The Terrible Burden of Righteousness

By July 12, 2000 No Comments

“Two, four, six, eight – smash the system, smash the state!” and “Globalization sucks!” The profundity of the demonstrators who now dog meetings of international organizations cannot be underestimated. From the “Battle for Seattle” in November 1999, through Washington, Windsor, Calgary, Prague and the American political conventions, a seemingly new breed of protestor in both North America and Europe has emerged to challenge the powers that be.

Well, actually, the new breed of protestor is pretty much the same old breed of protestor, only more ignorant – as if this were possible. Unfortunately, given the banality of modern public information experts and the boring nature of modern diplomacy, the media sent to cover summits and conventions frequently have nothing interesting or simple to report. However, parked on the other side of the crowd-control barrier is a veritable circus of skilled activist/performers desperate for attention.

These protestors are a complex lot, but one friend of the Institute (thank you, Paul) labels them Triffids from John Wyndham’s science fiction novel The Day of the Triffids. Walking plants with some degree of cunning, Triffids were poisonous, communicated by drumming, and operated best when attacking in large numbers. Alas, like most analogies, this one is far too simple.

The demonstrating horde in the streets of Seattle, or assailing Queen’s Park in Toronto in June, is a complex mélange. At the front end of the barricade are phalanges of nihilistic anarchists, eager to do rather than talk. They are tired or – more likely – utterly uninterested in following the arguments of the others. Throwing rocks at police officers is much more exciting. For them, the cause is mutable and only matters in that it gives them the illusion of morality for their acts.

Perched immediately behind the anarchists is a mixture of “progressives”: a stirring of Trotskyites, International Socialists, Marxists, and others of that ilk. When left to their own devices, they are usually found purveying grubby dialectical epiphanies to each other, and breathlessly holding public meetings that only their fellows attend.

Public disorder normally attracts this collection, because they truly believe that someday the great unwashed will wake up and follow them in a glorious revolution. Until then, they can follow the cause of the moment, in the desperate hope that this time, they might be present for the next storming of the Bastille or the start of the next “long hot summer.” This event is always just around the corner, as these activists have carefully conditioned themselves to ignore whatever they decide does not fit the theory that revolution (or “radical social change” or “social justice”) is imminent.

Being somewhat more experienced than the average Anarchist, if slightly less confrontational, these Leftists can also be expert in mayhem when they choose. However, they are much more expert in political communications (albeit with a dialectical straightjacket) and are equally likely to pose in front of the cameras to “explain” why the people in their righteous wrath… ad infinitum.

Further back from the lines where the action is are two other groups of people. The larger group actually conveys legitimacy to the rest, for it consists of those who have not yet embraced a radical ideology, but instead are genuinely troubled about the environment or globalization or whatnot. They may not be able to fully articulate their concerns, (something which never stopped the Nihilists or Marxists), but feel compelled to make a statement of some kind.

The final group is as diverse as the rest. At Seattle and Washington, and even in Ontario’s Queen’s Park Riot in June, a number of special interest group leaders show up to spin it (as modern communicators describe interpretation) to their own ends. A union leader would describe the whole protest as being one about concern over job protection and Third World labour practices. An environmentalist would likewise claim the whole exercise was in support of the aims of his or her group. One Toronto politician coyly claimed she was looking for her husband at a Toronto riot, but took the opportunity to slag the police for maliciously attacking a group of innocent demonstrators armed only with gasoline bombs, baseball bats and other peaceful implements.

There are two mathematical models that can be used to describe a riot. One – the inspiration of British novelist Terry Pratchett – accurately assesses the intelligence of a mob: Take the IQ of the dimmest member of the mob, and divide by the total number of people in it. One should remember this formula when trying to understand how a protestor can expect a neutral observer to actually believe their version of event or the trenchancy of their observations.

The other formula is simple. Take a mob, and right off, rule out 95% of the people there. They are spectators and have little or no idea of what is really going on around them. Then look for the 4%, they are the ones who – hopefully protected by anonymity – will follow the examples of the 1%. With the new breed of protestor, this cadre of 5% comes prepared for each event. In some case, such as the Queen’s Park riot by “anti-poverty” groups, the 5% were the only ones who showed up.

This is a group that anticipates and enjoys confrontation. For them, the “Battle for Seattle” and subsequent events simply did not happen so much as they were made to happen. Barbara Ehrenreich in her attempt to understand the human zest for violence, recalled feeling the thrill of violent confrontation herself. [1] There is a thrill in confrontation, and in standing together against a potential danger. The protests draw in confrontation junkies, who need to get the same rush.

It is hard to be a revolutionary in a society that is largely content happy and prosperous. However, there are always those who are discontented (or bored) with their lives. The reasons for this discontent can be manifold, but a common problem results from a combination of intelligence and a frustrated ego. Those who are smart (but not bright enough for true genius) and educated can often be frustrated when their peers surpass them in other fields, and few people listen to them.

These are the naturally disaffected and are often the most readily drawn towards radical ideologies of any kind. The underlying idea is, if society does not recognize their true worth, then it deserves to be over thrown and replaced with something better. Embracing an ideology means that the desire for change can be seen as being unselfish, even noble, and so the disaffected are acting only for the greatest good.

The protestors are first cousins, in a way, to the Islamic Fundamentalists of the Middle East or – loath as they might be to accept it – the Patriot Militias.

While most of these protestors are of what might be considered the “Left”, the various clearly defined ideologies and goals that once characterized it have long since vanished. Instead, all the “Left” now consists of is a method for dissent and a vaguely utopian hope that somehow life could be better if only the inconvenient people would get out of the way.

Thus, the demonstrators outside the meetings of APEC, WTO, OAS, or the GOP are really only united in dissent (and perhaps a dislike of acronyms). However, they draw from a rich heritage of political communication, obfuscation of intent, and creativity in protest. Beyond that, they really do not know what they want, other than for things to be different and for those who are in power to be gone.

Protesters at any one main event might be those inspired by the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists of the 1930s; New-Age environmentalists who want us to run free in the forest with brother wolf and sister deer; or old line Marxists who cannot abandon their old ‘utopian’ daydreams. Of course, standing in the background, are the many people who are genuinely concerned about a particular issue. However, they did not organize the protest and are not there to pitch rocks at the police. The core protestors only see these innocents as adding authenticity to their interpretations of what the unrest is all about.

It would be a shame to take these demonstrations seriously; except that so many core protestors use these events as an excuse to vent their frustrations. But to expect coherent rational alternatives from them is asking far too much.

If it were not for the property damage, rocks and baseball bats, these protests would make a magnificent circus… as the “street theatre” of the 1960s radicals continues to devolve into a diverse circus of absurdity. As for those who are seriously concerned about various issues, they would be well advised to find another forum to express their concerns.