e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


the future of protest

The latest issue of Utne Reader includes an interesting series of articles that offer a rhetorical analysis and critique of dominant protest techniques. Joseph Hart suggests that the contemporary anti-war movement fails to affect much change and gain wider coverage because the movement uses the same tired strategies (i.e., non-violent street protests) that have been dominant for four decades. One critic quoted in the series' centerpiece calls these techniques "political exhibitionism," referencing the fetishizing of the symbolic. The piece also charges that for many activists, this performance has become an end in and of itself. Hart argues that to get mass attention, the peace movement needs to engage the public in ways that are creative, dynamic, and interactive.

Protests, in my experience, generally have fixed and predictable scripts. The same old signs. The same leader with the bullholrn yelling "show me what democracy looks like" and the rest responding "THIS is what democracy looks like." Last winter's action in Washington looked just like last fall's action at the School of the Americas. I suspect that many activists will read the Utne series and reject the basic premises: the movement's been ineffectual, the techniques are tired, movement members see the action itself as the end, but I think that, largely, Hart is right on. The peace activists I know genuinely want to affect positive social change, but the rhetoric we employ is often closed off to re-vision.

Hart praises the Bubble Project, a kind of culture jamming involving pasting dialogue bubbles on images of persons in advertisements. The B.P. invited anyone and everyone to write a piece of dialogue next to the supermodel or the celebrity on an ad. Again, dynamic, open-ended, and interactive. A kind of web 2.0 for the real world. Interesting how this example of culture jamming differs from the more common uses, which are fixed and static and predictable, like spray-painting "war" under the word "stop" on a stopsign.

In another piece in the series, Hart makes a more familiar call for more engagement from "average Joes and Janes." Okay, heard that before. But Hart suggests that wider engagement can help disrupt the Alinsky-cum-Rage Against the Machine "have-nots take power from the haves" narrative. One of the problems with this narrative, says Hart, is that it's actually more like the *organizers* (middle-class protestors) taking power from the haves.
"But the Have-Nots? Well, at the end of the day, they're basically extras in this drama."
That's a sobering critique. I don't really buy the idea that the so-called organizers are necessarily middle class. My experience with the anti-war movement is not at all consistent with that premise. The social movement literature (that I'm working with right now on this conclusion I'm writing for the movement rhetoric book) mostly posits/assumes the existence of this monolithic lefty middle-class activist class made up of professors and public tv station managers. Again, my experience suggests that many "organizers" (to use Hart's term) are senior citizens on fixed incomes and blue-collar folks, many of whom are union members (especially here in the motor city). BUT: the critique remains valid. Activists too often write a heroic narrative that becomes the end instead of the means.

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