'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Peculiar Form of Protest 

You probably heard about it while I was on vacation. On April 21st, a group of people paid to attend an Obama fundraiser in San Francisco, sang a whimsical political sang and called for the release of Bradley Manning:

According to a White House pool report, Obama was speaking to about 200 supporters when a woman stood up at one of the tables of 10 attendees and declared that the group had written a song.

Obama tried to convince the woman to wait, the report said, but the table then broke into a song that referenced Manning, the cost of the fundraiser, and Florida Rev. Terry Jones, who recently burned a copy of the Koran and sparked an outcry in Afghanistan.

Each of us brought you $5,000. It takes a lot of Benjamins to run a campaign. I paid my dues, where's our change, they sang.

The group passed around signs that read Free Bradley Manning

The pool reporter, Carol E. Lee of the Wall Street Journal, reported that Obama took the song in stride although she also noted that he looked “displeased,” as did House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who was also present.

The woman was soon escorted from the ballroom by aides.

That was a nice song, Obama said. Now where was I?

Pentagon officials recently announced that Manning, who is charged with 34 counts, including aiding the enemy, would be transferred from the Marine brig at Quantico, Va., where he was kept in conditions akin to solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and heavily chained when he was moved, to a medium-security facility in Leavenworth, Kan., where he likely will enjoy more freedom in his daily activities.

Was I the only person that considered this a little odd? First of all, it has been reported that the attendees contributed $105,000 to enter the fundraiser in order to serenade the President as to his political deficiences, with $76,000 of it contributed by one of the primary ringleaders, Naomi Pitcairn. So they protested the President by contributing $105,000 to his reelection campaign. No doubt, you will be surprised to discover that Pitcairn is a supporter of the President, responding to a subsequent media inquiry by saying that he's the best shot we have. Pitcairn, a fourth generation heir to the Pittsburgh Plate Glass fortune, also contributed $28,000 to the Obama campaign in 2008. According to Jeff Patterson, project director of Courage to Resist, an activist group that took part in the protest, Pitcairn describes herself as a trust-fund brat/artist.

So, as usual in liberal circles, the protesters were having their cake and eating it, too. If criticized by their pro-Obama friends, they can say, hey, we contributed $105,000 to the President's reelection camapaign, how much have you given? If criticized by their more issue oriented associates, they can say, hey, what's the problem, we publicized the President's fidelity to corporate interests and his abuse of Bradley Manning, and it got reported by all the major newspapers and cable news channels. In other words, we have a classic instance of political protest drained of all transformative potential, protest intentionally designed to be innocuous and non-threatening by the people who paid for it and participated in it. It was, as senecal would say, another example of the reduction of human expression into spectacle, something to entertain viewers on CNN or Fox News while waiting for the Giants game to start on Comcast.

Beyond this, I know a lot of progressive to radical political organizations that could do quite a bit with $105,000, with more enduring results. For example, I host a public affairs program on a free form, non-commercial radio station, KDVS 90.3 FM, and $105,000 is about half of its yearly operating budget. Barbara Lubin of the Middle East Children's Alliance would be ecstatic to receive a contribution of this size for the benefit of the people of Palestine, as would any number of local grassroots labor, environment and anti-war organizations. But these substantive concerns aren't really the point. When Teddy Partridge reported the protest over at firedoglake, there were numerous comments by people who just loved the fact that the President was being discomforted. Sadly, for many who feel disempowered, this is all that remains, to revel in ongoing efforts to personally embarrass Obama. It symbolizes the passive aggressive relationship that some liberals have with him, they give him money, they defend him against criticisms from the left, but then take out their anger of his betrayals by confronting him during rare instances of personal contact. They want him to stay in the White House so that they can continue to vent their frustrations through him.

And, there is an elitist condescension embedded with this as well. The protesters sang, Each of us brought you $5,000. It takes a lot of Benjamins to run a campaign. I paid my dues, where's our change? Given Pitcairn's history of campaign contributions to Obama, it comes across rather arrogantly. It can be translated as, we gave you money and you didn't do what we said. The racial and class implications of such an attitude are troubling, to say the least. Of course, the song is satire, so perhaps, I shouldn't take it so seriously, except that the costs of the protest were primarily paid by someone who appears to believe that political change requires contributing substantial sums of money to Democratic presidential candidates. I can't help but recalling the old adage that people reveal the most about themselves through their humor. A protest that emphasized that the political system has been corrupted by money exposed something equally disturbing, that activism has been as well.

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