Monday, November 7, 2011

Bonfire of the Inanities


No, that’s not Stanford’s mascot going up in flames at the Greek Theater before the Big Game.  It’s the Guy Fawkes bonfire at Midsummer Common in Cambridge.  And it’s relevant, I promise.

From across the continent and over an ocean, the Occupy Oakland strike looked impressive.  The BBC and the Guardian certainly thought so (the latter so much that it ran two stories).  While the Archbishop of Canterbury gets in on the act on this side of the water (is there a vacancy in the Labour Party?), the Occupy movement has taken hold even in Republican strongholds in northern California. 

But (and could there be better evidence of the nonexistence of the Vast Liberal Media Conspiracy), the Occupy Movement is in danger of being overshadowed by a literally miniscule group of people who tag along at each appearance, vandalise public and private spaces, and glory in clashing with the police.  Admiration for what Occupy Oakland had achieved gave way to obsessive footage of a tiny group of people behaving violently and anti-socially later that night. 

The media must be suffering from a collective neck-ache so quickly did they whip around from giving serious coverage of Occupy Oakland to sandbagging the movement and calling its legitimacy into question by focussing intently on the actions of this handful of people.  Photographs of proud and peaceful demonstrators gave way to scenes of fiery wreckage.  Hopeful by-lines gave way to premonitions of violent uprisings.  Even Michael Krasny, presenter of one of my favourite radio programmes, got in on this blatant act of misrepresentation and obsession over a small group of protestors who have been pretty well disowned by the movement at large.

The Guy Fawkes bonfire reminded me of the black-clad window-smashers, who aren’t the serious revolutionaries they like to fancy themselves.  If they were serious, they would understand that successful revolutionaries have probably read their audiences a bit better than that...a small cadre of people needs to ride a larger wave of support if they’re going to get anywhere.  That’s what the Occupy movement writ large is doing.  It’s not what a bunch of anonymous revolutionaries smashing windows and lighting garbage on fire are doing.

Guy Fawkes (or at least some of his apparently-hip apparel) is similarly mis-appropriated by political activists.  At least I assume so.  Because it’s hard to see much in common between destructive, self-absorbed, anti-authoritarian ersatz revolutionaries and a man who wanted to overthrow an authoritarian albeit hamstrung Protestant monarchy...the better to reinstate an even more despotic Catholic monarchy with a venerable tradition of absolutist leanings. 

This month will see two major demonstrations in London.  On the ninth, students will protest the transformation of higher education from a right in a democratic society into a marketable good to be hawked by a neoliberal government to the highest-bidding citizens.  On the 30th, the nation will see the largest mass action on the part of organised labour for a great many of years.  The challenge at both of these demonstrations will be to see that the message about the value of labour, of public sector unionisation, and of democratic access to social services gets through to the public.  It will be difficult, because we know that the media—whether right- or left-wing—is trained to jump at any sight of disorder, and will be ready to caricature protestors given the slightest excuse—not necessarily from malice, but from purely reflexive behaviour.  But Occupy Wall Street and its progeny across the globe seem to be gaining traction, so there’s reason to be hopeful.

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