ReRUN: Please READ Pattrice Jones’ “Let’s Put On A Show”

By Maxjulian

May 15, 2006

Category: Uncategorized

15 Comments »

“Let’s Put on a Show!”
Spectacle versus Reality in the US Peace Movement
by Pattrice Jones

(If you don’t believe me, will you believe a white woman?!)

Yet again tens of thousands prepare to descend on major metropolitan areas to march in circles through empty streets. We will exercise our legs and our lungs and our egos and then go home again. Nothing will change and nobody will be surprised at that. As usual, exorbitant expenditures of time and money will add up to exactly zero. Meanwhile, people and animals and ecosystems in Iraq and elsewhere will continue to pay the price for our failures of courage and imagination.

The French have a word for it: spectacle. Back in the 1960s, Guy Debord and other Situationist theorists and activists described late capitalist culture as “the society of the spectacle.” Long before the advent of reality shows and ring tones for disposable cell phones, Situationists were already chafing at the degree to which the lively variety of everyday life had been reduced to a deadening array of things to watch and buy.

Today, consumer culture extends to extremes beyond the most most jaded and surrealistic dreams of the political theorists of earlier eras. Only fictional nightmares such as Karel Capek’s War with the Newts, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or George Orwell’s 1984 approximate the sinister absurdity of the sociopolitical atmosphere in which we now must find ways to effectively create change.

In the society of the spectacle, there’s no business like show business. Image is everything. Even those who actively participate in the events of the day do so as spectators of their own lives, with one eye always looking back at a real or imaginary camera. All actions, including and especially political acts, become performances. Creative resistance is quickly suffocated by incorporation into the show.

Sound familiar? It should. Troubled teens write in weblogs rather than private diaries while television network NBC (owned by military-industrial behemoth General Electric) literally makes a mockery of subversive ideas on comedy programs like Will & Grace and Whoopi.

We must live in a democracy if people are allowed to mock the president on tv. That’s what they — including “the president” — want us to think. Do you remember how Bush portrayed the biggest US peace marches before the invasion of Iraq? He said that such demonstrations illustrated the difference between the United States and Iraq, thus turning the protests into one more reason why the people of Iraq needed to be “liberated.”

By then it should have been manifestly evident that symbolic demonstrations of dissent no longer shake up the system to any significant degree. Instead of challenging the spectacle of democracy, our protests are incorporated into the spectacle, making it stronger and more compelling. The more spectacular our demonstrations become, the more drums and puppets we deploy, the easier it is for average citizens to see protesters as merely the cast members of an ever-more-colorful reality show.

This bears repeating: The big demonstrations that have become so popular are not only ineffective; they actually make matters worse. By channeling the time, energy, money, and creativity of so many activists into an exercise in futility, these demonstrations and their preparations deflect activist attention from the urgent task of fashioning actual (rather than symbolic) challenges to the corporate world order and the military power that sustains it. Moreover, these demonstrations leave people — activists and regular citizens alike — more rather than less comfortable with the existing order. Watching or reading news reports about the event, citizens feel good about living in “a free country.” Mollified by making the news, participants go home feeling like they have done their part. Indeed, judging from the comments they make to reporters, personal comfort appears to be the primary reason many people attend these events. “I know we can’t stop the war,” goes the usual litany, “but I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t show my disagreement.” Thus, the performance of dissent becomes an end in itself rather than the means to an end.

When we start from the premise that we can’t make a difference, is it any wonder that we don’t? When we choose tactics that are spectacular rather than substantial, should we be surprised when we are simply incorporated into the show? Is it true that the best we can hope for is superficial media coverage of the mere fact that some people disagree with the policies of the Bush regime? Might we dare to dream more extravagantly? Dare we risk disappointment by trying to actually stop the crimes that Bush is perpetrating in our name, rather than simply signal our disapproval of them? What might we do to really make a difference?

The first thing we need to do is understand the distinction between direct and indirect action. For too long, too many activists have mistaken drama for direct action. For the record, direct action includes only tactics that have an immediate impact on some element of the problem at hand. Indirect action seeks change via more circuitous routes, such as seeking to change citizens’ minds in the hope that they will, in turn, change their voting behavior and that this will, in turn, lead to changed national policies. Rent strikes, boycotts, blockades, sabotage, and demonstrations that substantially interfere with business as usual are direct action. Petition drives, letters to editors, community education, and demonstrations that are limited to symbolic expressions of opinion are indirect action.

Study of successful social change movements reveals that success is most likely when both direct and indirect tactics are coordinated. Needless to say, these must be effective tactics, which means that they must be rooted in accurate perceptions of reality and smart strategic analyses. Want to change the hearts and minds of your fellow citizens? Then you’d better have a clear sense of what they’re really thinking and feeling along with at least a rudimentary working knowledge of the factors that lead people to change their attitudes and behavior.

If peace activists feel a little daunted by that list of prerequisites, that’s good — they should. Like people in every other field of difficult endeavor, activists are forever making mistakes due to unspoken, and inaccurate, assumptions. Because marches and rallies were so effective during the civil rights and Vietnam protest movements, we assume that they will have the same effect on public opinion today. We forget that times have changed; we forget that people are no longer shocked by the sight of thousands of their fellow citizens marching in the streets; we forget that, for both observers and participants, protest marches have become little more than parades.

We also forget that direct action was an essential element of many of the most effective protests of the past. In the USA, civil rights protesters deliberately got arrested en masse in order to overwhelm the criminal justice systems of small southern towns, thereby literally preventing them from conducting business as usual. Similar tactics had been used in anti-colonial movements elsewhere in the world including, most famously, in South Asia. The leaders of the US civil rights movement learned from what activists in other countries had done, correctly adapting the tactics to suit the circumstances.

In contrast, the current US peace movement functions like a closed-circuit television system, repetitively broadcasting the same old message to its own members. Protest events are highly scripted, with the emphasis on style rather than substance. Activists signal dissent but do not actually rebel. Demonstrators and police officers often engage in highly stylized cooperative ballets wherein a handful of people are voluntarily arrested.

The point of such dramatic scenarios entirely escapes me; certainly, they do not in any way constitute direct action. Direct action is not necessarily dramatic and, in these days of the spectacle, may be most effective when it is not part of any show. Direct action against war must, by definition, in some way impede the march of the war machine. Withdrawing one’s financial support from the military-industrial complex is direct action for peace; shouting “Whose streets? Our streets!” on a sunny sunday afternoon is not.

Emergencies call for urgent action. Killing continues in Iraq and is likely to commence somewhere else soon, if the Bush Doctrine of preemptive warfare remains the foreign policy of the United States. That dramatic violence plays out against the backdrop of everyday environmental mayhem perpetrated by the Bush administration. Now is not the time to indulge our taste for for the spectacular or our wish for self-satisfaction. Now is the time for effective direct action. Specifically, now is the time for economic direct action.

The Industrial Workers of the World used to say that the workers of the world could stop capitalism just by crossing their arms. In today’s late capitalism, where few workers are unionized and the franchise is increasingly illusory, our greatest power may be as consumers. The consumers of the world can bring the military-industrial complex to a crashing halt just by keeping our hands in our pockets.

The two ways to withdraw one’s financial support from the war machine are to stop paying war taxes and to boycott the corporate profiteers that constitute the industrial side of the military-industrial complex. Both of these strategies ensure that we are not supporting war with money at the same time as we oppose war with words. At minimum, these forms of economic direct action subtract funds from the war machine and its corporate supporters. At maximum, such direct action may impact the foreign and domestic policies of the Bush regime.

Is it possible to make such a sufficiently significant dent in corporate profits? Yes. The majority of people in the world opposed the war in Iraq and continue to resent the current foreign and environmental policies of the United States. Many organizations around the world already have joined together to call for a boycott against war. All that remains is for the mainstream US peace movement to stop marching in circles and get on the peace train. If we agree that everyone should, insofar as possible, shun the shoddy consumer goods of evil corporate behemoths in favor of substantial and sustainable local products, then we will be supporting the regrowth of healthy local ecosystems and economies at the same time that we are weakening the war machine.

If you want peace, don’t buy war. There’s nothing spectacular about that.

15 Responses to “ReRUN: Please READ Pattrice Jones’ “Let’s Put On A Show””

  1. max, i’m in the middle of being busy, so i don’t have the time to comment extensivelly right now–but the thing that strikes me here is that the people this woman is talking to is the converted. she is talking to a movement that already exists. i agree with what she is saying–but i’m just wondering how come grassroots basebuilding isn’t on her list of things to do? the reason massive protests in latin america and at the wto work is because they have HUGE numbers. they have HUGE numbers of people who are willing to work together to deflect the intensity of attacks–how does withholding taxes by a group of people who already can’t get people to show up to rallies really affect change?
    i think the point where we are disagreeing is on the value of grassroots basebuilding–i don’t think you can have an effective movement unless you begin to grassroots basebuild–you go to those who otherwise don’t care, and you find a reason to make them care. you stop preaching to the already converted, and you start finding ways, as the christian right did, to talk to those who others dismiss. the christian right talked to the rednecks and the white trash that the progressive left dismissed, and look it where they are now. I know you disagree with me 100%, but there is benefit into stopping what we are doing and reorganizing ourselves. what we are doing isn’t working.
    but others have shown us what IS working what DOES work. grassroots mobilization. community building. outreach.
    unfortunatly, because we as progressives/radicals keep insisting that the way to fix things is NEVER to grassroots mobilize, our actions never mean much because we only get 50 people to show up to our rallies.
    Oh, and i wanted to say, too, that i am wondering at the easy dismissal of hundreds of thousands of immigrants out protesting by progressives. the risk the majority of those protesting took was well documented–in just detroit, those who didn’t show up to a certian plant were all fired, and then after they were “let back” the immigration patrol has been a constant presense–scaring the hell out of the workers, and serving as a constant threat…you do that shit again, and we’re gonna get your ass. these folks took a considerable risk going out to public rallies where immigration could very easily be watching–and i’m not sure i appreciate this idea that it’s just a bunch of symbolic *nothing*. Its *turning into* symbolic nothing because nobody on the left has any damn clue how to mass mobilize or community basebuild–and as such, they are offering these communities no damn way to protect themselves, and as such, they are making these communities less inclined to stand up and do anything again.

  2. Brownfemipower: the difference between Latin America and America is that such numbers are impossible to muster in the States. Protestors face far better equipped, coordinated and trained institutions of societal control (police, etc).

    Maxjulian:

    On the subject of efficient action; You would LOVE reading {The Technological Society} by Jacques Ellul.

  3. Actually, BFP, that movement does NOT exist. She is trying to bring it into being, as am I. There is nuance in what she is saying that I don’t think you’re getting. Yes, there are actions taking place, but they are not coordinated actions designed to create the new world that we all want. She’s not OPPOSED, nor am I, to grassroots basebuilding. Hell, where is the basebuilding linking blacks to the progressive movement? If white folks were serious about building bridges and bases between us and them, they’d defend us here in the States, instead of leaping across continents to “help” someone else. No, I don’t think you see what we’re saying.

    What we (dare I say) are opposed to is “tra-la-la,” anything placed under the heading “grassroots” or “protest” or “demonstration” is good or real, or effective or productive. The fact is that we are NO closer to bringing the troops home today than we were three years ago and that is the fault of the people who cannot understand the difference between creating a revolutionary movement and slurping up comfort food and calling it “protest.”

    Read between the lines. Neither me nor Pattrice Jones is opposed to organizing; hell, I was a union organizer. What I’m saying is that HOW you organize and in what direction you point the organized matters. Organizing them to do what – walk in circles?! Nah, I’m not down with that. That’s a waste of energy. Organize them to create havoc on all fronts domestically; that’s action.

    A couple of people getting beaten up ain’t no revolution. And a couple of white folks going to jail ain’t no revolution. If that were true, then the 1.5 million black men in jail would be classified “revolutionaries,” as opposed to potential revolutionaries.

    Please read the text and subtext of Pattrice’s words.

  4. PS. I’m not saying create havoc for the sake of. I’m saying we have to learn, as Pattrice and I try to point out, that the
    Civil Rights movement for all its faults was far more progressive than what passes for progressive action. Again: they shut down towns, they clogged the criminal justice system so it couldn’t function, they crippled Montgomery’s bus system. NOTHING and I’m mean NADA that the so-called progressives have done, in general, is coordinated, sustained and carried out with the same pointed application. they are just doing random shit and then drinking beers afterwards. Not all of them. Their hearts might be in the right place, but they are missing some fundamental shit that cripples THEIR action out of the starting gate.

  5. Le Duc Tho: I’m going to get that book RIGHT NOW! I’m a big jazz fan and some of my favorite musicians are those who understand that technique needs to be in service of expression, not vice versa, needs to be subordinated to feeling.

    Wynton Marsalis, this trumpeter who many laud for his great “technique” leaves me cold. “Tell me a story” said another, greater trumpeter who was left in the dust by the hype around the techno wiz with no soul.

    I’ll do a book review soon.

  6. max, i don’t think *you’re* reading between the lines–how the hell are you going to shut down towns when you can’t get people to show up for a protest march? it’s all fine and dandy to say we need to be more radical, we need more action, we need more movement, but if you can’t even get people to show up for the stuff we *are* doing what makes you think that anybody’s gonna show up to shut down a town?

    i *agree* that their was some serious grassroots basebuilding going on in the 60’s–but *how* did they get people to show UP for their organizing??? ESPECIALLY when people were taking HUGE risks to just to show up to a rally? They did that by going out and TALKING. They talked with the folks out in the bayou, they talked with the folks in the middle of plantations, they talked to factory folks and kids, they had dinners they had baby sitting clubs, they had town meetings and went to church picnics. They didn’t just one day say, hey, we need to get more active, lets go shut down the down town bus station. THey got people invested into the movement, they got people to see they weren’t alone. please tell me where any of the progressives are doing that today. how many anti-war folks showed up to your last church picnic?

    The reason such numbers are impossible to muster in the u.s. is not because we are inherently unable to come together under radical movements, but because nobody thinks that it is a fucking good idea to talk. nobody thinks that there is any need to go door to door and talk to stay at home moms or to organize a radical childrens play date where the mom’s talk about organizing while the kids play. nobody wants to do that work.

    and i want to emphasize, i’m NOT defending the progressive movement as it stands today–that’s why i am organizing with incite! and not amnesty international. because i want to make that grassroots change that has been proven to work throughout the world and here in the u.s.

  7. BFP: Let’s clear something up once and for all – I’ve never said we should not be talking; what I’ve said is that we should be talking – A LOT – about how to win, about racism, etc. When we talk, its got to be honest.

    There’s a HUGE disconnect RIGHT HERE and this needs to be understood. To jump to the conclusion that to “question” white folks who are ‘talking about talking about racism,’ or to question you about the application or misapplication of a tactic is NOT an indictment of the tactic or talk?! I am questioning the tactic’s use, the person’s motives, the person’s seriousness, questioning whether they are using the tactic to create change or not.

    When you respond to me like I’ve said, we shouldn’t talk or march!” You are putting words in my mouth.

    And we do get people out to protests marches; but diminishing returns would best describe what’s happening now. Why? We need to be honest about why so few are active. What I’ve seen here in Portland, is that fewer people come out because the march is a gripe sesssion and not FOCUSED; its a show and not serious; its headed by a cabal of white folks and colored rubber stamps who KNOW everything and won’t hear or allow dissenting voices. And these people call themselves progressive. Compared to who, Stalin?

    Yes we need to build community, reach out to others,etc. Who’s arguing against that? Show me one quote of mine where I’ve said we shouldn’t march, speak, organize, basebuild. I’ve questioned or spoken only of the intention and the application of these tools. I mean, BFP, you’re not reading my words.

    Maybe I’m wrong here, but when you replied to me about my post on Sea’s blog, it seemed like you had a lot of energy around me treating her unfairly. I know Sea; she lives here, so my response was three dimensional. You’ve met her only onscreen. Give me a little credit for having some sense.

  8. max, come on, you know very well that i give you credit for having sense, i wouldn’t spend the last three days trying to keep up with your blog while at the same time battling financial aid, registering for classes, picking up glasses, writing three papers, working on my story, answering my own emails, keeping up with my own blog, having a family etc etc etc etc.

    you and me, we care so passionatly about things, i think we often fight over the exact same thing, you know? I am *hearing* you say that those who want to grassroots basebuild are silly (you DID say, “we talk and talk and talk and talk some more and then guess what we’re still talking!)–that there’s not enough action etc.

    but you clarified for me a major point–and that is that you and your community is in a different place than mine is. you are in portland, where for all it’s problems, still has an active base of activists. I am in Ypsilanti michigan, where, despite all my work and other progressive/radicals work, there is very limited if any action at all. I mean, the marches that we went to for may day consisted of exactly thirty people. nobody is showing up here max. nobody. and what i am seeing in my community is that nobody is showing up because all the progressives/radicals want to do crazy get in your face protesting, but nobody wants to tell people why they should be doing that protesting to begin with. So yes, i did defend sea, but you put the nail on the head–i am reading her from the perspective of somebody who has a very very small community of white people who are involved in the movement, much less ready to confront their own racism.
    goddamn it max, i feel like a million bucks, because i think i finally uncovered the reason we are always at it with each other!!!! our communities are so different, and i don’t know about you, but i *am* reading you posts through the lens of my own community!!!
    that being said, in regards to sea–from what *i* see–i see somebody who is willing to talk to people about how to confront their racism. You’re right, i don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. but from what *i* see, i think her work has benefits to the movement…if only to keep people off of our asses while we do work *we* need to do…

  9. BFP: When I said the thing about “talkingtalkingtalking”, I was referring to those folks who do nothing but that. That is one species of the progressive animal here in Portland. Not condemning talk, just those who want to talk a niggas ear off and let him know how different they are from those other white folks or how righteously down they are, without, of course, giving up one iota of privilege. That’s different from condemning talk/planning/organizing.

    The thing about “hearing” me say stuff, is what I meant about the disconnect because, you’re hearing me but you’re not listening to me. I would never and could never say “grassroots basebuilding is silly.” That would make me a fool. If I ever did say that you’d have my permission to kick me in the ass.

    In order to make a revolution or create any kind of fundamental change, it will require massive amounts of talk and base building. I’m with Pattrice Jones on this one; rather than hold another tired march, let’s go door to door and get to know and educate our neighbors, radicalize these muthafuckas and alladat shit. Gotta happen, needs to happen.

    In terms of white folks doing work with their own people – bravo. But Portland (which I call “White Heaven) is one of these towns where it thinks it’s very progressive, meaning you’re dealing with, ‘my-shit-don’t-stink’ lefties who treat you like Bagger Vance or Bigger Thomas. You aren’t real to them and they aren’t real to themselves. Its a charade. I like real, down home people and whenever I smell artifice, condescension or know-it-all-ism, I’m out.

  10. BFP: When I said the thing about “talkingtalkingtalking”, I was referring to those folks who do nothing but that. That is one species of the progressive animal here in Portland. Not condemning talk, just those who want to talk a niggas ear off and let him know how different they are from those other white folks or how righteously down they are, without, of course, giving up one iota of privilege. That’s different from condemning talk/planning/organizing.

    The thing about “hearing” me say stuff, is what I meant about the disconnect because, you’re hearing me but you’re not listening to me. I would never and could never say “grassroots basebuilding is silly.” That would make me a fool. If I ever did say that you’d have my permission to kick me in the ass.

    In order to make a revolution or create any kind of fundamental change, it will require massive amounts of talk and base building. I’m with Pattrice Jones on this one; rather than hold another tired march, let’s go door to door and get to know and educate our neighbors, radicalize these muthafuckas and alladat shit. Gotta happen, needs to happen.

    In terms of white folks doing work with their own people – bravo. But Portland (which I call “White Heaven) is one of these towns where it thinks it’s very progressive, meaning you’re dealing with, ‘my-shit-don’t-stink’ lefties who treat you like Bagger Vance or Bigger Thomas. You aren’t real to them and they aren’t real to themselves. Its a charade. I like real, down home people and whenever I smell artifice, condescension or know-it-all-ism, I’m out.

  11. Thank you BFP. I think you can trust your thinking.

    I’ve known you Max for only a few months. You wanted to work with me from day one. I said, good, let’s build a relationship first.

    I keep taking steps to connect with you and get to know each other. I call and invite you. I’ve offered to introduce you to quite a few people in the black communities here and you just ignore the invitations. I asked if you’d speak with me at my childrens’ school on racism awarerness–you ignored that.

    My understanding is we’re waiting for a couple key people to respond to the offer for a beach cabin to do an organizing get together. To organize based on your ideas. Let me have their phone numbers and I’ll begin building relationships with *them*. I’m happy to do some ally work.

    So far, a scant few months later, you’re running this shit at me that I don’t *do* enough, I’m a coward, a phoney etc.

    The total time we’ve spent talking doesn’t add up to more than several hours. In my experience, relationships actually take time. Time to build trust, etc.

    I don’t know you well enough to even know how you’re doing right now. I don’t know so much about you. The same goes for you not knowing me. Sitting down and listening to each other sounds like a next step.

    What do you think?

    Maybe this is all wrong and I’m being too direct. Here’s a little dramatizing but … If I never see you again if you take one thing from me with you I hope it’s that Sea says you’re a good dad and yes your daughter is 100% black. I think she’s also 100% white and she’s 100% precious, lovable and powerful and good.

    Other than that, let’s get on with the un-show! Let’s keep meeting! 😉

  12. Max you said;

    “Maybe I’m wrong here, but when you replied to me about my post on Sea’s blog, it seemed like you had a lot of energy around me treating her unfairly. I know Sea; she lives here, so my response was three dimensional. You’ve met her only onscreen. Give me a little credit for having some sense.”

    Again, Max you’ve known me three months. I can only guess what this is about. Yes, my mom is helping me with a down payment on a house and that money is made from the profit off other people’s labor. I struggle with the hypocritical part of accepting that help. Other than that, the imbalanced everyday privileges I have being white, such as not worrying while driving around that I’m going to get pulled over. And then if I do get pulled over I’m not too concerned that I will be shot by a confused police officer etc etc. I’ve written about those privileges (which every person deserves to have)… so besides the fact that I still accept that financial help I don’t think it is fair for you to write me off and stonewall me.

    You said somewhere recently that you don’t want to hear white people’s feelings. So I hesitate to tell you how upset I actually am about where this has all headed so fast.

    I meant it when I said how thrilled I have been to meet you and like you, had high hopes for possible projects we might do together …

    I’m not some kind of everready battery-powered person as far as I think the ball is in your court to contact me. And in the meantime I need to let go here. And yes, it hurts.

  13. ok, i’m feeling a bit uncomfrotable here, as i feel like there’s a lot of shit going on underneath the issues, and that this discussion isn’t really about what’s being said on the blogs…so i’m gonna drop out of it–but i do want to say that max, you are right, there is a definite difference in how we are listening to each other, because i really think we are saying the same thing but i know i am putting my experieces into how i am hearing you–that is, when you are saying something, i’m disagreeing because that’s not what i’m seeing here–but it *is* what you are seeing at your place. so i’m going to start trying to hear you from that perspective now.

  14. BFP: You’re feeling uncomfortable? How do you think I feel? I hear ya, there’s a lot of mixed up shit going on here, that’s why I’ve hesistated to say more.

    In terms of our disagreement, now we are understanding each other. And I will try to bear in mind that your situation in Michigan is very different from here.
    Lata

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