October 9, 2011

The Wages of Domestication


Not long ago, Morgan and I were talking to the owner of a bar we frequent, when the Wall Street protests came up. A week or so earlier the Mayor made an off-the-cuff remark about unemployed college students taking to the streets if the economy didn’t improve. A couple of days later, whammo, there were people marching in the streets of the financial district to protest the deep-seated corruption and political influence of corporate America. They gave every impression that they would be there for a bit.

“Day of Rage?” the bar owner said. “Pfft. You call this rage? Ask the people in Cairo or Libya or Syria about rage. Their families’ve been murdered. This here is all about picking up chicks, y’know? You’re out there chanting and banging on a little drum, and then you realize you’re staring at some girl’s ass.”

            There is a deep and profound truth in what he says. Those of you who haven’t spent much time at protests may not realize it from the news footage, but yes, this is what they’re all about, really. Not that it ever worked for me back in my old protesting days, but I saw it happening all around me. There are few things I find quite as nauseating as listening to some self-righteous jackoff using his intensely earnest social consciousness to scam a chick. It almost always works, too, which may be the most frustrating thing of all about it.

            But back to the so-called “Wall Street Occupation” (yes, well). Hormone-driven or not, I admire the fact that there’s anyone at all protesting anything on a fundamental social level any more (as opposed to just demanding higher wages or more benefits). Most Americans have been so effectively domesticated by comfort and convenience and fear that the very idea of protesting anything seems anti-American. They’re like cattle in a slaughterhouse who’ve been so well-fed up to that point that they’re unwilling to believe those nice gentlemen in the leather aprons would do anything bad to them, going so far as to consider that one cow who wants to run away an insane fool. It explains why the number of protesters down on Wall Street has remained so meager. There were rumors that Yahoo was blocking messages and Facebook access—something I have no trouble believing—I don’t think that explains the numbers. As a nation we’re well past the point of taking to the streets anymore. To paraphrase Jefferson, in a democracy the people aren’t afraid of the government; the government’s afraid of the people. So there you go

            Christ, even those supposed protesters down there are for the most part being very careful to follow the rules. The cops tell them they can protest in this cordoned off area, so they do. They’re told they can march down this street, so they do. What, exactly, do they think they’ll accomplish by doing what the State tells them to do? What point are they really making?

            The one time they did break the rules and marched toward Union Square without a permit, what happened? The cops did what cops do. They made some arrests, knocked a few heads, and whipped out the pepper spray. And what did the protesters do in response? They didn’t fight back, they didn’t leap over the barricades and turn the pepper spray on the cops. No, they whined about it and posted “help, I’m being oppressed!” videos on YouTube.

This has been the downfall of every protest I’ve witnessed in the city over the past decade or so. Sure, it’s fun to go out and play act at revolution, to chant things and bang drums and make speeches (and pick up chicks). As if any of this could possibly send a shudder of fear and self-reflection down the corridors of power. But the moment someone steps over the line and actually does something they aren’t supposed to do—that is to say they actually engage in real protest—and the authorities respond, well, then, it’s just not fun anymore because the other guys aren’t playing fair. To paraphrase someone else, if you play with society, you have to expect society to play back. And society plays really, really rough.

In Egypt, Syria, Libya, choose whatever recent example you like, government forces opened fire on protesters and killed people. And what happened in response? The crowds only grew bigger. Here the numbers grew, but I have to wonder why. Several marchers admitted that they joined a rally at NYPD headquarters after hearing a rumor that Radiohead was going to show up to play a free concert (they didn't). And my guess is the unions joined up after a few hardhats checked their records and remembered that hippie chicks just can't resist a real member of the working class. It does leave one wondering—leaves me wondering anyway—how serious they are to begin with about taking down the System.

            Back when I was in school in the early ‘80s, we had two major protests every year. In the Fall we protested the university’s policy of allowing the CIA to recruit on campus, and in the Spring it was the fact that the state had millions invested in South Africa (where apartheid was still in effect). There were other protests against this and that scattered about, but those were the biggies. I honestly didn’t give a rat’s ass about either cause. We were a long way from Vietnam at that point, and I wonder how deeply committed any of those people were. We were just looking for an excuse, is all. It’s hard to get your dander up over divestment, but we still had 20,000 people in the streets, and we caused some trouble. We occupied the state capital building and shut down banks. It was good solid fun for people who didn’t really care. We didn’t complain about any violence we encountered along the way—in fact we encouraged it. And yes, there was a lot of screwing going on.

            It was when the other protesters around us started telling Grinch and myself that we had to be nice and play by the rules that we knew the whole thing was dead. That’s when we broke away and took not caring to a whole new level.

So what does it say when a legitimate protest about the unfathomable political power of Wall Street (even after they’ve destroyed so many lives) can only generate this mealy-mouthed group of whiny powder puffs? At the risk of repeating myself, we’re doomed. But I bet a few people along the way got laid, at least.


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