“We have facts for those who think, arguments for those who reason; but he who cannot be reasoned out of his prejudices must be laughed out of them; he who cannot be argued out of his selfishness must be shamed out of it by the mirror of his hateful self held up relentlessly before his eyes.”
— Wendell Phillips, American abolitionist, 1853
Culture jamming tactics can be put to use to further a political or activist agenda.
I’ll give the gold medal to the anonymous poet who managed to hide the phrase “Li Peng Step Down!” in the characters of a patriotic poem in the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper.
A silver to the Barbie Liberation Organization for switching the voice-generating units in talking Barbie dolls with the ones in talking G.I. Joe dolls and returning the dolls post-surgically to the toy store. The two dolls then made strides against the tyranny of gender roles, Barbie yelling “Vengeance is mine” while Joe offered: “Let’s go shopping!”
And a bronze to the Veterans of Future Wars — founded at Princeton University in 1936 to parody the bottom-line patriotism of organized veterans groups. Eventually the group would claim 50,000 members in chapters on hundreds of campuses:
“Their first manifesto in the Princetonian argued that sooner or later there would be another war and that it would only be an act of justice for Congress to grant a $1000 cash bonus to all men between the ages of 18 and 36. Legally the bonus would be payable in 1965, but since Congress seemed bent on paying bonuses before they were due, the actual payment date should be June 1936, with, of course, an additional 3 percent annual interest compounded back from 1965 to 1936. In this way the future veterans would receive their benefits while all were still alive to enjoy them. A national salute was adopted, a modified version of the then famous Fascist greeting: an arm held straight out in the direction of Washington, the palm turned up receptively.”
The photographs of Iraqi prisoners abused at the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib (or its Orwellian pseudonym: “Camp Redemption”) were more than evidence — they were potent icons, pictures that told more than thousands of words.
When orwellian antihero John Poindexter was assigned to head up the United States government’s Total Information Awareness project, an unorganized group of pranksters decided to give Admiral Poindexter a taste of what total information awareness feels like from the other side.
They found his home phone number and address, and posted this information — along with a link to a satellite photo of his house — far and wide on the internet.
It all started when Matt Smith, a columnist for the SF Weekly, wrote an article about Poindexter’s new intelligence bureau, that read, in part:
…I dialed John and Linda Poindexter’s number — (301) 424-6613 -- at their home at 10 Barrington Fare in Rockville, Md… Why… is their $269,700 Rockville, Md., house covered with artificial siding, according to Maryland tax records? Shouldn’t a Reagan conspirator be able to afford repainting every seven years? Is the Donald Douglas Poindexter listed in Maryland sex-offender records any relation to the good admiral? What do Tom Maxwell, at 8 Barrington Fare, and James Galvin, at 12 Barrington Fare, think of their spooky neighbor? …For those of you revolutionaries with private investigator friends, ask for even more sensitive information on Reagan’s former national security adviser. I’d be glad to publish anything readers can convincingly claim to have obtained legally.
Visit the John Poindexter Awareness Office for more Information.
Another promising project is the Government Information Awareness site. Its goal is to provide a comprehensive, easy-to-use repository of information on officials, people, organizations and corporations involved in the United States governing machinery. “In the United States, there is a widening gap between a citizen’s ability to monitor his or her government and the government’s ability to monitor a citizen.” The Open Government Information Awareness project aims to restore the balance.
Political elections are ripe for sniggling. Jam the Vote!
In India, Nanjunda Swamy has extended the work of his countryman Mohandas Gandhi with something he calls “laughing satyagraha”:
Don’t try that trick in Belarus, though! A group of “flash mob” practitioners there designed a “smile mob” — they were all to “come to central square and wander around smiling.” That’s it. Or was, until 100 riot cops showed up and arrested them.
An ongoing guerrilla hack in search of volunteers is the project to interrupt pathological, media-simulated social interaction. Care to sign up?
Mark Thomas has been described as “Michael Moore meets Sy Hersh. But way more pissed off.” His projects have included:
For an encore, he exposed illegal arms merchants by helping “a bunch of teenaged schoolgirls set up an online arms dealership” that managed to negotiate for tanks, grenade launchers and torture equipment.
The right wing magazine FrontPage is up in arms over an anarchist urban assault vehicle being underwritten as a “performance art” piece by a foundation grant and promoted by a Kansas City art space.
Paul Mavrides reports:
The Los Angeles Cacophony Society pulled a similar stunt more recently, posting flyers claiming “We Will Kill Our Pets To Protest the War.” Mavrides continues:
Terry Fox tells of a similarly-intended provocation:
In 2001, all 273 members of South Korea’s parliament received packages in the mail containing “human excrement.” One wit remarked that at least in South Korea, when it comes to politics, people still give a shit.
Which reminds me of Ales Pushkin, a performance artist from Belarus, who was arrested in 1999 for “malicious hooliganism” and “disgracing state symbols” for pushing a wheelbarrow of manure up to the presidential administration building and shoveling out the contents.
At the outbreak of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, protesters in San Francisco staged a vomit-in at the Federal Building to demonstrate how the war made them feel.
There’s a hoax doing the rounds that claims that the United States Internal Revenue Service is giving tax refunds to African-Americans in a program of reparations for the institution of slavery in America. It’s not true. But that’s not really accurate, either, since in 2000 and 2001, the IRS mistakenly paid out over thirty million dollars to people claiming this hoax tax credit!
The Germans picked a starker response to the tax man. In 2002, they started the “last shirt for Schröder” campaign — tens of thousands of Germans dramatizing that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was taxing the shirts off of their backs by mailing their shirts directly to his office.
Slobodan Milosevic found his control of Serbian government challenged by a group of young, creative, theatrical protesters who go by the name Otpor. Take a look at their accomplishments — they succeeded!
City plans for refurbishing the waterfront area of South Boston called for half of the area to remain as “open space.” But by the time politicians and developers got through with the paperwork, “open space” was redefined to include sidewalks and roads.
So in the Spring of 2001, Lisa Greenfield and Jennifer Moses organized a group to cover a Boston bridge end-to-end with grass to dramatize their idea of what open space looks like.
In San Francisco, a group called PARK(ing) creates open-space over the asphalt by feeding the meters and installing miniature parks in parking spaces.
Another group, P(LOT), created tents in the shape of cars so that people could camp in urban parking spaces.
Another group came up with a do-it-yourself traffic calming plan in Oxford — they moved their living room to the middle of the street!
In 1998, the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offered to open its spacious and well-stocked “dog apartments” as temporary housing for the homeless. A Modest Proposal perhaps?
Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter-to-the-editor back in 1790 in which he claimed to have found a well-reasoned defense of slavery remarkably similar to a recent speech by Senator Jackson - only this defense was written in 1687 by one Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim to justify the enslavement of white Christians in Algeria.
A somewhat more recent example is the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a politically-motivated guerrilla hack that has been used by governments as diverse as Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Idi Amin’s Uganda to whip up antisemitism.
Yet more recently, the Report from Iron Mountain was dreamed up by a pack of leftists during the Cold War as a satire of machiavellian governmental manipulation. It takes the form of a thinktank-analysis of the effect peace would have on the health of the state, and comes down firmly in favor of continual war as good for the country. The report simulated so accurately the voice of authority that anti-government militia types are fond of pointing to it today as evidence of a government conspiracy.
The Italian situationist Gianfranco Sanguinetti piled an Iron Mountain of his own in 1975 with his “The Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy.”
A group of hawks calling themselves ProtestWarrior took it on themselves to parody the simplistic slogans and reasoning of some of those who protested the overhyped sequel to Operation Desert Storm. They attended a peace rally, holding signs with slogans like “Saddam Only Kills His Own People — It’s None of Our Business!”
A (wisely) anonymous broadside advocates using simulated assassination to accomplish all of the aims of political assassination without actually killing anyone.
This tactic was put into practice at least once — in May, 2004, spectators at the British House of Commons threw bags of purple-dyed flour at Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The attack would have been ‘incredibly serious’ if the dyed flour had been anthrax or ricin,” reported the BBC.
In 1981, the British environmentalist group “Friends of the Earth” produced mailing labels addressed to the U.K. Prime Minister that were designed to be attached to discarded soda cans, as a way of promoting government support for recycling.
In 1961, another group protested Soviet nuclear testing by piling hundreds of milk bottles in front of the Soviet embassy in London, each bearing the legend “Danger: Radioactive.”
Buffo reports: “In 1960 a series of demonstrations were held in Japan against the renewal of the Japanese-U.S. security treaty. President Eisenhower was to make a state visit to promote the pact. However, on the night of the 19th June, 300,000 Sohyo (trade union) members and 40,000 militants of the Zengakuren converged on the Diet (parliament) building in a ‘snake-dance.’ Then they held a mass urination on the main steps of the building. The Japanese government was obliged to ask Eisenhower to cancel his visit.”
And the Drudge Report brings us the news of a mass-mooning by a thousand protesters outside U.S. President George W. Bush’s hotel room at Gothenburg, Sweeden.
The act of mass-mooning politicians goes back at least as far 1844 Tasmania, and may have been the origin of the term “Flash Mob”!
In 1967 a group of Chinese soldiers got in the habit of starting their mornings with a mass-mooning of Soviet troops across the border. Their Soviet comrades responded by holding up portraits of Chairman Mao when the mooning began!
Upset at slum neighborhood conditions in Chicago, a group called The Woodlawn Organization piled dead rats on the steps of City Hall.
John F. Kennedy ran for president of the United States government saying that he would end racial discrimination in federally-assisted housing “with one stroke of the pen.” When, years after he was elected, he still hadn’t fulfilled his promise, the Congress for Racial Equality sent thousands of bottles of ink to the White House in protest.
Environmentally-minded pranksters in Kingston, Ontario — upset that the government was clearcutting old-growth forests in Temagami — decided that public opinion might be influenced if the trees were being cut down in town where the voters lived. So they created a phony memo from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources explaining that in order to avoid “an exorbitant municipal tax,” the government would “capitalize on the current high market values of oak and maple lumber” by hacking down “5,000 trees in city parks and along city streets.” Naturally, the long-overdue outrage was provoked.
Another way they have of harassing the natives up in The Maple Leaf State is to test military aircraft in low-altitude bombing runs on their land. Again, the Kingston pranksters bring it home, posting official notices alleging that the overflights and bombings will be happening where the white people live!
A similar prank from the Kingston crew was a notice calling for immediate military draft registration that was posted at a war-happy college campus back when the U.S. and its allies were fighting to keep Kuwait safe for monarchy. The Call to Register was designed to sober up some of the rambo-talking (but draft-eligible) men on campus.
People opposed to the military draft by the United States government during the Vietnam War invented a form of protest they called the “comply-in.” According to one activist, “The law… requires registrants to inform the draft boards within ten days of any change in address or status. This means changes in religion, mental attitude and everything else. We want everyone to take this law so seriously that they inform their board of every single change…”
Some billboard improvements have a political message, like this modification of a military recruitment advertisement, or this hybrid of an anti-drug billboard and a wry commentary on the return of the George Bush political dynasty.
Famous in U.S. revolutionary history is The Boston Tea Party of 1773, in which an American rebel group calling themselves “The Sons of Liberty” dressed up in disguise/costume and dumped imported British tea into Boston harbor as a protest against British control of the American economy. There’s a first-hand report of the party on-line.
Another bit of colonial performance art worth mention was the elaborate funeral held commemorating the death of Freedom on 1 November 1765, when the British began enforcing the Stamp Act. Upon reaching the graveyard, Liberty was seen to suddenly resurrect, and the rest of the day was spent celebrating the miracle.
New Hampshire patriots pulled a similar stunt in 2006 — holding a solemn funeral for the U.S. Constitution.
Palestinians from Bilin also took inspiration from the Spirit of ’76. They protested Israel’s occupation with a number of creative strategies, including holding mock funerals for Justice, Fairness, Humanity, and Courtesy.
Governments live and die by disinformation campaigns, and they’re getting pretty good at it. Is The Eremin Letter real, or just capitalist propaganda? When you read about the U.S. government’s campaigns against enemies like Fidel Castro, or you “Remember The Maine” – or the barbarous Huns – or the Tonkin Gulf incident – or the cocaine found in Manuel Noriega’s fridge – or the babies thrown out of incubators by barbaric Iraqi troops – or the prisoners starving in Serbian death camps – or the specific, credible threat to Air Force One on 9/11 – or the dissidents fed through wood chippers by Saddam Hussein – or the uranium Saddam tried to buy from Niger, you come to understand that there’s a method to this madness.
The ever-successful Arm The Homeless advocacy group provides a chance to make fun of society’s attitudes towards poor people, as well as the rhetoric of philanthropy and of Second Amendment defenders. ATH is joined by satirical political action committees like Ladies Against Women and Always Causing Legal Unrest.
Many of the games that made TV Nation so fun at times were politically aimed.
I tried handing out copies of that old Yippie document The School Stoppers’ Textbook to some schoolkids in my town, hoping that it would inspire the inmates of the public schools to acts of rebellion appropriate to their circumstance. I was met by five people with badges who informed me that the First Amendment did not apply to this particular piece of writing. I was held in prison on U.S. $40,000 bail and eventually convicted for (I kid you not) nothing more than handing out leaflets on a public sidewalk. So the people who publish this text on-line at places like here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here are in danger of prosecution if any California student clicks their way to the page.
When California politicians rolled over to industry and refused to enact a consumer privacy law, privacy advocates proved their point by purchasing on-line the Social Security numbers of the members of the California Assembly’s Banking Committee and posting the first four digits from each number on-line to demonstrate how easy it was.
The Yes Men are experts at the pointed prank, masquerading as the voice of authority to speak what is usually unsaid — as the examples in our Election Jamming and News Trolls sections show. I’ll mention a couple more examples here:
A faux Halliburton site set up by the Yes Men announced that “Halliburton Solves Global Warming.” This solution, though, doesn’t involve addressing the phenomenon, but in protecting the suit-and-tie class from its effects:
From the bureau of amateur chemical-warfare comes a report of a woman who responded to the mayor’s call for a “zero-tolerance” drug policy for Elkhart, Indiana city employees by dropping off a tray of pot brownies at the Central Fire Station last Christmas.
I need to do some more research into the whole monkeywrenching and ecotage movement, which isn’t exactly “culture jamming,” but still deserves a mention.
The ecological activist group Greenpeace is always on the front lines of creative activist responses to corporate ecoterrorism. For instance, recently they packed drums full of dangerous residue from the Bhopal disaster of 1984 and delivered it personally to the headquarters of Dow chemicals in Holland.
|On This Day in Snigglery||May 23, 1996: Alan Sokal reveals his Social Text hoax in the article “A Physicist Experiments with Cultural Studies.” (See Modest Proposals for more info)|