not talking about your white guy fros, muttonchops and beads. I'm not talking about your Che t-shirts or that wan, concerned, young Joanie Baez look on the faces of half 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 anti-war protests in New York a few years ago were more than a silly, lofty 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 ignored 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 an idiot president like George W. Bush. 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 on our hands.

We are raising a group of people whose only ideas about protest and opposition come from the 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, but it also doesn't even make superficial sense now.

If you read the bulletins by United for Peace and Justice ahead of the anti-war protest you know that the marchers were encouraged to "show their creativity" and dress outlandishly. The marchers complied, turning Seventh Avenue in New York into a lake of midriffs, billabong, bandannas, and "Buck Fush" T-shirts. There were facial studs and funny hair and mansandals and papier-mache masks and chicks in their skivvies jousting to be the next young Heather Taylor inspiring the next Jimi Hendrix to write the next "Foxy Lady."

The New York Post and Fox News stood on the sidelines greedily recording all of this unbowed individuality for posterity, understanding instinctively that each successive T-shirt and goatee is 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 were forms of defiance. It was a giant, raised middle finger to a ruling class that had insisted on a kind of suffocating, static conformity in all things -- in sexual mores, and professional ambitions, and 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.

Conformity still exists and the same corporate class still imposes it. But conformity looks different now. Outlandish dress is 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 50s and early 60s the individual was a threat. The system 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.

The one thing that could shake middle America is not "creativity." It was something else: uniforms. 300,000 people banging bongos and dressed like extras in an Oliver Stone movie do not scare anyone in America anymore. 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 enough unity and discipline to dress alike are also capable of doing more than just march. Marching has been rendered basically useless. Before the Bush war, Washington and New York saw the largest protests since the 1960s — and this not only did not stop the war but it also didn't even motivate the opposition political party to nominate an antiwar candidate.

Mass protests could cause Johnson to give up the Oval Office and Nixon to spend nights staring out his window in panic. No more. We now have different and more sophisticated law-enforcement techniques and most importantly a different brand of protester.

Protests can now be ignored because media has learned how to dismiss them, our police know how to contain them, and 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're not going to go home and bomb draft offices, take over campuses, and 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 protests to happen -- nothing happens.

The people who run this country are not very afraid of 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 the system is vulnerable. That means boycotts and strikes at the very least and these things require vision, discipline and organization.

The 1960s were a 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 how to be a threat. We have to learn that all over again for ourselves, from scratch, with new rules. The 1960s are gone, the Republican convention isn't the only party that's over.

(New York Press)

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