Political Theatre of the Absurd

A few months ago, a day before one of the occasional marches the Capital sees demanding an end to the Iraq War, I began the descent into the Metro stop near my office, looked up, and saw a number of representatives of Code Pink standing at the railing overlooking the escalator. Or rather, I heard them first. They were screaming at the parade of commuters, at the top of their lungs and in a tone somewhere between simple frustration and righteous anger, "End the war!!!"

Well, I thought, that ought to take care of things. Good work, hippies!

I kid -- heck, some of my best friends are hippies. But that bit of fruitless shouting at Washington's Dupont Circle Metro station came to mind because last month, the Berkeley City Council touched off a controversy by issuing a declaration against a Marine recruiting station in town, calling the recruiters "uninvited and unwelcome intruders." While the council couldn't just evict the Marines, it did the next best thing: It gave Code Pink, possibly America's silliest anti-war organization (you've seen them disrupting hearings on Capitol Hill, yet another masturbatory piece of political action) the parking space in front of the recruiting center to hold its endless vigil, which if nothing else might make the sidewalk a little clearer. I'll see your pointless street theater, said Republicans in Congress, and raise you a piece of pointless legislative theater; they quickly introduced a bill to strip Berkeley of federal funds it receives and transfer the money to the Marine Corps.

And this week, which will see the fifth anniversary of the start of the war, Code Pink plans to "step up the pressure," as its leader Medea Benjamin said. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "Code Pink has a full roster of activities planned for the week, including: yoga every morning at 8:30; organic potlucks every noon; nightly movies and popcorn; a bike ride around Berkeley on Tuesday; an open-mike musical jam on Wednesday; and a 'send-off' to the Marines on Friday, when protesters will bring suitcases and pink berets for traveling." How the Bush administration will be able to resist is anyone's guess.

At times like this it's hard not to wonder whether Code Pink and the Berkeley City Council aren't agents provocateurs, a kind of self-parody strike force sent by Dick Cheney to discredit opposition to the war. Four months ago, I praised the Berkeley City Council when it passed a creative plan to help residents install solar-energy systems in their homes. But for every piece of innovative thinking, there seem to be a dozen pieces of idiocy. Instead of asking themselves, "Is there anything we can do to make our schools better?" the council members ask, "Is there anything we can do to protest the war?" The answer is no. You're the city council of a small city in California. How about you take care of the potholes and worry about the war on your own time?

Those unfamiliar with the particular sociopolitical dynamics of the city of Berkeley might be surprised to learn that this opinion is not uncommon among those who step around dreadlocked trustafarian 20-somethings on their way to grab a coffee at Peet's. Even Berkeley has its own silent majority, strongly progressive to be sure, but well grounded in reality. Those in that majority go to their jobs, raise their kids, and shake their heads and smile at the antics of the city's more colorful denizens. They wish their city council would spend less time making statements about the world's problems and more time solving the city's problems.

But instead, Berkeley's officials act as the enabler of groups like Code Pink. And the conservative media, where hatred of hippies is the fuel that makes the broadcast towers buzz with electricity, has been eating it up with a spoon. And why shouldn't they? It validates so much of what they've been saying about the left for years. In one exchange on "The O'Reilly Factor," guest host (and prominent conservative radio talker) Laura Ingraham actually tried to talk some sense into Medea Benjamin."So Medea," she asked, "at this point, you think that Code Pink is actually helping the anti-war movement? Because I can tell you, even with the country divided over the war, conservatives that I know, every time you pull one of these stunts, like trying to prevent, you know, people from just talking to people and giving them information, the conservatives are all happy because you guys just make total fools out of yourselves."

If nothing else, progressives can take heart in the fact that relative to the extremists on the right, the fringe elements on the left are utterly harmless. The occasional eco-vandal notwithstanding, these days radical leftists don't stockpile weapons, they don't bomb federal buildings, and they aren't plotting the overthrow of the government. There was a time when leftists did such things, of course, but decades have passed since the Weathermen and their ilk passed into history. Our extremists may be ridiculous, but they aren't hurting anyone. Except, that is, for the causes they advocate and the progressive movement itself.

Political participation takes many forms, and it is not possible to draw clean lines between activity that is primarily instrumental (undertaken for the purpose of affecting a specific and achievable goal) and activity that is expressive (undertaken to just make one's voice heard). The band of nincompoops protesting outside the Marine recruiting center in Berkeley certainly have a specific goal in mind: They want to end the Iraq War, and make the American government more reluctant to use military force in the future. But when a certain distance is reached between the goal and the means employed to achieve it, the activity becomes almost entirely expressive. The idea that yelling at a couple of Marine recruiters week after week might have some actual impact on the speed with which we leave Iraq is so absurd one wonders whether even the participants believe it, assuming that most of them are in full possession of their faculties.

But that's not why they're there. They're there because it makes them feel good. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. That's why all of us do most of what we do; even the most altruistic of actions give us an internal satisfaction that provides the incentive for the next good deed. But it becomes a problem when you hurt the cause you're trying to help, particularly when there are actual opportunities for effective action.

Technological advancement, particularly the rise of the Internet, is bringing about a renaissance of grassroots activism on the left, yet there are still many people who believe that if there is a problem you want addressed or a policy you want changed, the only thing to do is to gather as many people as you can in a public place to hold signs and perform call-and-response chants. "What do we want? To feel like we're accomplishing something! When do we want it? Eventually!"

What worked for the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is not going to work today. And the truth is that comparing the civil-rights marches to a bunch of people carrying signs with "No more war!" on one side and "Free Mumia!" on the other is an insult to everyone who took part in the civil-rights movement. The civil-rights activists weren't just looking to feel good about themselves. The political actions they undertook were carefully planned and well executed. They knew exactly which levers of mass and elite opinion they needed to press and how to do it. They weren't trotting off for a Sunday to hang with some friends and speak their minds -- they were engaged in a deadly, serious enterprise, one with enormous personal risks, and they approached it with the seriousness it required.

Any effective political movement has to engage its participants in a way that makes them feel their contributions are meaningful and redefines their sense of self. But if those contributions aren't actually meaningful, if they amount to an extended series of circle jerks that accomplish nothing, then the movement will inevitably be confined to a small group of self-deluding members with a lot of time on their hands. There are tens of millions of Americans who want to end the war in Iraq. But how many of them see something like Code Pink protesting a Marine recruiting station and say to themselves, "I want to be a part of that"?

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