Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Symbolism, Posturing, and the Desire to Matter

In the 1980s, the "Divestment" movement was pretty strong.  I wrote this about one battle in that war, at Dartmouth.

Anyway, the logic is that activists can't do much about conditions in South Africa (or Israel, or wherever the Great Eye of Leftism is currently focused, from the Dark Tower of the Times editorial page, ready to call out the orcs from the MSNBC "news"room) directly.  But they can take decisive and effective action by [XXX].  And I have to admit, I pretty much never understand the connection between whatever their chosen XXX is and the actual thing they say they care about.

Of course, the answer is that it's the doing, because it shows the caring.  The connection, in terms of actual effect, is of secondary importance.  What they are going for is to show that they are non-conformists (by dressing in exactly identical ripped jeans and organic free range t-shirts, and being indignant in exactly the same way as everyone else) and that they are good people.  If you disagree with them, even by saying that you doubt their action has any consequence, then you are  bad people.   Facts don't matter at all, because it's the symbolism of the action that matters.  The supposed target is far away and not all that important.  What's important is the mutual congratulations of the activists themselves:  "You are so....ACTIVE!"  "No, YOU are more active.  Really.  I admire your activism!" and so on.

So, a piece, in the Tower of the Great Eye itself, on the utter pointlessness of divestment, at least in terms of effect. 

I don't think it will matter much, of course.  The point is not the effect of action, but the symbolic unity of calling people to action.  This is true for any religion, of course, but it's surprising that the Left does not recognize its religiosity.

In spring semester 1991 I was teaching at UNC, and there was an anti-war activist in my class.  He came up often after class to interrogate me about my views on the war.  I was  not terribly pro-war, but said that--given our energy policy, our commitments to Allies, and the fact that there was an actual UN Resolution (661) that gave at least face legitimacy to ending the occupation by force--I thought his protests were not very useful.

He was enraged by this, and came up with complex reasons why in fact the protests were the key to getting Iraq to leave Kuwait.  Force could never work, but protests by hairy smelly middle class Carrborovians...THAT would show Saddam a thing or two.

We had class on the morning of February 28.  This was the morning after the day when the Iraqis tried to leave, and got smashed like bugs on the "Highway of Death."

I was glad that (it appeared) the war was over.  But Mr. Active was ecstatic, and ready for me to eat crow.  "We did it!  We stopped the war!  Our protests made the difference!"  He was actually standing up in class, and did not let us start the lecture until he got to make his point.

As far as I could tell (he was pretty fired up) the logic was this:  A. There was a war. B. Beard-boy and several of his friends had protested the war.  Earnestly.  C. The war ended.  D. Beard-boy & Co. were heroes. 

Now, I'll admit that if B caused C then D is at least plausible.  So that is the heart of the question.  He did eventually calm down enough to admit that his PARTICULAR protest may not have ended the war, but the SYMBOL of his protest was important.  In fact, the causal relation between all the protests and the end of the war was symbolic.  The symbol of the near-total destruction of the capacity of the Iraqi Army, and the actual destruction of the Iraqi Air Force, were not part of his "end the war peacefully" narrative.  He had said the war should end, and the war had ended.  I assume he also believed in Santa Claus (it's a similar logic...)

That doesn't mean that all protests are pointless, of course.  The Civil Rights protests were important, if only because they were televised and revealed the savagery of the southern apartheid system.  Protests in the Phillipines, Central Europe, Egypt, etc. have caused change, though not always for the better.

The problem that I see is that "protest" in the U.S., especially by U.S. college students, has been relegated to a kind of extra-curricular activity.  It's fine that it's pointless, because it's like an internship.  The whole object of the exercise is the improvement of the protester, not the effectiveness of the protest.


Jeff R. said...

I love it when MM gets all indignant.

Jim D. said...

John Hayward, writing in 2009 as "Dr. Zero," coined a term that suits this cohort quite well: "The Aristocracy of Intent."


Me own self, it always makes me think of Reverend Lovejoy's wife on The Simpsons: "Won't somebody please THINK OF THE CHILDREN?!?"

ericmc said...

Hello. I got out of the Army in 2010 and went right to Colorado State University's graduate school. The whole "occupy" thing started around that time and my young buddy wanted to go down to protest whatever they were protesting.
I told him that if he gave a crap he would be best off finding the mayor's house and executing his family on the lawn. The odds of meaningful security were minimal. Then when the cops protect his house you go to their homes and start killing their kids. Soon the cops stop showing up for work and you bring the local government to its knees.
It was effective in Afghanistan, the insurgents used it well. How worried were our CIA guys that a few nerds had a peaceful protest for a couple hours?
When our Afghan security had to stop wearing masks and the Taliban killed their family it changed policy for real. Protests just make white people feel better about themselves.

Old Odd Jobs said...

Signalling 101