Demonstrations and Dependency

Recent riot-like street demonstrations in Greece reflect more than comeuppance for profligacy; these outbursts illustrate today's flight from personal responsibility. It is as if Greeks are saying "let's assemble sufficient numbers of agitated people to 'make our voices heard,' and government will surely make us healthy, wealthy, and wise."

In the final analysis, these rioters accomplish nothing positive beyond beseeching a largely powerless government for top-down rescues from thousands of ill-advised personal choices. And, of the utmost importance, such beseeching has become the norm in the West, a response that hearkens back to when the desperate populace prayed for divine rescues. 

Raucous public protests are hardly new, but their celebration, at least in the U.S., is traceable to the 1960s anti-Vietnam War student activism and the civil rights movement. Marching and chanting "for justice" soon infused civics textbooks and documentary films, not to mention the liberal-dominated mass media. As a result, almost anything became possible, from the unqualified obtaining of a college degree to saving the planet, if the public demands were sufficiently loud and strident. In this simple-minded morality play, the club-wielding cops were evil, the uncontrollable, tear-gassed rioters the good guys. This style soon spread, and similar protests addressed the environment, keeping abortion legal, "take-back-the-night" anti-rape rallies, curing AIDS with "die-ins," celebrations of gay pride, even demanding high school diplomas for those failing exit exams, and most recently, rallies to keep borders porous.

Unfortunately for activists fixated on street theatre, this is often the triumph of therapy over achievement. In a nutshell, since taking to the streets is just so much easier and gratifying than alternatives, it soon pushes aside potentially more effective options, especially non-political solutions. So what might a worried Greek do other than smash bank windows or pelt the police with rocks to sustain government largess? Rival options exist but are hardly appetizing: Pay one's existing taxes, agree to new taxes, cease insisting on economically foolish pay hikes, slim down the nation's business-killing bureaucracy, delay retirement, save more and invest in job-creating ventures, live frugally, learn modern market-relevant skills instead of gossiping over coffee, take fewer vacations, and for those deeply committed to future prosperity vital to sustain social welfare systems, procreate.     

What makes taking to the streets so alluring is its ease. As the Greeks can tell you, joining a rally far outshines paying taxes or any other personal remedy. Instant messaging and e-mail lists make assembling a group a snap, while electronic social networking means that all the old-fashioned chores of political planning can be done comfortably online. Another version is the text-messaged "flash mob," where youngsters spontaneously agree to meet and wreak havoc.

Direct action, the old anarchist term, is also stupidity-friendly. A body is a body, and the news media reporting attendance can't tell the difference. There are no practical constraints on what can be demanded, no matter how harmful. Want to save lives in Africa? No problem. Just pressure Pfizer to hand out free drugs to sick Africans by trashing its headquarters while shouting "people not profits." Protesters need not worry about being quizzed on how "free" drugs discourage future research, how "free" medicine bankrupts local pharmacies, or how these "free" drugs are easily stolen by corrupt leaders and profitably resold outside of Africa. Mob action is even less demanding than voting -- there's no prior registration, age or residency requirement, or citizenship question. You don't even have to decide among multiple candidates -- just show up and scream. This is Politics for Dummies.

And now for the secret appeal seldom told to non-participants: The street demonstration can be great fun, even therapy for those whose lives lack moral purpose. In my 1960s misspent San Francisco youth, I was addicted to the rally du jour. Saturday afternoon was for picketing Woolworth over racially segregated southern lunch counters and then locating that night's party, while the occasional anti-House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) gathering was a godsend for picking up girls (an activity guaranteed to cloud sound judgment). In between were feel-good demonstrations against nukes and rallies for world peace. Where else can one dress up in bizarre costumes, carry attention-getting placards, shout obscenities in public with impunity, vandalize private property to "smash the machine," and otherwise participate in Mardi Gras-like activities while boosting one's a sense of noble purpose? Who wants to spend lonely evenings reading about the IMF and debt?

Finally, one need not fret over any bottom line. Almost nobody will ask about policy details, getting anybody elected, crafting sound legislation, or defeating a bad bill, let alone the rally's long-term consequences. Recall the example about haranguing Pfizer. Everything is personal indulgence, doing good by just being there settles the matter. Indeed, in today's kinder, gentler political street theatre, tough police tactics may heighten feelings of combating injustice since arrestees typically go scot-free lest officials be condemned for hampering progress. Being arrested for standing up for "social justice" becomes a badge of honor, a Silver Star in progressive circles. I recall a New York City demonstration where well-known black activists vied for the honor of being arrested to burnish reputations as "authentic" defenders of the community.

To repeat, politics-by-demonstration is one of many political options to achieve one's political aims and often one of the least effective. Consider the drawbacks. Who would want to invest in such volatile places with an obviously unruly, greedy workforce, or visit Greece and risk unpredictable disruptive strikes? It is no accident that hard-working, thrifty Germans grow increasingly reluctant to bail out people whose idea of "fiscal reform" it to fire-bomb a bank.

This is not an argument against this strategy per se. It has its place, as the Tea Party movement so well illustrates, especially if employed judiciously. The issue is choosing among rival tactics, and we submit that the slide toward demonstrations über alles favors empty-calorie political highs. It is also a tactic that will inevitably grow stale and thus ineffective. At some point, the world will become bored with Greece's childish violence. Out of desperation, riot-weary but publicity-hungry, Greeks might be forced to start paying their taxes to attract media attention -- perfect man-bites-dog stuff.   

The extent to which "let's demonstrate" has become mind-clouding for many of today's youngsters can be illustrated by an exercise I regularly conducted when lecturing on political activism. I described the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, that in the 1950s featured a front desk sign, "No Jews and Dogs Allowed." I asked the students for comments, and they all responded with "demonstrate!" They were absolutely convinced that with ample parading and hollering, the walls of the Kenilworth would come tumbling down, and Hebrews would triumphantly march in. The more sophisticated called for harassing the legislature to pass an anti-discrimination law which, I'd explained, would be extremely unlikely in Florida during the 1950s. After about fifteen minutes of guessing, they gave up.

Here's what actually happened: a Jewish investor bought the hotel, demolished it, and built several non-discriminating luxury apartment buildings on the site. He made a fortune. Students were flabbergasted. At that point, I was tempted to see if my students had learned anything by asking them what disadvantaged students should do if unable to enter college due to poor grades. The correct answer, of course, is that they should study harder and improve grades. Alas, I never asked, since I suspected that they would once more say "demonstrate" -- though one or two might have suggested buying the college, tearing it down, and building a better college. Better to quit while ahead.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com
Recent riot-like street demonstrations in Greece reflect more than comeuppance for profligacy; these outbursts illustrate today's flight from personal responsibility. It is as if Greeks are saying "let's assemble sufficient numbers of agitated people to 'make our voices heard,' and government will surely make us healthy, wealthy, and wise."

In the final analysis, these rioters accomplish nothing positive beyond beseeching a largely powerless government for top-down rescues from thousands of ill-advised personal choices. And, of the utmost importance, such beseeching has become the norm in the West, a response that hearkens back to when the desperate populace prayed for divine rescues. 

Raucous public protests are hardly new, but their celebration, at least in the U.S., is traceable to the 1960s anti-Vietnam War student activism and the civil rights movement. Marching and chanting "for justice" soon infused civics textbooks and documentary films, not to mention the liberal-dominated mass media. As a result, almost anything became possible, from the unqualified obtaining of a college degree to saving the planet, if the public demands were sufficiently loud and strident. In this simple-minded morality play, the club-wielding cops were evil, the uncontrollable, tear-gassed rioters the good guys. This style soon spread, and similar protests addressed the environment, keeping abortion legal, "take-back-the-night" anti-rape rallies, curing AIDS with "die-ins," celebrations of gay pride, even demanding high school diplomas for those failing exit exams, and most recently, rallies to keep borders porous.

Unfortunately for activists fixated on street theatre, this is often the triumph of therapy over achievement. In a nutshell, since taking to the streets is just so much easier and gratifying than alternatives, it soon pushes aside potentially more effective options, especially non-political solutions. So what might a worried Greek do other than smash bank windows or pelt the police with rocks to sustain government largess? Rival options exist but are hardly appetizing: Pay one's existing taxes, agree to new taxes, cease insisting on economically foolish pay hikes, slim down the nation's business-killing bureaucracy, delay retirement, save more and invest in job-creating ventures, live frugally, learn modern market-relevant skills instead of gossiping over coffee, take fewer vacations, and for those deeply committed to future prosperity vital to sustain social welfare systems, procreate.     

What makes taking to the streets so alluring is its ease. As the Greeks can tell you, joining a rally far outshines paying taxes or any other personal remedy. Instant messaging and e-mail lists make assembling a group a snap, while electronic social networking means that all the old-fashioned chores of political planning can be done comfortably online. Another version is the text-messaged "flash mob," where youngsters spontaneously agree to meet and wreak havoc.

Direct action, the old anarchist term, is also stupidity-friendly. A body is a body, and the news media reporting attendance can't tell the difference. There are no practical constraints on what can be demanded, no matter how harmful. Want to save lives in Africa? No problem. Just pressure Pfizer to hand out free drugs to sick Africans by trashing its headquarters while shouting "people not profits." Protesters need not worry about being quizzed on how "free" drugs discourage future research, how "free" medicine bankrupts local pharmacies, or how these "free" drugs are easily stolen by corrupt leaders and profitably resold outside of Africa. Mob action is even less demanding than voting -- there's no prior registration, age or residency requirement, or citizenship question. You don't even have to decide among multiple candidates -- just show up and scream. This is Politics for Dummies.

And now for the secret appeal seldom told to non-participants: The street demonstration can be great fun, even therapy for those whose lives lack moral purpose. In my 1960s misspent San Francisco youth, I was addicted to the rally du jour. Saturday afternoon was for picketing Woolworth over racially segregated southern lunch counters and then locating that night's party, while the occasional anti-House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) gathering was a godsend for picking up girls (an activity guaranteed to cloud sound judgment). In between were feel-good demonstrations against nukes and rallies for world peace. Where else can one dress up in bizarre costumes, carry attention-getting placards, shout obscenities in public with impunity, vandalize private property to "smash the machine," and otherwise participate in Mardi Gras-like activities while boosting one's a sense of noble purpose? Who wants to spend lonely evenings reading about the IMF and debt?

Finally, one need not fret over any bottom line. Almost nobody will ask about policy details, getting anybody elected, crafting sound legislation, or defeating a bad bill, let alone the rally's long-term consequences. Recall the example about haranguing Pfizer. Everything is personal indulgence, doing good by just being there settles the matter. Indeed, in today's kinder, gentler political street theatre, tough police tactics may heighten feelings of combating injustice since arrestees typically go scot-free lest officials be condemned for hampering progress. Being arrested for standing up for "social justice" becomes a badge of honor, a Silver Star in progressive circles. I recall a New York City demonstration where well-known black activists vied for the honor of being arrested to burnish reputations as "authentic" defenders of the community.

To repeat, politics-by-demonstration is one of many political options to achieve one's political aims and often one of the least effective. Consider the drawbacks. Who would want to invest in such volatile places with an obviously unruly, greedy workforce, or visit Greece and risk unpredictable disruptive strikes? It is no accident that hard-working, thrifty Germans grow increasingly reluctant to bail out people whose idea of "fiscal reform" it to fire-bomb a bank.

This is not an argument against this strategy per se. It has its place, as the Tea Party movement so well illustrates, especially if employed judiciously. The issue is choosing among rival tactics, and we submit that the slide toward demonstrations über alles favors empty-calorie political highs. It is also a tactic that will inevitably grow stale and thus ineffective. At some point, the world will become bored with Greece's childish violence. Out of desperation, riot-weary but publicity-hungry, Greeks might be forced to start paying their taxes to attract media attention -- perfect man-bites-dog stuff.   

The extent to which "let's demonstrate" has become mind-clouding for many of today's youngsters can be illustrated by an exercise I regularly conducted when lecturing on political activism. I described the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, that in the 1950s featured a front desk sign, "No Jews and Dogs Allowed." I asked the students for comments, and they all responded with "demonstrate!" They were absolutely convinced that with ample parading and hollering, the walls of the Kenilworth would come tumbling down, and Hebrews would triumphantly march in. The more sophisticated called for harassing the legislature to pass an anti-discrimination law which, I'd explained, would be extremely unlikely in Florida during the 1950s. After about fifteen minutes of guessing, they gave up.

Here's what actually happened: a Jewish investor bought the hotel, demolished it, and built several non-discriminating luxury apartment buildings on the site. He made a fortune. Students were flabbergasted. At that point, I was tempted to see if my students had learned anything by asking them what disadvantaged students should do if unable to enter college due to poor grades. The correct answer, of course, is that they should study harder and improve grades. Alas, I never asked, since I suspected that they would once more say "demonstrate" -- though one or two might have suggested buying the college, tearing it down, and building a better college. Better to quit while ahead.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is  Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com