Anti-War Demonstrations a Depressing Cargo Cult

A while back I decided to try to get involved with the anti-war, “progressive” movement. I’m a veteran of this political wing, having done my share of peace marches, protest rallies, and civil disobedience sit-ins back in the day. But I drifted away some time ago and I’m finding it hard to drift back.

My motives for returning include the desire to join forces with people who are working for similar goals, and the hope that I can encourage people who already consider themselves to be in the opposition to try tax resistance as a technique.

What’s making it difficult for me to return is that, in San Francisco, to be part of the anti-war, progressive movement means to be sharing the stage with a whole bunch of unapologetic Stalinists, paranoid schizophrenics, ersatz intifadists, tin-eared rhetorical broken-records, insatiable identity-politics police, new-age gurus of every variety, publicity hounds, careerist Democrats, and the like. Even our right-wing counter-protesters aren’t very witty.

It’s not as though you can even really say of all of these freaks, “well, their hearts are in the right place,” because, more often than not, they aren’t.

And demonstrations in San Francisco — what are they demonstrating exactly? That a bunch of San Fransiscans are upset about Dubya’s policies? Big surprise. The march was more like a parade — everyone marching behind their flags, with their costumes and props, mostly there to impress each other and to feel important and right.

In conversation with another tax resister I compared it to the “cargo cult” phenomenon. The most photogenic parts of a successful protest movement like the civil rights movement in the United States — and therefore the most-often-seen in documentary footage — were big rallies and marches like the March on Washington, civil disobedience like the lunch counter sit-ins, and confrontations with baton- and hose-wielding cops. So today’s protester thinks that if those elements can be resummoned somehow, success can’t be far behind.

They might as well expect to gain independence for California by throwing crates of tea into San Francisco Bay. A superficial fetishization of the theatrical residue of history gets you a renaissance faire, not a successful political movement.

But I went through the effort of getting that rant out of my system so I could move on to better things. I started attending the Designs on Democracy conference in Berkeley . It’s a set of panels and workshops and such about how “progressives” can craft their messages more effectively.

And it was really good. People were thinking practically, and facing things honestly and realistically. I hadn’t seen anything like it from the left in too long. I can’t say I agreed with all of the shared political assumptions (it’s probably a bit of a stretch to call me a “progressive” these days), but I was delighted to see a group of dedicated, rational, pragmatic, good-humored people working for positive change.

I heard a lot of good advice about “framing your message” that I can start putting into practice right away. And I got a good dose of relief and encouragement from hearing ideas for powerful and revolutionary social change being articulated by people who have their heads screwed on straight.