The Anatomy of a Protest

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Oct 19, 2011 12:01 AM

Gravity has its laws courtesy of Sir Isaac Newton, and protest has its authoritative field notes by Eric Hoffer.

A longshoreman and philosopher in pretty much that order, Eric Hoffer described the protesters of his time, the Hippies and Yippies of the Sixties, with such enduring insight that he might have been talking about Occupy Wall Street today.

The specific focus of protests, if any, may change with the times. But the general spirit remains remarkably the same. It's a kind of free-floating dissatisfaction with the world. Or maybe the dissatisfaction is just with the protesters' place in it.

The over-all impression remains the same: Lots of gripes, many only half-formed, and no real program except the haziest of generalities. And even those may be self-contradictory. Or as Eric Hoffer put it, "What monstrosities would walk the streets were some people's faces as unfinished as their minds."

Clarity and coherence just aren't high on these protesters' order of priorities. Indeed, such qualities may be viewed as tools of the System, a kind of suppression of their freedom, their spontaneity, their creativity, and above all their general sense of indignation at being insufficiently appreciated.

Asking the protesters to justify their ideas, or even to fully articulate them, may be seen as just another way to keep them down.

Like any other theatrical production with costumes from the East, modern protests tend to go on the road sooner or later, starting off on Broadway and then branching out to the Dubuques and Peorias for limited engagements.

The protesters don't seem interested in justifying their gripes, just expressing them. As if what they're really after is the comforting feeling of group solidarity.

To quote a protester in Little Rock who just dropped out of college, "I'm just glad we're stepping up together...." Even if it isn't clear what they're stepping up (or down) to.

What is it, exactly, that they're protesting? The answer is the same as that of Marlon Brando's character in "The Wild Ones," a movie made in 1953. He plays the leader of a gang of bikers who set out to take over a small town for no particular reason, like any other rebels without a cause. When a local asks him what he's rebelling against, all he can say is: "Whatcha got?"

He's just "mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Which is a line from "Network" (1976). When it comes to protests, the theme remains remarkably unchanged over time -- a general sense of betrayal. To sum it up: We played by the rules, we did the right thing, and we still haven't got what we want, which usually comes down to money and status -- even if those are the things the protesters are supposed to be protesting.

Listen to this dissatisfied demonstrator, a 49-year-old Harvard graduate with a master's degree from New York University who lost her job in publishing a couple of years ago: "I did everything I was supposed to do. I have two fancy degrees. I'm from a union home, raised to believe in the system. But you know what? The system doesn't work! It's too polluted with corporate money."

It's all the System's fault. Certainly not Harvard's or NYU's and most certainly not her own.

What do you suppose her two degrees were in, a sense of self-entitlement?

This is not to say that all protests are born equal. Lest we forget, this republic was born in protest, usually in the vicinity of Boston, Mass., aka The Cradle of Liberty.

How differentiate between protests that lead to liberty under law, and to more respect for human dignity and self-reliance rather than less?

Just ask the reason for the protest. Ask for specifics. By their specifics you shall know them, and whether the protest is serious or just for show.

Those colonial protesters had definite grievances -- various taxes and navigation acts that restricted their trade. They weren't protesting against some vague generality (The System, Wall Street, Corporate Money) but against this or that specific act of parliament, this or that infringement on their long-established rights, or maybe some state monopoly, like the one granted the British East India Company over the sale of tea in the colonies.

See the Declaration of Independence for the full bill of particulars. These protesters in the colonies knew just what they were rebelling against, and, when asked, didn't have to mumble, "Whatcha got?"

Maybe today's protesters will reach that point. Let's hope so. It would be a decided improvement. In the meantime, they might stay off the grass. It's the least they can do for the environment.