Mailbag on the RNC protests

Responses from RNC protesters still have left me unconvinced.

by Jason Stahl

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column asking for those who were participating in the upcoming anti-RNC protests to write in and tell me why. I received several responses via e-mail. I am also told that another response may run in today’s paper. This is fantastic as it is precisely the kind of dialogue I hoped to have. Hopefully this column can respond to all the various issues readers raised.

First, a disclaimer: As reader J.H. correctly noted, there is a worry among protesters in general that their message “will be simplified, watered down, and distorted.” I agree, thus it is important to state at the outset that those protesting have diverse reasons for doing so. I only claim to respond to those who e-mailed and not to “the protesters” as a group.

With this said, the most common response I received stated that the goal of the protests was very simply to be heard. Quoting from the Web site of The March on the RNC to Stop the War, reader A.P. suggests that the “definable goal” of the protests is to “take to the streets of St. Paul to raise our voices against the war and the occupation of Iraq.” Reader J.H. likewise suggests that “the Republicans are attempting to wage a spectacle, and the best way to counteract that spectacle is with a bigger, better spectacle.”

Other readers like e-mailer B.H. pointed to the “great pleasure” and “personal satisfaction” inherent in protesting. These same readers tended to argue that my lack of willingness to engage in street protests meant that I was breeding “cynicism or nihilism” (reader A.P.) or that I was indicative of “the laziness or our generation” (reader B.H.).

Of all these responses, I found myself most in agreement with the satisfaction/pleasure argument. Protesting the coming Iraq War in 2002-03, it was satisfying knowing that others around me saw also saw the absurdity of what was about to transpire. Given that there was a media blackout of dissent against the war, it was good to know that others shared my disgust at what our nation was about to do.

However, as to the charge of nihilism, cynicism and laziness, I must respectfully say that these readers both missed the point of my argument and assume too much about me personally from a single column. As to the latter, as someone who has engaged in all sorts of activism during the past several years – from union organizing to protesting to working on electoral campaigns to the intellectual work of my writing – the charge of political laziness rings hollow. As to the former, these readers missed that I was simply arguing that there was a better way to “raise our voices against the war” and that merely creating “a bigger, better spectacle” was a hollow (and even self-centered) form of political action – especially when such a spectacle will most likely be mediated in a way which could ultimately work against the goal of ending the war and the occupation.

Even if such a media-created backlash does not occur, I still would argue that the time, effort and resources of those protesting would best be spent elsewhere. For myself, this means working for Obama, but I understand why this might not be for everyone. However, I still remain unconvinced street protests at the RNC will have any discernable positive political effects.

Jason Stahl welcomes comments at [email protected]