Friday 04 April 2003

A Minimalist March

In an entry titled Why March? Steve Himmer refutes my criticism of street marches as “red-daubed faces, drumming, banal chants, puerile street theater, trite placards, histrionics, self-indulgent moralizing, and wishful thinking.” What I’ve always regarded (and, to be honest, still regard) as a fundamental weakness of protest marches—that the marchers look like a disorganized and ineffectual rabble—Steve sees as their primary strength:

The individual voice in an election doesn’t individually matter. Done. In a march or a rally, on the other hand, that voice can matter—and it can matter without having either the individual voice or the collective subsumed. As 10,000 people march in a street, there is necessarily a unified message—we’re all marching for the same overarching goal, stating our opposition to war, in the current case. At the same time, each of us holds an individualized sign, or wears a uniquely sloganed t-shirt, or a mask, or performs a piece of personally important street theater. While the collective voice of the march can’t be ignored, neither can each individual voice welling up into the collective.

Why is this important, why does it matter particularly to the left? Because, as I’ve argued at length before, the contemporary liberal position has been hindered by a necessary inability to speak in a collective, representative voice by our own (correct) recognition that individual, varied voices exist and are relevant. A public protest that allows both individual and collective voices to be heard is one way (albeit it an imperfect one) of acknowledging both those voices without sacrificing the power of either. Far more than an election can.

Recently my friend Natsuko asked me what it would take for me to attend an anti-war march.

“Everyone would have to agree to wear only plain black clothes,” I told her. “There would be no chanting, no placards, no street theater, no drumming, no red-painted faces. Nothing but hundreds of thousands of black-clad people marching silently through the city.”

It’ll never happen but, if it did, I believe that such a demonstration would be an immensely persuasive theatrical event, with overwhelming moral and political force.

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Interesting--the other day, while marching, I wondered at what point what other kinds of mass events were possible, and one of the ideas I considered was a silent river of people flowing don't the street with signs or chants, without looking left or right. I, too, think it would an incredible piece of street theater, and definitely one worth trying.

Posted by steve on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The weekend before the war began I attended a silent peace vigil on the bluffs above the ocean in our town. The silence was the best part. And the black night. And the wind.

It was a communion of good human intent, a saying of your prayers out of doors. Were we all praying for exactly the same thing? Probably not. Could we have individually argued a political debate or made a coherent comment to a network camera? Who knows, or cares. It just felt like we were doing the praying right. And that is no small thing.

I love your idea, Jonathan. Setting a vigil in motion. Great.

We are wakeful. We are watchful. We are filled with human energy. See us, now.

Posted by Jim on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I'm sorry to say that the first thing your idea would bring to people's minds over here would be the marches of the nazis and similar scum in the 1920ties and 1930ties...

Posted by Martin Wisse on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Funny, but it brought to my mind the civil rights marches in the United States.

Posted by Burningbird on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The images of Sydney's latest anti-war march were so far from peace-filled. Instead, I have a mental picture of huge crowds sitting in silent rows down the length of George Street. Stopping the city with silence. A true message of peace.

A powerful statement, but one which would unfortunately bore the action-hungry TV stations.

Posted by stuandgravy on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

You aren't against street theater, then, you just want to direct and produce it. How will uniformity be achieved, though? Who will enforce the dress code? What will happen to those who dress in white? I cannot imagine your vision being accomplished without a top down hierarchical command structure, headed by a charismatic artist manque, and backed up with either a goon squad or a paymaster. What would make the site chilling is the spectacle of power, as in any other disciplined trooping of uniformed figures.

Posted by The Happy Tutor on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

Well, we're doin' mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin' cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we're reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought 'a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin' for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,
Believen' that the Lord was on their side,
I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,
Believen' that we all were on their side.

Well, there's things that never will be right I know,
And things need changin' everywhere you go,
But 'til we start to make a move to make a few things right,
You'll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I'd love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything's OK,
But I'll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
'Till things are brighter, I'm the Man In Black

But yeah... black... it's so... conformist. Above all else we must avoid conformity or any appearance of it.

Posted by Karl on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I read Martin's comment above and thought to my self that the marches of the last couple of weeks reminded me already way too much of all I had read about the fascism of the 20's and 30's

but that could possibly be my unusual outlook on it all

BTW I think Jonathon's idea sounds very powerful, but as he notes unlikely

Posted by scottbp on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I took have thought of the silent, all dressed the same march etc. It won't ever happen, and having taken part in the 1.5 million people march in London in February that seems to be the best we can do right now. I too now feel in a dilemma, as we approach another large national march in London on April 12th... we can't just withdraw now, no matter how much I dislike and fear what we are doing, we are in it up to our necks now and to withdraw would be worse. We will be damned either way.

Posted by lolacatkin on 4 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

What am I missing? The people who feel this is "unlikely" don't say why. I hate it when something's so "obvious" that I miss it completely. Can it be expressed in a sentence or two?

Posted by Jim on 5 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Read the Happy Titor's response Jim. It's an organizational thing. For such a march to be effective everyone, without exception, taking part in it would have to play by the rules ie: dressed all in black, no talking, no signs, just walking orderly down the street as a group. Should any one person violate those rules they will stand out like the proverbial sore thumb and draw attention to themselves rather than to the group as a whole and the message will be lost. It will, if you like, break the spell. So the questions arises "how will you enforce that sort of rigid obedience on the part of the willing participants, and how will you deal with someone off the street who just wants to join on the spot but isn't dresed properly?" etc etc. Better still how will you accomplish that without becoming like those you are protesting against - ie: authoritarian, no respect for civil rights etc.

It's an impossible task to do this with sufficient numbers of people to make an impact.

Posted by The Dynamic Driveler on 7 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I think Jonothan has taken too much ridicule for his dress-in-black remark. I understood this as a hyperbolic way of expressing that marches should be serious affairs, since the stakes are life and death. One of the things that makes sock puppetry suspicious is that it comes off as repeating the most offensive aspect of the jingoes: the cheery excision of tragedy from the event. The patriotic mouth breathers wave photo-ops of soldiers giving candy to children and wrap themselves in rhetoric of "liberation" (and will be snoring, or will have reverted to manly so-what realpolitik when the liberation unravels into violent occupation). Meanwhile, the anti-war marchers say: Hey! Kegger! An excuse to have another sixties!

Or at least the party atmosphere lends itself to that charge. No doubt requiring funeral dress is a bit of anal excess, but the notion that marches would do better to recapture the quiet dignity of civil rights marches seems closer to the intent, and seems unobjectionable to me.

Anyway, I was reminded that--minus the fashion suggestion--Jonothan's idea of a silent march has already been made--not by conservative temperaments, but by far-left *anarchists*. Here's the text I've been hunting down since I read Jonothan's entry. It's a footnote (p 196) from Brian Massumi's A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

A word of warning on slavish dedication to any model of action: The conviction that even recent examples of revolutionary rupture (in particular May 1968 and Autonomy) are obsolete and should not necessarily be taken as models for future activism is growing even among their most unrepentant veterans. 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 don't know any further details about the "silent nonpolemical marches" than the text above. But I found that very appealing when I read it, and it might be an answer to people who say that this sort of thing is "impossible to organize." Organizers could simply not schedule any speeches (even the marchers seem to regard them as irritants anyway). And circulating a meme like "No slogans, no speeches--no war" amongst marchers might go a long way toward the effect. Who knows? At any rate, I wanted to say that it's a good idea, whether or not it can be effected. Reducing the slogans and speeches would maximize the ability of very different kinds of marchers to project their own politics onto the march. I see the idea as an accomodating ambiguity, the opposite of some kind of hierarchical "discipline." Just take away the dress code and Jonothan's idea could be seen as fluid rather than rigid.

(I admit I'm of very mixed sentiments about this tone-of-the-march issue. Like Jonothan, I'm temperamentally averse to marches that feel too adolescent. At the same time, as I've recently snarked [ ] I think the speeches against sock-puppetry are often themselves suspect because they don't acknowledge that the right controls the media. The right will simply--and successfully--invent the stereotypes it needs, however dignified and well-behaved the marchers are. We are far, far past the point of having a public sphere where "moderate" behavior will win over the "center", since "the center" will never see such behavior reported in the media. So it's not clear to me that withholding one's support for large-number marches until they unanimously 'grow up' is any more politically effective than dressing up as broccoli.)

Posted by T. V. on 9 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Oh, hey, I tried to spell "Jonathon" correctly. Oops. How many tries do I get?

Posted by T. V. on 9 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

>It's an impossible task to do this with sufficient numbers of people to make an impact.

Then start small and let people get a glimpse of how moving it could be on a larger scale. I think if they "got it" they would be willing to play by the rules.

Posted by Tom on 9 April 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour