Thursday, April 13, 2006

Solidarize, You Rabble!

With a big Generik hat tip to my pal Paperwight for pointing this out, I'd like to direct your attention to a post by Barbara O'Brien at Mahablog regarding protest marches and demonstrations. She compares and contrasts the civil rights marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam war of the '60s with the current activities protesting (mainly) the war in Iraq, and finds the contemporary events lacking a certain gravitas. She proposes some rules, with which I mostly agree. For instance:

Rule #1. Be serious.

The great civil rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s should be studied and emulated as closely as possible. People in those marches looked as if they were assembled for a serious purpose. They wore serious clothes. They marched both joyously and solemnly. They were a picture of dignity itself. If they chanted or carried signs, the chants or signs didn’t contain language you couldn’t repeat to your grandmother...

Rule #2. Be unified of purpose.

One of my ongoing gripes about antiwar marches is the way some groups try to tack their own agenda, which many others in the demonstration may not share, onto marches. International A.N.S.W.E.R. is a repeat offender in this category. Most of the marchers last September were in Washington for the sole purpose of protesting the war. But ANSWER hijacked CSPAN’s attention and put on a display so moonbatty it made The Daily Show; see also Steve Gilliard.

Having attended virtually all of the San Francisco protests against the Iraq war since 2002, I have to also admit to being turned off by the co-opting of the message by groups like Internatonal ANSWER (one of the worst offenders). Instead of hearing a unified voice decrying the lies and subterfuge used to take us to war in the first place and to continue the carnage out of some misguided sense of honor (or something -- I'm still not sure why we're there), those of us in attendance are subjected to a rant on every agenda dear to the most fringe elements of the organizing members' hearts. As Maha points out, we hear about Mumia, and we hear about Peltier; we hear about the plight of the Palestinians; we hear about all the evils of imperialism and how we need to completely smash the state, get rid of all Republicans and Democrats and yadda yadda yadda. The stridency of some of the more extreme members of the left wing at these demonstrations gets extremely tiresome; it diffuses the message and draws attention away from the cause around which we are ostensibly rallying.

At these protests, I am often reminded of an incident from my college days. I was in my early twenties, attending UC Berkeley, and I found myself at a protest in Sproul Plaza. The event was supposed to be a demonstration against the UC investing funds with South Africa, an attempt to get the university to divest itself of any support for the apartheid regime. (Sanctions eventually were applied, by the UC and other organizations, and the apartheid era finally ended not long after that.) But, as so often happens at events like that one, speaker after speaker came to the microphone and exhorted the crowd to back his or her particular agenda, whether it had anything to do with divesting South Africa funds or not. The speakers seemed to get more and more strident as the day wore on, and the final straw -- for me -- was a woman who got her turn at the microphone and began to berate the crowd.

"This is really great," she started out, "it's great to see everyone here, but now we need to do more. We need to do so much more, people! We need to solidarize with the Eritrean workers!"

She went on after that, with a whole laundry list of things we needed to do to achieve her particular vision of left-wing utopia, but I have to admit that I don't remember one single thing she said after her "solidarize with the Eritrean workers" comment. It's been nearly thirty years since that day, but I still recall that one line and how incongruous it was in the context of the demonstration. (In fact, I still repeat it on a fairly regular basis when I think someone is getting a bit too strident or lost on a tangent that has little or nothing to do with the main subject being discussed.)

It's not that I think "solidarizing" with workers in Eritrea or anywhere else is completely worthless, it's just that at that moment, in that particular venue, it was not the right message to send. It distracted from the issue at hand, and gave ammunition to critics of the left and of the protest that day. And that's what I see happening too often at today's marches and demonstrations -- too many people using those occasions to exhort the crowd to solidarize with the Eritrean workers. One of the reasons that Republicans have been successful at gaining power and attracting supporters over the past twenty years is that they have, for the most part, stayed focused and stayed on message -- even if the message is completely wrong-headed, mean-spirited and/or false. It's time those of us on the left learned to speak with a unified voice (hello -- I mean, goodbye, Joe Lieberman!) and stop engaging in circular firing squads. If we don't, we end up ceding power and position to those who oppose us.
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