demo letdown

Oh, bitterness. I get to the bridge where the demonstration is scheduled at around 6. It is a relatively frosty evening for Austin. I’d supplied myself with two candles and a box of matches. Somehow, I had the delusion that – though it was a day off – though the evening was nippy – though the demonstration itself was the result of a floating announcement – that somehow others would be as shocked by the symbolism of three thousand soldiers dead as I was. As spurred on. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. Rather, crammed up on the ramp leading to the pedestrian bridge over lake Austin was a handful of people – at most, 150. And coming up to them, I received, once again, that familiar progressive demonstration feeling. Small demonstrations for good causes generate an air much like an after church service get together. Except not after, say, a Southern Baptist Church service. Baptist get togethers are full of meaty, red faced men in florescent blue suits bouncing around with the juice of life and the holy ghost running in their veins, and their wives, all sweetness and life and chuckles and the flesh around the chin catching the kids and absentmindedly stroking their hair, and the sons with the high school football player shoulders, and holy connecting, business connecting, sexual connecting being all wound up with each other in the great suburban ball of yarn. Demonstrations, on the other hand, resemble the get together after a Quaker service. Nobody is meaty, the goodness of life is a set of good causes, and nobody wears a florescent blue suit. Let’s put it this way: if the call had gone out in Austin, Texas, for everyone who despises barbecue to meet on a cold bridge in January, much the same group would have assembled. Good people all, God bless them. But not the army to stop the war.

Oh well. The news people interviewed a few people. I hoped the cameras didn’t take any long shots – the contrast between the claim, made by all the interviewees, that the people are rising up against this war and the paucity of people gathered to rise up against the war would be too killing. There were crosses to hold, and it turned out I didn’t need my own candle, and eventually the crowd gathered around a guitar player and sang this little light of mine and This land is your land – believe me, this was an after services get together. We were all pretty old, and lovely as it is that the guitarist was there – and he is always there, he always puts in his time – I felt that the sing along format jarred with the occasion. If he had sung, say, I want to fuck you like an animal, no doubt this would have disturbed the semi-sanctuary air of the demo, but it would have been more about what this war is all about.

This little light of mine seemed singularly inappropriate.

The demo spoke of political paralysis. It foretold another 3,000 dead. And no doubt there will be – 3,000 more, that is, in American uniforms. I held a candle, said this land was made for you and me, thought like hell, blew it out and walked back down to the path around the lake and looked back. You couldn’t really see candlelight up there on the bridge.

I know these people are the core. They are my side. But I wish we could get us some fucking Baptists.


it said…
I have long believed that political demonstrations - particularly anti-war protests - should be conducted in near-silence, as a sombre reflection of the deaths of those we kill and those we send to be killed.

Protests should shame with their seriousness those who created the need for them - the idea that bright colours, samba music and bouncing up and down (or hippy pieties) are going to really sock it to the 'suits' is misjudged. It is the administration who are 'casual' and glib as an integral part of their war-mongering.
roger said…
IT - ah, I do sense the Goth temperament in your suggestion, here...

But I agree in this case that near silence, a funereal demo, would have been appropriate. The problem, to my mind, is not to find one template for demonstrations, but to figure out how to use them. Anti-war demonstrations, at the moment, are ignored with a perfect impunity by the powers that be that Czar Nicholas II would have been astonished at. Unfortunately, most demonstrations are geared toward addressing "our little father" in Downing Street or the White House, even if we are saying, up yours. But this is futile.

Perhaps it would be better to, a., drop the pretense that the demonstration represents the "people." The people are locked in the suspended animation of the everyday. And, b., try to raid that suspended animation. Try to orient the demo to rousing the people rather than sending a message.

What that means, I don't know. I'm not a choreographer - I don't even play one on my blog! But I'm enough of an artist to see a flop when it hits me in the face. The demo I went to last night was almost a predesigned flop - the space was obviously chosen to conform to Austin law, and not disturb the streets, but that condition pretty much invalidated having it in the first place, since it resulted in amassing people on a cold night in an out of the way part of the center of Austin. And ... and this is a sad thing about the virtuous ... the demonstrators, having put in their time on these things, take a sort of proprietary interest in the demo. There's a self-selection process going on that excludes others, and creates that atmosphere of being at a church campfire. I think an organizer might reply, who the fuck are you to tell us how to do this stuff? And in one sense, yes, I do admire the people who put in their time and effort to at least organize something. But on the other hand - it isn't working, and it isn't working so badly that it conveys a message of total impotence.
T. V. said…
I think a hard thing to confront might be that what you take to be the Brueghelian lifespirit of the Baptists has almost everything to do with having their subjectivities wired to the State. In this country, no matter what happens you can avoid the bulk of existential distress--you can be fat and plucky and cheekpinching--you avoid a great many wan, defensive moralisms, the psychotic, selfdestructive shrillness of gallows humor, the latenight melancholy over murder--if you only remain plugged into that bigass battery. The moment you're unplugged, you instantly start looking ugly to everyone, conservative and hawkliberal alike, and eventually it's hard not to look ugly to yourself.

But it's still imperative to keep yourself unplugged, and to find some respect for those who work to remain so, whatever the cost to their likability.

This is more clear to me now, by several orders of magnitude, than it was six years ago.
roger said…
Mr. TV, hey, I’m not expecting Billy Graham! Just a little leavening of blue suits.
On the other hand – I was thinking of my reply to IT and I realized: I lied! I will pretend to be a choreographer. I will suggest what I would have done to commemorate the 3,000th death, instead of what I saw done last night. And my suggestions isn’t, really, going to make the bluesuited happy at first, perhaps.

Here is what I would have done.
a. Instead of gathering the protest at an out of the way bridge, hold it – as it is usually held in Austin – at Republic park, 5 p.m., and march on the capital. Given the handful of people, even a march that is, strictly, without a permit isn’t really going to get more than hassled by the cops.
b. Stock up on black sacks, with eyeholds and mouthholes cut out. Keep the white crosses, and anybody who has a sign, bring a sign. Everybody puts a black sack over their head.
c. Instructions are – this is the important part: No human sounds. Rather, everybody who puts on the black sack should howl like a dog. Don’t strain your voice, but no chanting – be silent, or howl like a dog.
d. No cooperating with the media. The organizers of all too many demonstrations are still measuring success by whether they got on the local news. Getting on the local news means the newscasters interview a few demonstrators for the great ADD audience out there explaining “how the war has touched them personally” (actual question last night: how has the war touched you personally?) If accosted by a newsperson, the proper thing to do is to answer all questions with either silence or a dog howl. The goal: MAKE BAD TV. This is important. The fatuousness of the Q and A format should be rammed down the camera’s throat. Between the ADD audience and our little fathers in DC, the expectation is that everything will boil down to a few questions and answers, a little point counterpoint. Well, no. The time for point/counterpoint is long past. The point has been made. It has even spread, if polls and elections are telling the truth. But it doesn’t matter. Rules for demonstrators: Communication is a Waste of Time. Demonstrate, if you are a Demonstrator.
e. And make your own tv. This is fuckin’ YouTube time. A film of black hooded dog howlers on YouTube marching around the Texas capital, carrying white crosses and antiwar signs, is what you need.
f. March around the capital a few times, howling. Then disperse. Then consider other targets for other demonstrations. And, to add variety, consider ululation, or tourette’s syndrome swearing (ffffffffff fuck! sssssssss shit!).
g. Remember – treated as dogs, we respond as dogs.

So okay, this might be crap, and you have to find the black sacks. But the main points are to refuse to communicate in any way the press can handle, and to make something that other people actually want to join. Now, it is true that people all over the world join Sunday school classes and sing this little light of mine – many millions more than don black hoods and howl like dogs. But nobody would do the this little light of mine routine if a third party – the church cum family – wasn’t behind it. Also, I could see that it might require some rehearsing to get down the total howling like dogs in black hoods gestalt – but you know, the krewes in NOLA rehearse before they do their parades. A little rehearsal might be necessary.
T. V. said…

You're not the only one to talk about the need for some kind of 'nondiscursive' protest marches. From Brian Massumi's User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia (p. 196):

Toni Negri, responding to certain patterns he sees emerging from such disparate events as the French student movement of 1986, Tianamen Square, and the upheavals in Eastern Europe in 1989, sees the emergence of a new mode of collective action for change--one that is radically anti-ideological and nonpolemical (even silent: the French students not only refused to delegate media spokespeople or negotiators, but in their largest demonstration carried no placards and shouted no slogans)...

I agree with most of what you've said here. But here's where it's complicated for me. It's about 90% likely that you crossed paths with someone I know at that demonstration. She's the significant other of one of my best friends from college, who lives there in Austin. She belongs to what one might call the protest lifestyle. In terms of hanging with her, I'd express some of the ambivalences you do; there's a prickly, ascetic moralism that rubs me the wrong way, maybe a judgmental quality, a smugness. How much of that is me, how much her? I don't know. But here's the thing: she's a Quaker tax protester. She lives well below the poverty one point years ago, the cutoff was something like six grand a she won't have to pay taxes that go toward the military. In this year's Christmas newsletter my friend reported that one of her new initiatives was counter-recruiting against the military in high schools. So how much juice does the critique of her personality have, as against that? Me, I don't think it should have much.

Or again, I responded with outrage awhile back to Zizek's little ditty about "Western Buddhism" as New Agey poo, a piece which all the Long Sunday kiddies around the country just adored since it was warmly designed to evoke a response as uncritical as anything you'd find written in Slate for its target audience. Well, you know how I feel about Seligmanism, right? But here's the thing: I've brushed with Zen Centers in an earlier phase of my life, and I know that-- besides the fact that a lot of Zenners are pretty dedicated political activists-- most genuine Zen centers in the country are run by a local priest who has taken a *fucking vow of poverty.* The academic chatter about goo-goo Californian pretense is all very cute and selfinvolved, but in fact the more likely liberal response to a Zen retreat is, "Oh my God, this woman priest is raising two daughters here, and they sleep in sleeping bags in an empty room and they don't have any toys."

I don't know too many liberals--okay, I don't know ANY liberals--who make comparable sacrifices, economic or otherwise, for what they believe.

The big yuppie prog blogs would diss both constituencies and seek to exclude them as embarrassments. Period. That pisses me off, a lot. And I think that's a fatal judgment on American liberalism. It's collapsed into what its own fanboy J.K. Galbraith called the culture of comfort, and it's lost the ability to make sacrifices for what it believes in--even the very minor ones you say you're calling it to make. The first sacrifice it would have to make to build a coalition of the committed is its yuppie respectability. I don't see that happening. The second would be giving up the Baudrillardian pleasures of pretending that it's living at the height of the liberal consensus and that it can still play cultural gatekeeper, pronouncing haughtily with a thumbs up or thumbs down on every new entrant to the terrain of grievance or protest. It's bizarre watching liberals play that arch game when they're so culturally unpopular, contracting "liberalism" further and further into the gated community. I think you said something along these lines when you were praising Mailer awhile back, the desire for "that spirit" to return; it's just that you can't hear that I'm saying something similar here because the bridge protestors are so unMailerian, at least in a superficial sense.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm a product of liberal culture and a complete pussy when it comes to giving up my comforts. But I think that's MY problem. The constant itch to find some "narcissism" motivating people who defy yuppie protocols, something still widely displayed on prog blogs, is not something I will ever respect. The mote in yr own eye and all that.
roger said…
TV, such an excellent response!

I only have two things to say.

One is that it is entirely admirable that these people are out on the bridge, protesting against the war - and are committed, like your Quaker friend, heart and soul to fighting the war culture. But I can admire and still say: this isn't working. And the reason I think it isn't working is - well, as I have said in my post and responses. And anybody in the zen center you mentioned would recognize that the situation requires a very practical response. Hence my little choreographic suggestion.

The second is - the way I look at it, one has to be guided by keeping your eyes open when thinking about organizing against the war culture. That means not just falling back on the same old demo form that once worked in the sixties. That form, itself, was new - it took from the form of the union strike, but it returned to pre-50s union ideas, like the sit in, etc. My doghowler idea really steals from Robert Wilson's theater - Wilson looks to the autistic, stutterers, the wounded, etc., to understand theatrical movement. Myself, I think we can learn from grackles and dogs as well. But the main thing, even given a more conventional demo format, is that one has to tear oneself away from the idea that the demo is successful if it got on local tv.

I think the Quakers should look back at their own primitive history to understand this. The keeping on of the hat in court - the plain address - these were attempts to short circuit a poisoned decorum. There's a story about the founder of the quakers, George Fox, entering a town with his shoes plucked off, because he had a vision that the town was full of blood. The second generation of quakers tamed the wildness of the beginning.
Roger, I think T.V. would agree that it's possible to both admire and still say: this isn't working. If you'll forgive a maudlin digression, I had a painful enlightenment years ago when I learned the difference between, "you have it that way" and "you don't have it that way". People who have it that way have the room to offer criticism. Their good faith is evident and they've paid some dues -- which is why what you have to say is easy to accept. You've got it that way. And as long as I'm taking interpretive liberties, I'll add that I think T.V.'s critique is aimed at the people who offer criticism in a social context that has effectively immunized them, which they've done nothing to earn. They don't have it that way, but they can enforce it nevertheless. Some do it for sport or career training, as with the academics counting coup. It's the sorriest part of the spectacle. Jon Husband introduced me to apt term, "grin fucking". It's playing a high rent trolling game, with a big vocabulary and salary, and getting thrills from making people to seethe as they're pushed down a few pegs. There's no qualitative difference between that and the smirking satisfaction of wingnuts who have successfully goaded their victims into a disgraceful display.

Anyway, this -- "If accosted by a newsperson, the proper thing to do is to answer all questions with either silence or a dog howl. The goal: MAKE BAD TV. This is important. The fatuousness of the Q and A format should be rammed down the camera’s throat. Between the ADD audience and our little fathers in DC, the expectation is that everything will boil down to a few questions and answers, a little point counterpoint. Well, no. The time for point/counterpoint is long past. The point has been made. It has even spread, if polls and elections are telling the truth. But it doesn’t matter. Rules for demonstrators: Communication is a Waste of Time. Demonstrate, if you are a Demonstrator. " -- is exactly right. The media in general, and television most of all, performs an homogenizing, pablumizing function. For the most part, the people who massage the "content" into a consumable format are incurable bootlickers, on the look-out for something to degrade. I don't see how any demonstration or street theatre can accomplish anything if that's not taken into account.