« My Commenters Is Smarter Than I: Buffy The Vampire Slayer Edition | Main | Breaking The invisible Hand »

November 19, 2007

Those Kids And Their Power

I tend to like Courtney Martin's musings on Gen Y activism, but I'm not terribly clear on what she thinks would happen if students stopped conducting activism within their colleges and "step[ped] into [the] raw power...of being young and mad." Are they going to blow up a building? Chant meaner things during the march? As Martin has written before, "In the 21st century, a bunch of people marching down the street, complimenting one another on their original slogans and pretty protest signs, feels like self-flagellation, not real and true social change."

In the 21st century, being young and mad is not a recipe for raw power, at least not the kind that channels clearly into social change. Being young, mad, and savvy, maybe, but even there, it's not clear to me what protest methods will achieve what end. The capacity for rage to effect change does not seem much in evidence. Martin may be right that holding pizza protests and hanging administration-approved signs doesn't do much, but what does? What sort of raw power do the people wield?

November 19, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

"In the 21st century, a bunch of people marching down the street, complimenting one another on their original slogans and pretty protest signs, feels like self-flagellation, not real and true social change."

"Complimentng one other"? That sounds like somebody projecting their own shallowness unto others. But tell that to the Burmese monks or the million that marched through Los Angels or the WGA strikers...

It's only in spoiled America where this gen y meme of not showing up is considered the real act of rebellion. And those in charge love to hear folk like Ezra pimp this. Makes thir job easier.

Just txt each other, kay? Or iphone in your protest.

Posted by: christian | Nov 19, 2007 2:46:51 PM

Anger is absolutely essential! Effective protests are really thinly veiled threats. George Bush doesn't care if a million people march against the Iraq War, because he knows they're not really going to do anything when it comes down to it.

Civil Rights-Era protests? Different story entirely! The message was pretty clear: cut the crap, OR ELSE.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 19, 2007 2:48:28 PM

Ezra doesn't know what the hell he's talking about here nor does Martin. In Los Angeles people are on the streets with pickets signs and it's having a profound seismic effect. In fact, polls are showing wide support for the WGA strikers, helped in part by their physical presence. Anger is an energy and mass protests do effect change, just not in the ADD "I want it now" world of these supposed gen y "activists."

Posted by: christian | Nov 19, 2007 2:53:35 PM

I think it's important to remember that the marches of the 60's and 70's were significant largely because, vis-a-vis the social norms of the 40's and 50's, anything that made kids angry enough to take to the streets was probably pissing off a non-trivial number of non-protesting Normal Folks -- i.e., it was a leading indicator that politicians had to pay attention to the way that they pay attention to, say, the consumer confidence index.

These days, however, protesting seems to be seen much less as a manifestation of more general unrest than a tactic aimed at fomenting unrest. Maybe this is because the example of the 60's and 70's makes it seem like a good strategy. I don't know. But under this view, protests aren't an indicator of anything, but rather, a political strategy. Turns out, it's not a very good political strategy, because when protests aren't an indicator of more general unrest, politicians are free to ignore them.

I don't know what the solution to any of this is.

Posted by: Daniel Munz | Nov 19, 2007 2:58:05 PM

...when protests aren't an indicator of more general unrest, politicians are free to ignore them.

An excellent point. And why shouldn't politicians ignore them if they don't represent vox populi? It goes to show that even this commenter understands that the current protesters represent no one. They are outliers and radical factions.

Posted by: El viajero | Nov 19, 2007 3:05:25 PM

El, that's not really a good representation of what I'm saying. Currently, I think "the current protesters" -- at least the ones who think we should get out of Iraq more or less now -- are pretty well in line with most Americans. They're certainly not "outliers" or "radical factions" -- my point was merely that they're protesting (or at least, began protesting) as a political tactic to organize opposition to the war, rather than as an organic manifestation of broad-based opposition to the war.

Posted by: Daniel Munz | Nov 19, 2007 3:25:14 PM

I think she was speaking more to the point of university-sanctioned constraints. I went to Notre Dame and our efforts to protest ANYTHING were hamstrung by arcane regulations on student activities. A gay-straight alliance's proposal to be an official group was turned down by the "higher ups" at Student Activities every year that I was a student. Vietnam War protests were broken up by the "cease and desist" rule - Fr. Hesburgh would stroll by and mention that protesters had fifteen minutes to cease and desist, or they would all be expelled. The first time, the protesters tried to call his bluff, and they were all expelled. That effectively put an end to war protests on campus.
Similar efforts to add sexuality to the University's non-discrimination clause also failed, thanks to that rule - a sit-in about 8 years ago, in particular. Now it's to the point where students don't even try to protest the things that are important to them, like stricter rules about drinking and holding dances in the dorms instead of a dining hall, much less protests about ending the war in Iraq.
I know ND is a far more conservative university than most, but the problems with student activism there are probably related to those elsewhere in the country. It's not that students don't want to protest, it's that they don't want to get expelled for doing so. When the price of a degree is worth more than the personal cost of protesting, then protesting is no longer an effective means of student activism. That was Courtney Martin's point, and I agree with her completely.

Posted by: alli | Nov 19, 2007 4:07:17 PM

We "step into our raw power," or some such, by...blogging.

Posted by: DrexelDems | Nov 19, 2007 4:27:57 PM

Doesn't anyone read Saul Alinsky anymore? Power is finding who can do what you want done, figuring out how to make them do what you want done and then doing it. All the rest is just tactics.

Posted by: justawriter | Nov 19, 2007 4:48:51 PM

People do see the difference between a strike and a protest, right? The WGA has stopped working. If college students stop going to college, it doesn't have quite the same impact.

Posted by: Ezra | Nov 19, 2007 4:54:44 PM

A strike is a protest, Ezra.

Posted by: christian | Nov 19, 2007 5:19:17 PM

justawriter - "figuring out how to make them do what you want done" is the tricky part.

An abiding majority of the American people are against the war. Bush could stop it, but we have no levers that will work directly on him.

Congress could stop it. OK, how do we make Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer, and all those Bush Dog Dems do what we want, and end the war? I'm at a loss here.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist | Nov 19, 2007 5:46:51 PM

Why should the AMPTP care what the public thinks about it vis-a-vis the WGA, anyway? It's not like the public really has any leverage on the studios that wouldn't hurt the writers just as hard.

Posted by: Senescent | Nov 19, 2007 6:39:00 PM

But a protest does not always take the form of a strike.

Posted by: Dennis | Nov 19, 2007 7:58:12 PM

What sort of raw power do the people wield?

Until they're desperate, none.

Posted by: Paul | Nov 19, 2007 8:42:54 PM

I know ND is a far more conservative university than most

Yeah, here's an idea:

Don't go to a private Catholic university.

Sheesh.

Posted by: ethan salto | Nov 19, 2007 8:47:10 PM

I find it interesting that Martin dismisses the stat that about 4 in 5 first-year college students call themselves volunteers. (full disclosure: I'm a big fan of volunteerism myself and therefore horridly biased). Protesting doesn't always accomplish its goals. Thousands and thousands of people marched against the War in Iraq and what did that accomplish? Nothing. Perhaps activism-minded college students feel a certain dispair at the knowledge that chanting in the streets might not do anything, and turn therefore to the world of volunteering, where you can at least say to yourself "I fed three homeless people today" "I read to a blind person today" "I helped a fourth-grader learn how to multiply fractions this week."

Even more extreme forms of protest, for less ambitious aims, don't always meet their goals. About a dozen Harvard students last year went on a nine-day hunger strike for a living wage for workers (which, Harvard University of all places is not hurting for money) and in the end the administration agreed to consider two of their four demands, with no guarantees even for those. So what Martin thinks protesting would do is sort of beyond me.

Posted by: Isabel | Nov 19, 2007 9:00:00 PM

An abiding majority of the American people are against the war. Bush could stop it, but we have no levers that will work directly on him.

Congress could stop it. OK, how do we make Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Steny Hoyer, and all those Bush Dog Dems do what we want, and end the war? I'm at a loss here.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist | Nov 19, 2007 5:46:51 PM
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
You are kidding, right? If not, then you are part of the problem Ezra is talking about.

The reason all the demonstrations worked so well in the 60s is because large numbers of people showed up at the marches, again & again & again, in LARGE numbers. I have seen exactly ONE anti Iraq War (or any other issue)march on Washington that had more than a couple thousand people marching. Sure, I see a lot of bitching on the blogs & hear more from friends on the street. And that is it. What I don't see is huge numbers of people putting other priorities on hold to voice that discontent.

That is what Ezra is referring to

Posted by: bob in fla | Nov 19, 2007 9:03:33 PM

Ok, third try, after two deleted comments. I study this stuff, specifically those fun years 1875-1925, and I don't have any answers. Brad DeLong talks today about being prepared with ameliorative policies for when opportunities arise. I would add that you should be prepared for Revolution when you have no other choice. It is usually tragic & futile but you can't let the fascists win without a fight.

Or hell, maybe you can. A whole lot of Spaniards & Italians & Germans were better off than Gramsci & all the exiles. And the dead. You might survive it. I ain't got nothin to tell nobody.

History tells me we are due for a discontinuity, and the good guys don't always come out on top.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 19, 2007 10:02:42 PM

Why is protest and activism so anemic in America?

Robert Putnam argues that this lack of activism
is a symptom of "the strange disappearance of social
capital and civic engagement in America".

This strange disappearance he amply documented
in his book "Bowling Alone".

http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_strange_disappearance_of_civic_america

Posted by: Terry | Nov 20, 2007 1:41:55 AM

Bob, you're kind of fatalistic. Declaring martial law in a country of this size, with this many population-dense cities, and with this much unoccupied land; would be logistically impossible. Any government plan to do just that is a joke. We just don't have the police or army personnel to do it.

Posted by: Soullite | Nov 20, 2007 2:15:43 AM

bob in fla - always glad to be part of the problem.

Do you remember in the winter of 2003? This city was filled with protestors. Big rally, lots of people simply rounded up and detained en masse. News folks downplayed it, were condescending about it, it was as if it had barely happened.

Or do you remember Bush's 2001 inauguration, and the protests against him on Pennsylvania Avenue? I didn't, until Michael Moore included some of the footage in Fahrenheit 9/11.

How many protesters does it take to make a difference, if few people who weren't there ever hear about it?

Yeah, I know, we have YouTube and all now, which we didn't have even in 2003. But if you're in Milwaukee or Knoxville or wherever, why should you watch a YouTube of a protest?

Posted by: low-tech cyclist | Nov 20, 2007 5:48:22 AM

The largest protests in recorded history happened in response to the 2003 pre and post invasion of Iraq. The media just didn't report it much.

And as for those gen y'ers, a study just came out showing how they would give up the right to vote for an iphone shows the real problem. This worship of often trivial technology as a substitute for meaningful action. Don't tell that to all the blog wonks tho...they're busy txting their rage!

Posted by: christian | Nov 20, 2007 3:37:45 PM

Advanced readers will note that what people say to sound caring is not even a good guide to personality or character, either in politics or real life.

Posted by: Marcin Tustin | Nov 21, 2007 2:45:32 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.