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Wow, France… Why can’t we do that here?!?? (pt. 1: inoculation)

originally published on October 21, 2010

Do you ever look at newspaper articles about worker and student strikes in countries like France or Greece or Argentina-you know, the kind of activity that shuts down the whole country-and think to yourself, “Holy shit, that’s what I’m talkin’ about!  Those people know how to protest!?”

Well, I sure do.

Not to glorify any particular tactic for it’s own sake, but geez, the spirit of collective action and common purpose that’s displayed in those moments-let alone the negotiating power it awards to grassroots movements, unions, and progressive political parties-is something that sometimes, um, feels a little lacking here in the good old U.S. of A.

So what are you waiting for.  Go ahead.  Try that here.  See how many people you can turn out.  See where it gets you.

Likely.  not.  very.  far.

We have a situation here.  We’re stuck in a Catch 22.  As a society, we presently seem to be inoculated against the means necessary for our own collective advancement. (If you’re at the top of the plutocratic order, now’s the time to congratulate yourself on a brilliant system.)  And I’m not talking about any one particular style of collective action or protest – we’re not France or Greece or Argentina, and I don’t particularly want us to be.  I’m fully ready to embrace an all-American style, and I would settle for whatever kind of collective action (within ethical and strategic limits) powerful enough to challenge entrenched power and privilege.  Is that such a tall order?

What do I mean, we’re “inoculated?”

I’m glad you asked.  Have you ever heard someone say something like, “I’m not an activist or anything,” or they look at you like you’re from Crazy-ville (or they simply don’t engage) when you start talking about the protest you went to?

Think about the word protest for a minute.  Seriously.  Stop.  And think about it.  Notice.  What comes to mind with the word?  Now try it with the word activist.

Okay, how long did it take for “the 60s” to come to mind?  And from there, how long did it take before you started seeing images of Woodstock, tie-dye, hippies, marijuana, free love, or Days of Rage?  Or let’s go more contemporary – did you picture black-clad, masked anarchists smashing a Starbucks window, or, alternatively, a small group of older, white Quakers standing vigil to oppose (yet another) war?

If you’re like most Americans, you have many of these associations burned deep into your neural pathways.  If you’re reading this, you’re likely among an audience that also holds a lot of positive associations with protest and activism – thankfully, many Americans do.  But still, you know the story.  You know… the story of the dirty stinking hippie going through a communist phase until you graduate from college (and if it lasts much longer everyone wonders when you’re going to grow up and get a real job) – ring a bell?  You know how protest and activism have been negatively branded in our culture.

Americans today tend to be uniquely skeptical of collective action that challenges power-for multiple fascinating historically rooted reasons that are beyond the scope of this post-compared to our counterparts in most advanced “democratic societies.”  And the past four decades have been especially rough on grassroots progressive movements; following the social upheavals that culminated in “the 60s,” conservative activists retrenched to build and very effectively amplify a coherent, overarching values-based narrative, while the most activisty of progressives have largely self-segregated into single-issue advocacy efforts (or cross-issue, but micro-identity-based and/or counter-cultural activist scenes) that lack a coherent, overarching values-based narrative that resonates beyond the borders of our self-selecting bubbles.

French firefighters: with the protest

Conservatives claimed a monopoly on the flag, the Constitution, the Bible, and the whole story of America – language and symbols that hold a whole lot of meaning for a large majority in our country.  And at least some on our side conceded these symbols, essentially saying, fine, you can have ’em!  In the flag we saw genocide, slavery, conquest, and war.  In the church we saw historic justifications for sexism, racism, poverty, and all sorts of bigotry; an “opiate of the people.”  (Nevermind the central role that churches played in the Civil Rights Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, and countless other social justice struggles.)

In reality, most progressive-minded Americans haven’t forsaken their identity with these common and still powerful symbols.  But reality isn’t the only thing we’re dealing with here.  We have also to deal with perceptions of reality – specifically, a hegemonic conservative narrative that says that progressives have abandoned (and are attacking!) sacred American values.  (So what if there aren’t any actual real-life protesters spitting on soldiers when they come home – doesn’t it just sound true?)

So back to inoculation.  Here’s how it works.  To inoculate someone against a virus, you introduce a very weak strand of the virus that triggers the body’s immune system to kick in.  Based on this exposure, the body builds up antibodies against the weak strand.  Then anything and everything that comes along remotely resembling that weak strand, well-BOOM!!-IMMUNITY!!!  Now the host has a built-in resistance to the real virus.

And here’s how it works in politics and culture.  The hegemonic conservative narrative-with all its supporting resources, infrastructure, and echo chambers-introduces into popular consciousness an exaggerated picture of progressive collective action (aka activism).  Picture the most over-the-top crazy stupid dirty stinking hippie latte-drinking un-American communist window-smashing flag-burning Kumbaya-singing event you can imagine.  This caricature of a stereotype is the metaphorical weak strand that is exaggerated in order to inoculate against the real thing.  Then when an opening for powerful collective action comes along, well-BOOM!!-IMMUNITY!!!  All those negative associations come to mind and most people recoil out of revulsion or fear of the associations.  They now have a built-in resistance to your commie virus.

This conservative hegemonic strategy of inoculation preys upon the way the human brain has evolved to function.  More on that, and some ideas about what we can do about it-I promise, this isn’t just a cynical rant!-to follow.  Stay tuned…

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