Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Ineffective Catharsis of American Protest



Recently, in countries such as the Ukraine and Lebanon, the power of people in the streets helped spark meaningful democratic change. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine enabled a popular candidate to overturn the results of a rigged election and successfully win a second, fairer contest; Lebanese popular outrage at the assassination of a politician compelled Syria to drastically reduce its authoritarian hold on that country.


Perhaps it is because these countries have been in the throes of corrupt and/or authoritarian regimes that the roar of people in the streets resonated powerfully through the establishment’s corridors.

Here in the United States, protests are blasé.

As a thirty-seven year old, I have lived through the million man march, a million mom march (were there two of those, I can’t remember), Live Aid, Live 8, anti-globalization riots, numerous protests against both Iraq wars (as an ROTC student at the University of Connecticut during Desert Storm, one pleasant anti-war fellow was kind enough to call me a whore for the Pentagon during a debate); many of these events mobilized thousands of people and were well documented by the media, but not one of ever gained traction and forced significant political change.

Yet people still protest. And it’s such old hat in New York and DC that the police have choreographed playbooks to maintain control, and permits are issued, and people register for events on the internet, and classes are offered in many colleges to teach people how to organize effect protests and sit-ins and it is all so bourgeois.

Seriously, when is the last time that a protest (or protest movement) really shocked America into political action? It’s been a few decades, at least. The civil rights protests and civil disobedience in support of that movement are probably the best and most recent example of effecting change through organized protest.

So why do people protest today? Because, of course, it feels good. If you are a protester, you are taking passionate action against something you abhor. Civil disobedience is just that, disobedience, lawbreaking of sorts, and so it generates a bit of thrill for those who desire such things in their lives. But of course, since American society is no longer shocked by mass protest as it once was, being jailed for civil disobedience does not force one to carry a burden of shame that makes it difficult to find employment or say, get a cheap mortgage on a house, or even run for office.

So if you are one of those people out there protesting something, more power to you, and I hope you feel better after the crowd disperses and you do whatever it is you do with the placard you carried (ie do you toss the “No War for Haliburton” sign, or put it in the back of the Suburban to re-use in the next act of civil disobedience?) and head back home. I hope later that there is some satisfaction gained, as you check out the action pics on the web site of the protest organization of choice. Protesting in America today helps people feel better about themselves, and it enables middle class city cops to earn a little extra overtime pay that is hard to come by, and that’s about it.

PS: In a similar vein, the Weekly Standard published an article about the relative ineffectiveness of Habitat for Humanity; once again, based on information in the article, the well-funded charity offers a cathartic actrivity (ie building homes for the poor), which in actuality does little to alleviate the problems it is purporting to solve.

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