spectacle versus reality

Back before the war, I made a post about my experience at a peace rally I attended, and how unsatisfying it was.

A few days later, we also went to a protest. It was rather pathetic. I mentioned to Amanda today that it felt like I was at a singles bar for pretentious hippie-wannabes, strutting and preening ostentatious displays of dreadlocks and tye-dye like some sort of bizarre suburban mating ritual.

But anyway, Pattrice Jones manages to express this dissatisfaction much better than I can in an essay published on commondreams.org today, entitled “Let’s Put on a Show!” Spectacle versus Reality in the US Peace Movement:

Yet again tens of thousands prepare to descend on major metropolitan areas to march in circles through empty streets. We will exercise our legs and our lungs and our egos and then go home again. Nothing will change and nobody will be surprised at that. As usual, exorbitant expenditures of time and money will add up to exactly zero. Meanwhile, people and animals and ecosystems in Iraq and elsewhere will continue to pay the price for our failures of courage and imagination.

This bears repeating: The big demonstrations that have become so popular are not only ineffective; they actually make matters worse. By channeling the time, energy, money, and creativity of so many activists into an exercise in futility, these demonstrations and their preparations deflect activist attention from the urgent task of fashioning actual (rather than symbolic) challenges to the corporate world order and the military power that sustains it. Moreover, these demonstrations leave people – activists and regular citizens alike – more rather than less comfortable with the existing order. Watching or reading news reports about the event, citizens feel good about living in “a free country.” Mollified by making the news, participants go home feeling like they have done their part. Indeed, judging from the comments they make to reporters, personal comfort appears to be the primary reason many people attend these events. “I know we can’t stop the war,” goes the usual litany, “but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t show my disagreement.” Thus, the performance of dissent becomes an end in itself rather than the means to an end.

When we start from the premise that we can’t make a difference, is it any wonder that we don’t? When we choose tactics that are spectacular rather than substantial, should we be surprised when we are simply incorporated into the show? Is it true that the best we can hope for is superficial media coverage of the mere fact that some people disagree with the policies of the Bush regime? Might we dare to dream more extravagantly? Dare we risk disappointment by trying to actually stop the crimes that Bush is perpetrating in our name, rather than simply signal our disapproval of them? What might we do to really make a difference?

This sums up very well how I feel. A truly great analysis. I hate it when a good essay goes bad. She concludes that the answer, essentially, is corporate boycotting:

Is it possible to make such a sufficiently significant dent in corporate profits? Yes. The majority of people in the world opposed the war in Iraq and continue to resent the current foreign and environmental policies of the United States. Many organizations around the world already have joined together to call for a boycott against war. All that remains is for the mainstream US peace movement to stop marching in circles and get on the peace train. If we agree that everyone should, insofar as possible, shun the shoddy consumer goods of evil corporate behemoths in favor of substantial and sustainable local products, then we will be supporting the regrowth of healthy local ecosystems and economies at the same time that we are weakening the war machine.

The second I read the phrase “evil corporate behemoths”, my eyes glazed over. Talk about spectacle. I don’t honestly think in a country that epitomizes the domination of consumerist excess, that we can expect anyone to curb their consumption at all, much less in a directed and powerful fashion. Not to sound pessimistic, but I don’t think this would make one damn bit of difference more than staging a drum circle in front of the courthouse.

But nonetheless, the essay asks a very important question: “What might we do to really make a difference?” Her answer, I thought, was disappointing.