No 801 Posted by fw, July 6, 2013
“…dissent in America is pretty much limited to [“legal”] methods…. Thus, all such tactics are essentially ineffectual in terms of provoking systemic, long-term change….we truly have only one thing left to lose. It’s called “the future.” In other words, we have everything to gain.” —Mickey Z
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” – Tyler Durden [Fight Club character]
When I posted a photo of just some of the 33 million (!) Egyptian protestors who took the streets in late June, inevitably, the comments led us in the direction of this musing: Why can’t we get even 33 Americans to show up at a rally on a regular basis?
A friend suggested I write about this and I suddenly recalled that I’d once before addressed this topic — in early 2009. The resulting article reflected my frustrated state of deep cynicism at that time. While the connections I’ve made and experiences I’ve shared via Occupy Wall Street since then have helped make me a less pessimistic commentator, I still feel there’s value in the angry (bitter?) words I wrote more than four years ago.
“Protest” is definitely not a verb in the United States
I began the article by defining the term “protest” (definitely not a verb) as it pertains to the United States:
“Wait for UFPJ [United for Peace and Justice] or ANSWER [Act Now to Stop War and End Racism coalition] to stage a parade (I mean, demonstration) on a weekend afternoon so no one misses work or school or in any way disrupts the flow of commerce. Don’t make a sign; the organizers will make one for you. March in an orderly fashion, be polite to the occupying army (I mean, cops), and be sure to stay in designated free speech zones. Blame the Republicans. Wear costumes. Make puppets. Exclude anarchists. Hold a candlelight vigil. Sign a petition. Chant. Vote for a Democrat and hope for change. Need I continue?” (My use of the word “occupying” now makes me grin now and a caveat: I’ve turned 180 degrees on the use of costumes and puppets. They put the reach in outreach!)
The question I posed in 2009 has become more urgent than ever: “With the stakes never higher than they are now, why aren’t activists ramping up the pressure and looking beyond tactics that are allowed by those in power?”
In the article, I ventured “five guesses” to answer my own query:
1. We are trained to believe that nothing major is wrong. Climate change? Economic meltdown? Epidemics of preventable diseases? Slavery, genocide, ecocide? You name it and we’re ready to downplay it. We’re Americans, goddammit, we’ll figure out a way to fix it. When the going gets tough, we’ll call the experts.
2. We are trained to leave it to experts. Rather than worry our little heads over why 150-200 plant and animal species go extinct each day, we rely on experts. Instead of learning what a “collateralized-debt obligation” is and how it contributed to the current economic depression, just let the professionals handle the mess. Besides, such delegation frees up much more time to watch TV and update our Facebook pages. (Note: I wasn’t even on Facebook back then.)
3. We are trained to embrace non-violence. All the real heroes would never raise a fist in anger: Jesus, MLK, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, etc. Sure, the government and its corporate owners are taking away all our rights and all our money. They’re poisoning our air, water, and food while crafting laws that make prison a looming possibility, but the moment we contemplate anything more than a non-violent response, we become worse than any of them. Ain’t that right?
4. We feel too damn privileged to risk prison (or worse). The average Gaza resident doesn’t have the luxury of wondering if their resistance could result in arrest and thus perhaps ruin their reputation. The average American? Well, that’s a different story. I can’t defy insane laws designed to squash protest. I might get arrested and that means close proximity to all those scary criminals and it also means hurting my chances of landing a good job and maybe even losing all my respectable friends. I mean, I’m an activist and all but that’s asking way too much. Who do you think I am, Mandela?
5. We’re fuckin’ cowards. Our acquiescence in a disturbingly broad range of areas appears to have no limits. Americans love to talk the talk about being fearless and tough but when ordered to remove our shoes before going through airport security, it’s “yes sir” all the way. We know things have passed the proverbial tipping point and that immediate action is 100 percent needed and justified, but we’re far too spineless to do anything that might get us in trouble. Somehow, it’s more terrifying for any of us to face down a cop than it is to contemplate the total destruction of our earthly eco-system.
After all that, I summed up: “If it’s true, as Gandhi stated, that “action expresses priorities,” we American activists clearly aren’t overly concerned about the future.”
Lurking beneath such snark*, however, I knew there was much more to it than “expressing priorities.” [*Someone or something that is difficult to track down]
“Force is always on side of the governed”
In the Doors song, “Five to One,” Jim Morrison wrote:
The old get old/And the young get stronger
May take a week/And it may take longer
They got the guns/But we got the numbers
Gonna win, yeah/We’re takin’ over
There was a time when I took youthful solace in the whole “we got the numbers” thing. The very idea filled with me confidence… but eventually I came to see that the ones with the guns figured it out a long, long time ago.
Philosopher David Hume — in 1758 — explained it this way:
“As force is always on side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only that government is founded and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments as well as to the most free and most popular.”
“The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world,” wrote Gore Vidal. “No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity — much less dissent.”
“We” still have the numbers. Morrison’s “they,” however, give no indication they’ll be surrendering their guns any time soon. As a result, dissent in America is pretty much limited to methods (at least in their safe-for-mass-consumption versions) are deemed “legal” by those with the guns and, in their own way, legitimize the power held by those with the guns.
Thus, all such tactics are essentially ineffectual in terms of provoking systemic, long-term change. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why you haven’t taken your rebellion beyond the methods listed above. Your answer is likely the same as mine: “We’ve got the numbers but, well, they’ve got the guns.”
What the Egyptians may have figured out is how to lure in the military so they’d have the numbers and the guns. While I have virtually zero confidence we can de-program those in U.S. law enforcement — from local municipalities to the federal level — any time soon, there already are many veterans who now identify as activists and/or occupiers.
It’s a start… but also a far cry from 33 million on the streets with army support.
Nothing left to lose
“We are all going to die. The issue is how we live. What we do matters.” – Jed Brandt
Which brings us back to the question, the literal title of this article. To try answering, let’s return to reason #4 listed above — the bit about being “too privileged” to protest — and to Hume’s mention of the governors having “nothing to support them but opinion.”
The brilliance of the 1% has been to convince nearly everyone else that they “have too much to lose” to risk fighting for a better world. Thus, it’s our job to turn the tables with some counter-conditioning.
It’s our job to make clear the simple yet frightening reality that we have virtually nothing left to lose. Do I exaggerate? Consider this…
We’ve already lost access to clean water, breathable air, healthy food and thus face an epidemic of preventable but deadly diseases and conditions… we’ve already lost 90 percent of the large fish and 80 percent of the forests… we lose 150-200 plant and animal species every single day…we’ve already lost the freedom to send an e-mail, make a phone call, mail a letter, or even walk down the street without being spied on and/or repressed…and we’ve practically lost our goddamned souls as we offer silent consent to all the above and so much more (like wars waged in our name).
We lose something each time we step over a homeless person to enter a store that sells the remains or tortured and murdered animals or products made in sweatshops or toxins disguised as commodities.
We lose something each time we tune out the call to revolution and focus instead on our televisions, our computers, and our smart phones.
We lose something each time we choose denial, apathy, or indifference instead of awareness, solidarity, and action.
So, please don’t talk about how you have “too much to lose” to risk becoming an activist, a target of the state, to take to the streets and demand change, to put your ass on the line.
As Jim Morrison also sang: “No one here gets out alive.” If we’re all on borrowed time, it’s our duty to make the best use of each and every minute.
After all, we truly have only one thing left to lose. It’s called “the future.” In other words, we have everything to gain.
Mickey Z [Zezima] is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Darker Shade of Green. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on an obscure website called Facebook. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.