Reflections on Protest—from June 2020

I initially wrote this for submission to a journal in the summer of 2020, but it wasn’t quite up to snuff for publication. I post it here as a record of my thinking from that summer and on: the thoughts being worked out here, and the attitude they imply, have only deepened in the years since.

The first time I ever joined a protest was in 2003, shortly after the United States military bombed and invaded Iraq. I was a high school sophomore in West Virginia, almost entirely oblivious about the nuts and bolts of politics but wielding a red hot indignation for what seemed to be an immoral and unstrategic aggression against a country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack two years prior. When I watched the night vision video of bombs falling on Baghdad, I knew—viscerally, unreflectively, and deep in my gut—that what was happening was wrong. Driven by this sense, I got together with my sister and a good friend one day after school and joined the few dozen anti-war demonstrators holding signs across from the Cabell County Courthouse.

There was nothing particularly heroic about protesting the war. All of us, I think, knew in our hearts that our opposition was ultimately futile: we had already lost and the bombs had already been dropped, but it was nonetheless important to register our rejection of the state of things as publicly as possible. And in 2003, voicing such opinions was no way to win friends: the war was overwhelmingly popular, and at all points of its unfolding practically every public institution (not just the media, but also the schools and city government) had cheered its arrival with rallies, celebrations, and the distribution of tiny American flags. The country was unified around an appetite for vengeance: everyone felt it was high time for revenge, even if the victim was arbitrarily chosen.

One appearance at an anti-war protest followed another, my backpack and black hoodie steadily gathering political patches and pins like a flame gathers moths. In response to a button I sported reading “war is not the answer,” a boy in my grade scrawled the obverse in huge letters on the back of a Mossy Oak hunting jacket and invited anyone in agreement to sign: I remember watching practically everyone in my history class—including our teacher—add their name. There was something refreshing in noticing my subjective, dispositional alienation from my peers being objectified in the form of political stances: where previously I had no clue why I couldn’t easily get along with my classmates, I now had something to point to. But waging this largely solitary war against war nonetheless contributed to my preexisting teenage melancholy, driving me even further into solipsism, and as the years passed my radicalism only intensified. By senior year, while corporations were printing “Support the Troops” on everything they could and carrying out elaborate strategies to insult the French, I was neck deep in far-left theory and propaganda: Crimethinc., the Communist Manifesto, a smattering of anarcho-primitivist essays, anti-globalization and environmental documentaries. By graduation (which I of course did not attend) I was a true believer—and the first day I walked into a college classroom some months later, I knew at once that whatever it was to be done would not take place in cheap plastic chairs beneath fluorescent lights, but out in the streets. I didn’t last a semester.

The next few years of my life were spent in the activist trenches, first in a campaign to end strip mining in West Virginia, then to block highway construction in Indiana, and, briefly, to end a free trade agreement in Canada and New England.[1] None of these campaigns were popular and all eventually failed, whether crushed by the overwhelming force of capital and the state or through internal decomposition and schism. (I have since driven on stretches of the highway whose very existence I fought against.) Comrades were arrested and, at the state’s most lenient, charged astronomical bail fees; at worst, they faced numerous federal felonies which, even if dismissed, meant years of house arrest, court appearances, and countless thousands of dollars owed to lawyers. Friendships disintegrated; some transformed into vicious enmity. Even the least disheartened recognized that an approach of direct confrontation with capital and the state was bound to fail, and redirected their efforts into smaller-scale, longer-term, more constructive projects; the most broken among us drifted into quietude, seeking peace after years of hopeless, exhausting struggle. For my part, I moved to a farm in southern Kentucky, retiring from mass politics for the sake of reading, thinking, and coaxing green life from the earth—that is, until an increasingly fanatical housemate sabotaged the project because of ideological disagreements. Politics obliterated even the anti-political.

The protests and riots unfold across the country have me reflecting on my own history of participation in mass politics. When they began, I—like most Americans—was moved by the nobility of their call for justice. I was baffled and awestruck by their rapid spread across the country. And when the fires and looting started, I was horrified—and only moreso as a chorus of journalists, celebrities, and left-wing politicians engaged in a coordinated show of intellectual gymnastics to justify and excuse the destruction. This reaction didn’t immediately have a language beyond a feeling of visceral refusal, a resounding “no” roaring from the deepest reaches of my being. But with the passing of time, so too a dispersal of fog—and accordingly, some clarity of vision and thought.

The riots and the rapid transformation of culture following them have carried with them an ominous sense of familiarity. The swift alignment of public opinion, buttressed by countless public statements made on behalf of corporations, institutions, and politicians; the unequal bifurcation of American society on all levels and a universal atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust; the hostility to debate and the repetition and enforcement of sloganeering: this all smacks quite uncomfortably of the disorganization of American society at the time of the Iraq War.

Eliot Weinberger, in his gonzo-Thucydidean chronicle of 9/11 and its aftermath What Happened Here, noted that prominent left-wing intellectuals who had cheered the destruction of the World Trade Center as “a humiliating blow against the American Empire, and a just reward for the decades of American hegemony and aggression” did so as slaves to abstraction, in full ignorance of the reality of the situation: that a vast majority of the victims were poor minorities, low-ranking office drones, and rescue workers. Moreover, the destruction of the Twin Towers meant the obliteration of much of downtown Manhattan, a scenario easily weathered by the wealthiest of New Yorkers but economically devastating to the poorest. The upper classes can look on political spectacles with the rosy-colored glasses of abstraction: for them, the towers were primarily a symbol, whether of exploitative global capitalism or of American freedom and prosperity; the attack functioned first and foremost as an allegory, either of an oppressive empire receiving its just desserts or of forces of evil attempting to snuff out the light of freedom. No matter the narrative suggested to one beholding the ink-blot of reality, the concrete, on-the-ground consequences of the disaster became of secondary importance to achieving victory in a warfare of competing symbols.

Of course, left-wing intellectuals were not the only ones guilty of this after 9/11: the “weapons of mass destruction” narrative turned many prominent journalists and cultural commentators from the right to the center-left into an Aeschylean chorus howling for the rapture of blood and fire. Even the most critical were swept up in the frenzy: Christopher Hitchens, enfant terrible of the left, found cause to channel his nigh-religious hatred of religion into enthusiasm for airstrikes, going so far as to personally befriend Bush’s Secretary of Defense—and the war’s chief imaginarian—Paul Wolfowitz. The war divided America into unequal sides, the bellicose constituting the lion’s share. But in a different way, it served as a force of unity: it injected the poison of abstraction into the minds of nearly everyone, afflicting America with an inability to see the world on a granular level, to recognize things and people in a completeness irreducible to pieces in a cosmic game of Go laid by the heavenly forms that serve as the true motor of all things. A family member, coworker, or erstwhile friend who disagreed didn’t simply have an opposing opinion: they were a worldly instantiation of wrongness-as-such, a footsoldier of Manichaean darkness marching on the World of Light. And darkness, unlike a friend, may receive no quarter.

Perhaps now it’s possible to see the eerie similarity between the culture of 2003 and the culture of 2020. In both cases, a powerful schismatic force drove vast numbers of cultural elites, intellectuals, and normal Americans into hostile, opposing camps built around fanatical commitments to a priori truths and dogmatic refusal to question assumptions. Fanaticism carries with it a threefold demand: first, that you flatten complexity into a battle between two sides; second, that you pick one and stay put; and third, that you allow a swarm of assumptions associated with whatever position you’ve chosen to colonize your mind entirely. In a world rent top to bottom by friend-enemy distinctions, where all truth is power, there can be no truth beyond what is true for one’s group and no understanding beyond the battle lines. And ultimately, no matter how just a mass movement’s vision may be, the force of conformity it exerts will always jeopardize the inner dignity of the participant.

This lesson was known to an entire generation of writers and thinkers living in the shadow of the ideological frenzy that launched World War II, and in their present-tense reality of the looming Soviet Union and its relentless global propaganda campaign against the “fascism” of liberal democratic Europe and America. In his 1950 theoretical polemic Man Against Mass Society, an especially deep and illuminating example of the genre, the French dramatist, philosopher, and self-described “Christian of the Left” Gabriel Marcel explains how modernity’s transformation of society from a complex, interlocking network of small institutions into an undifferentiated mass of atomized individuals occasions the development and spread of an ideological fanaticism fundamentally hostile to the honest, deep reflection necessary for the existence of philosophy. “[T]he masses are of their very essence…the stuff of which fanaticism is made,” Marcel argues; “propaganda has on them the convulsive effect of an electrical shock. It arouses them not to life, but to that appearance of life which particularly manifests in riots and revolutions.” Propaganda and fanaticism are what Marcel calls “techniques of degradation”: strategies for reducing human beings and the communities they form to their base physicality, of stripping away their dignity, of eroding the metaphysical tendencies latent in all human endeavor in order to make populations more amenable to technocratic planning. The Nazi death camps are Marcel’s example par excellence of this process of degradation, but more subtle tendencies are visible in the overall logic of the new technocratic politics of the early 20th century: demographic- and population-thinking, consideration of human beings in masses instead of communities, total mobilization for religiously-charged political causes in place of careful, reasoned consideration of possibilities and consequences. A degraded society of degraded human beings may permit survival, but it doesn’t allow for life.

How can this process of degradation be fought? Marcel’s answer is clear: the only available weapon is philosophy. And he understands philosophy not as a process of abstract, analytical assessment of propositions, but as the fruit of reflection, of contemplating one’s situatedness, of the givenness of one’s environments, and of the pursuit of stable truth amid the flux of things. Because they are the first line of defense against this process of degradation, Marcel insists, “he first duty of the philosopher in our world today is to fight against fanaticism in whatever guise it may appear.” And propaganda, the vehicle of fanaticism, may come in many forms—newspapers, radio, television, political slogans—but all share the feature of militating against the quiet, unproductive, reflective act of thinking by demanding the habitual repetition of words. “At the root of fanaticism…lies man’s servitude to words,” observed Marcel, “and I would say that the first mission of the philosopher, in this world or in opposition to this world, is to refuse to accept that servitude.” This remains as true now as ever. No matter the content, propaganda and political slogans—whether 2003’s “support the troops” or 2020’s “black lives matter”—are cultural technologies meant to build an environment hostile to reflection, philosophy, and—perhaps most basically—honesty.

Participation in politics can be a noble pursuit. Maintenance of our shared world requires careful negotiation with one another about the shape we wish it to take. Sometimes, of course, we are confronted with radical decisions of monumental importance that must be made quickly, that don’t admit of scrupulousness or sobriety. In these moments, it is easy to lose sight of our existential situation: that we exist in a world we depend upon, with others we depend upon, and that the dreams we have for the world we share are not as easily realizable as we want them to be. The suffocating atmosphere of fanaticism can cause us to forget that there are things—beautiful, splendid, life-giving things—that have nothing to do with the power- and prestige-games that characterize our shared political reality. Rather than sacrificing ourselves to the politics machine, of assimilating ourselves to fanaticism, it’s of the utmost importance to find space to allow our attention to settle on things untouched by politics. In tumultuous times such as ours, recall the wisdom of George Orwell, writing just months after the end of World War II: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

[1] In honesty, I must admit that I had absolutely no sense for movement politics or the ins and outs of organizing work, and was likely more of a liability than a boon. But I was a body in the battle, and I was more than willing to carry boxes, dig holes, and march in the streets when called upon.

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