A while back, when Jonathan and I were having our set-to over music and torture (here, then here, here, here, and here), Bob Judd, executive director of the AMS, left a comment that suggested that we should write our congresscritters, though perhaps writing a letter to a congresscritter isn’t enough:
Perhaps I should’ve done something a bit harder: hit the street w/ a protest sign or something. I’m old enough to remember large Viet Nam protests — and am quite amazed that campuses have produced such tame (if any) protests today in the face of such issues as torture. Seems to me a bunch of people are going to have to do a lot more than pass resolutions and send emails if we want to be taken seriously. We’re academics; we’re academic, to most pols.
And elsewhere Bob suggested writing politically engaged stuff for peer-reviewed journals and not just for this blog. (Though I might point out that on a blog at least people who aren’t musicologists have a chance of reading a musicologist’s political thoughts.) But the whole thing left me feeling unenthused. Not that I feel indifferent to the issue of torture — I don’t — or that I think nothing anyone does is going to make any difference. I just don’t think protest works, and I’m so tired of hearing people like Tom Friedman beefing at younger folks for not protesting like he did. And so I was interested to see Ezra Klein’s post arguing that protest doesn’t much matter anymore. He starts out arguing against the notion that we young people (well, those young people, since I’m not especially young) with our computers and internets and everything have too many causes to choose from. No, he says; you understand that you can’t fix everything, so you find something — an issue that stirs you enough to do something. But what next?
But once an issue is selected, there’s no real step two. Marching
doesn’t work. Exhortations to write a letter or shoot an e-mail seem
increasingly hoary, particularly as the process is taken over by
organized pressure groups able to flood legislators with millions of
e-mails. Volunteers are generally misused, and even when a campaign
tries to construct a movement out of them, it can backfire,
discrediting the whole enterprise (see Dean, Howard, and those $%*^*#
orange beanies). The utter inadequacy of contemporary methods of
protest and social action has been well established — it’s even been
recast as narcisstic. . . .
At the end of the day, there’s really one good option: Donating money.
Possibly even raising it. And so political activism becomes
indistinguishable from consumerism, and relies on funding other people’s
ability to make a difference. Some groups, like Moveon, have done
brilliant work at involving their small-time funders in the process,
closing some of that gap. But the average campaign or cause is not
nearly so innovative. And so most who want to be involved, who want to
make a difference, are left writing a check, and never, themselves,
Other than using the loathsome word “impactful,” this seems remarkably clear-eyed to me. Want to make a difference? Cash money, son. Only this does not allow us to feel as righteous as when we march through the streets with ugly bulbous puppets. Indeed, this argument suggests that progressives/liberals/leftists are going to have to learn to live with consumerism. I haven’t been able to work up much energy damning consumerism for a long time — back when I used to complain about “consumerism” it just meant I didn’t like what other people were choosing to spend money on — so I don’t need a lot of convincing. But what about you? Thoughts?
On a totally unrelated note, Ben Wolfson at waste points us to an amazingly bad piece of writing on rock music. Hm, a magazine of hip young literary modernists pulling up the Delphic armchair and doing Dwight Macdonald impressions. Perhaps this was unavoidable. Playing the role of the Partisan Review mandarin intellectual, dripping epigrammatic phrases on everything from a great height — this will always be an attractive pose for a certain kind of young man. Hey, I dig, I went through a Partisan Review phase in my 20s. Thank god nothing I wrote back then got published, though. I remember writing a set of neo-Adornian program notes for a performance of the Quartet for the End of Time and having the miserable experience of sitting behind a group of cute brainy girls who mocked them relentlessly before the concert, unaware that the geeky, self-important, insecure author, donning someone else’s high-modernist mantle like a child wearing a suit three sizes too large for him, was sitting right behind them.