Friday, May 18, 2012

American activists and the art of self-sabotage

A certain degree of revolutionary romanticism exists among some American progressives.
          --David Cortright (2009, p. 112)

This week thousands of activists are protesting the NATO summit in Chicago, and with excellent reason, as NATO continues to act like the US-driven global hegemon, stepping on sovereignty of other nations and side-stepping civil society bodies such as UN. But how will the protesters fare? Will they win our hearts and minds or irritate most Americans?
One perennial and legitimate question that bothers and challenges social activists is, Am I working to achieve change at the right level? If we win this campaign to defeat an expensive weapon system but we fail to change the American pattern of consumerism and exploitation, did we really do any good?

Yes, we did. A nonexistent weapon system cannot be part of forcing people in other lands to work for poverty wages. If it never gets built it cannot pollute our groundwater at the various stages of manufacture, component by component, ecological niche by niche. The money that would have been poured into that weapon system can be used to provide healthcare, environmental clean up, alternative energy infrastructure and jobs--or it can remain unspent and not contributing to the massive military-caused national debt.

A very different and unhelpful question bothers and controls a certain percentage of activists, which is, Am I radical enough in deed and reputation? All too often, the concern for actual victory--which is usually achieved by lots of strategic planning and a great deal of hard organizing and careful outreach and mobilization work--comes in a distant second to the careful creation and maintenance of a revolutionary romantic image. Power fists, screaming at the cops, wearing menacing looking radical accoutrement--masks, black, tattoos, fierce piercings, spiky everything--this shows my true revolutionary character, my radical thinking, my obviously superior stance. Trashing cop cars and store windows is on the road to extremely cool revolution. Indeed, the scarier I appear, the more cred I have with those who count--all the other highly individualistic souls who dress and gesture nearly identically. 

Why didn't Cesar Chavez think of that? Where was Gandhi when they passed out the masks? Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks were sadly lacking in face metal. And those kids in Serbia--they didn't even call the cops pigs.

Oh, that's right, Chavez started the United Farm Workers successfully. The nonviolent Civil Rights movement went on a decade-long winning streak. The Serb kids in Otpur ("Resistance) toppled Slobodan Milosevic. They all won.

And the movements featuring masks and window-smashing generally lose. But losing only makes us angrier, more full of smash-and-dash righteous rage. So let's stick with the romance of radicalism. Winning is for losers.

So we'll see which way it goes. If that movement can create and defend its image to appeal to all of us, they will win sooner rather than later. Working with media can help and while Fox News is impenetrable, the goal should be to get friendly with media and get friendly with average folks. Stop the self-sabotage. Get in it to win it.
Cortright, David (2009). Gandhi and beyond: Nonviolence for a new political age. (2nd ed.) Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.


Gina said...

I have heard several people my age (the close to retirement crowd) make comments about demonstrators, labeling them as deadbeats or spoiled brats. The visual imagery overpowers the message. When I participate in a demonstration, I want the media to pick up the message, not highlight photographs of the non-conformist attire or video footage of vandalism and taunting law enforcement. We need the support of the majority to achieve change. I have to question the motivation of some protestors. Are they just looking for a reason break things? If they truly seek political change, they must act in ways that will encourage more people to support the cause.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Yes, the target audience is most often not the opponent directly, but the grassroots that can exert political change, just as you say. Thanks for your observations.

Sander said...

Please, don't think that everyone dressing in black is always looking for violence or chaos. It is a tactic adopted as a reaction on camera-surveilling, it gives security to masses. Sometimes the police tries to get you even if you did not do anything, if they can't recognize you and you are safer.

So please stop with always comparing black-dressers with violence.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Fair enough. But what you do when you wear masks is to elicit the predator-prey relationship with the police and the government, and the image you project, like it or not, is that you want to be safer to pull off some anonymous destruction. Openness is far more effective. If you want to be safe safe safe just stay home. If you want social change, be open and public and vulnerable. You'll find you win faster and with fewer costs and are far safer in the end.