Tuesday, December 6, 2016

When Activism Invariably Fails, Resistance Appears Futile

In the minds of many activists, the most impressive antiwar demonstration in history occurred on February 15, 2003, when 10 to 15 million protestors assembled in over 600 cities worldwide to oppose the invasion of Iraq. If the purpose of activism is to demonstrate the solidarity of massive numbers of human beings on particular policy points, then the protests were successful. But if the purpose of activism is to prevent the activity opposed by protestors, then the antiwar demonstrations of 2003 were plainly failures.

As Ishaan Tharoor commented in a retrospective written for Time:
We failed. Slightly more than a month later, the U.S. was shocking and awing its way through Iraqi cities and Saddam Hussein’s defenses and bedding in — though it didn’t know it yet — for a near decadelong occupation. The protests, which by any measure were a world historic event, were brushed aside with blithe nonchalance by the Bush Administration and a rubber-stamp Congress that approved the war. The U.N.’s Security Council was bypassed, and the largely feckless, acquiescent American mainstream media did little to muffle Washington’s drumbeats of war.

A decade later, it’s hard to understand why the display of people power on Feb. 15 proved so ineffectual. The gun-slinging righteousness of post-9/11 America has given way to a more humble West, burdened by unwinnable wars, financial crises and a semipermanent funk of political dysfunction. . . . Yet the mass antiausterity protests that have rocked Europe or even the largest actions of Occupy Wall Street have not been able to match the scale of what took place on Feb. 15, 2003.
Perhaps the most disappointing note in this excerpt from Tharoor is the final sentence, with its lamentation that we have been unable "to match the scale" of a protest that failed.

Why should we seek to replicate anything about a protest that couldn't prevent a war as unjustifiable as the one in Iraq? We knew the Bush administration was lying about weapons of mass destruction. We knew the media was exploiting outrage over the 9/11 attacks to manufacture consent for the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with those attacks. The American government's absurd plan for war was vocally opposed by its own citizenry and by people throughout the world--and yet the Iraq War proceeded on schedule.

So what if the Occupy Wall Street protests had been bigger and more spectacular than the antiwar protests of 2003? What difference would it have made? Why do so many activists measure the success of their movements by counting the dollars raised or the participants involved rather than the policy goals achieved?

Any reasonable answer probably has to address the phenomenon of "learned helplessness," the sense of powerlessness that can arise from repeated failures to escape undesirable situations. Those unfamiliar with this term should read about the eye-opening (and depressing) experiments of Martin Seligman. His conclusion is irrefutable: It is possible to convince sentient organisms (including human beings) that an undesired stimulus (from an electric shock to an unnecessary war) is inescapable even when escape is as simple as stepping away from wherever one happens to be.

Dogs will sit on an electric shock pad and whimper as shocks are applied to them once they're convinced that they will encounter electric shock pads no matter where they go. And US citizens will allow their broken healthcare system to bankrupt them once the media has convinced them that every alternative to that system is somehow worse.

Americans are so accustomed to the inefficacy of protests that we have come to think of failure as an essential component of any demonstration. We didn't protest the Iraq War to prevent it: We protested it to feel better about what we regarded as inevitable. We didn't sympathize with Occupy Wall Street because we expected any bankers to be jailed or any retirees robbed of their pensions to get their money back; we sympathized as an empty gesture of occupying the moral high ground.

We're seeing this psychology in play right now with the way people are talking about the easement "victory" of the Standing Rock Sioux over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). On December 4th, Naomi Klein published an article in The Nation entitled "The Lesson from Standing Rock: Organizing and Resistance Can Win."

The article is full of the emotional confusion that stems from learned helplessness:
 “I’ve never been so happy doing dishes,” Ivy Longie says, and then she starts laughing. Then crying. And then there is hugging. Then more hugging.
This emotionalism captures Klein herself later in the article:
The youngest person here is someone many people credit with starting this remarkable movement: 13-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes, a fiercely grounded yet playful water-warrior who joined with her friends to spread the word about the threat the pipeline posed to their water. When I asked her how she felt about the breaking news she replied, “Like I got my future back”—and then we both broke down in tears.  
There's nothing wrong with tears of joy when people have something to celebrate. But that isn't the case right now because NoDAPL hasn't won, as Klein acknowledges when she writes, "Everyone here is aware that the fight is not over. The company will challenge the decision." The idea that the Sioux will receive justice simply because the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) denied the DAPL easement is as ludicrous as the notion that Walter Scott received justice simply because the policeman who murdered him had to go through the ordeal of a mistrial to get away with his crime.

Shortly after the ACE denial was issued, the companies behind DAPL (Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners) released a statement indicating that they "fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe. Nothing this Administration has done today changes that in any way." Nevertheless, the protest movement in America is so starved for victories that readers lapped up articles with titles such as "#NoDAPL: Big Win at Standing Rock as Army Corps Denies Easement for Dakota Access Pipeline," "BREAKING: NoDAPL Prevails – Obama Administration Halts Pipeline," and "Standing Rock Victory Photos: Pictures of the Celebration." Instead of worrying about the plans of the pipeline builders to ignore the denial of the easement, we're supposed to be ecstatic that the denial was issued at all. 

Sadly, the circumstances surrounding the denial suggest that NoDAPL is worse off now than it was a week prior to this "victory." On November 29th, Sophia Tesfaye pointed out in an article for Slate that after months of ignoring NoDAPL, the US government and various news organizations were "finally" starting to pay attention to the problem. The protest received a huge spike in favorable publicity as Tulsi Gabbard and thousands of other veterans converged on Standing Rock to serve as human shields for the water protectors.

Security firms and law enforcement officers were in for a public relations nightmare if they continued their practice of blasting peaceful protestors with icy water, tear gas, and rubber bullets. So miraculously, almost as soon as the veterans showed up, the ACE issued its denial of the easement. The long-standing media blackout on the NoDAPL protests would have been unsustainable if security guards had attacked the veterans. But in the wake of the news concerning the easement, the blackout is likely to be stronger than ever, as mainstream media hacks can now say of NoDAPL, "That protest ended in early December, when the easement was denied."

It would be gratifying to share Jared Beck's excitement about the deployment of veterans in protest movements as a newly discovered game-changer:
But we won't know that this strategy works until it actually works--which it hasn't yet. The NoDAPL veterans are already talking about capitalizing on their success by deploying to Flint, Michigan. That sounds like a great idea as soon as we have conclusive evidence that their efforts in Standing Rock have defeated DAPL once and for all. Until then, maybe they should call upon other conscientious veterans--those who couldn't make it to Standing Rock, for whatever reason--to assemble in Flint.

If they leave for Michigan before the battle of the Dakotas has been won, they run the risk of turning into one more roving band of failed activists (much like Code Pink and 350.org and other outfits that make a lot of noise about their concerns without actually changing the way the US government does business).

We Americans are stunningly silent about our failure to address systemic economic, racial, and environmental injustice in any meaningful way in the last fifty years. Think of all the documented cases of police brutality we've had since Michael Brown's killing. What have we learned from Ferguson except that the proper response to the latest murder of a black citizen is to chant "Black Lives Matter" while waiting for the next one?

Cue the defensive activist who says, "Jeesh, well it's easy to throw stones, but at least Medea Benjamin and Bill McKibben are doing something! Bloggers like you just want to be negative." But that's just the problem. I'm trying to be positive by insisting upon positive change. And the first step to making positive change involves recognizing that what we are doing isn't working. Maybe it will work out with the veterans in Standing Rock. It seems like it should, and I hope it does. If so, let's build on that. If not, let's not keep relying on strategies that fail.

The problem with our learned helplessness is that it is symptomatic of highly conventionalized thinking. We say, "There's no reason to re-invent the wheel. Some of these people have been at this activism business for decades. It would be arrogant not to listen to what they have to say."

But what they have to say often takes the form of micro-concessions, as when one ATXEJ volunteer at an Austin NoDAPL protest took me aside to say, "If you're trying to save the world from climate change, you're in for a disappointment. Instead, try to set local, manageable, attainable goals--like helping us clean up our local parks." One minor problem with that argument is that I didn't show up at the NoDAPL protest because I'm worried about sandwich wrappers blemishing otherwise pleasant scenery. I showed up because I'm concerned about climate change.

But the major problem with talking people out of saving the world is that it's likely to leave the world unsaved.

Activists don't just learn helplessness from the failure of their causes. They actively teach it to each other through such micro-concessions. All activists say they want change. That's what activates them. But it's easy to lose sight of what changes are most important in a culture that says, "We can't possibly impact carbon emissions on a global scale, so let's circulate a petition to raise the fine for littering!"

If you want to recognize your limitations within the current system and settle for doing whatever you can do in that framework, have at it. But that's a recipe for failing before you even try. If you prove to me that I can't achieve a semblance of justice within the current system, then my response shouldn't be to redefine justice, but to overhaul the system.

The difference between activism that does fail and activism that might succeed is the difference between evolution (which involves settling for change that occurs naturally) and revolution (which involves changing the way change happens). 

Instead of hoping that activism will evolve into something that works, we need to get busy re-inventing it until it does. This blog will feature more commentary on what form that experimentation might take approximately five posts from now. Those with comments to make before then are welcome to use the space below.


  1. P.S. One of my Twitter friends (@Tericento) let me know that even though she was activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom on 2/14/03, she first learned of the antiwar protest on 2/15/03 by reading this blog post.

    She is a veteran for peace who works hard to stem the tide of American military aggression, but the MSM blackout of antiwar sentiment was so effective in 2003 that she honestly had no idea a worldwide antiwar movement was afoot.

    Check out her tweets on this subject via the following link:

    And let's remember that we must use any tools available to us to bypass/drown out the brainwashing campaign of our corporate media.

  2. Had a mini-review of Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement going, but hit the wrong button and list it! Sorry! Shorter version: must-read.