Monday, October 25, 2010

Have We No Right to Our Sort of Protest Songs?

It took me three weeks instead of one, but I’ve assembled my ideas about the problems of the affluent white person’s gesture of protest. It’s going to sound very cynical, but I actually consider my perspective on this quite optimistic, in a strange sort of way. All will, I hope, become clear by the end of the analysis.

So my loyal readers (or anyone who scrolls down to October 5) will know that I first began this stream of blogging with a saddening critique of an internet-based breast cancer awareness meme. People could put a joke in their statuses, mildly amusing at best, that would raise awareness of breast cancer among those who have already had this very opaque gesture explained to them. Here is the first, and in my view, the most superficial problem with the protest gestures of affluent white people. Quite a few of the things we get angry about – global poverty, disasters, disease, religious extremism, wars – are easily understood. And when people hang out in a public square holding signs that describe how much they hate war and cluster bombs, that’s easily understood. I look at a person with a sign that reads, “Stop the War in Iraq!” and I assume correctly that they very much want to stop that war in Iraq I’ve heard so much about. This is an effective protest because people, while they may not agree with you, will know what you’re talking about.

But some gestures of protest are very symbolic, and difficult to understand at first glance. In my breast cancer example from earlier this month, I found it very hard to understand. Cancer is a terrible disease, and we should raise money to research to cure cancers cheaply and effectively, and encourage people to self-examine and be mindful of their bodies, in case they develop tumours. A great way to spread awareness of this among your facebook friends is to post a status update like, “It’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month!” and embed a link to a reputable research charity or a web guide to self-exams. You could sponsor someone in a fundraising marathon, or some other kind of pledge drive. This would be an easily understood way of voicing your opinion and productively aiding the cause through the infrastructures that exist.

A terrible way to achieve a goal like this is to make your status an ambiguous joke about sex, writing “Athena Peterson likes it on the kitchen counter!” Really, you’re talking about ‘where you lay your purse when you come home,’ and in a long, elaborately detailed private message from the friend who’s been spreading this 21st century chain letter, explaining the symbolism that connects women’s sexual exploration, the attention that a kinky-sounding status garners, and the eroticization of the female breast to genuine concern about breast cancer. None of this deep and complicated meaning was at all present in the initial joke, which is the only part of this gesture that 95% of your friends will see! To them, your cause is lost in confusion and opaque symbolism.

I think this kind of protest is dreamt up by well-meaning people who simply have too much time on their hands, so they can ponder oblique connections between gestures, jokes, and political issues, then assemble a convincing pitch for their protest idea. Patton Oswalt has some wonderful jokes about this, his old routines about why hippies annoy him so much. But this kind of protest that defeats itself through its own opacity is the symptom of a much deeper problem with being a socially progressive affluent white person. Most of us in protest movements are affluent enough that we don’t have to work for a living. We do this because we’re bored.

Now, I don’t want to disparage the good intentions of many people, and I certainly don’t want to describe all progressive activists in my country as ivory tower academic types and trust fund kids who haven’t even seen poor people before. Most of the people I’ve known in activist communities have been on student loans, have staggering debt, and worked one or two wretched part-time jobs (fast food, gas stations, tour guides), to put themselves through school. But they could go to school, and university. They’re functionally literate. They have opportunities. They lived in decent neighbourhoods where you couldn’t just walk to the corner one block down to buy coke, meth, oxy, and heroin. They weren’t physically abused or molested. Their families usually had enough money to feed everyone and make the mortgage payments.

The people who actually understand from experience what it means to be poor, are poor, and they stay poor. Not by choice, but because poor people have to stay poor if capitalism is going to work. And communism only works for four or five decades before collapsing from the absurd weight of a bureaucracy big enough to plan (with minimal effectiveness, if that) an economy for an entire nation. We middle class liberals have the time to protest because we don’t have to worry much where our next meal is coming from. But because we aren’t poor, we can easily lose touch with the people we’re trying to help.

This is why moronically opaque, over-intellectual protest events happen: we have enough leisure time to come up with them, but actual poor people are too busy trying to survive to care. An affluent white person lives at a disconnect that the power of conscience alone can’t always bridge. That disconnect makes such a person a cartoon, and it makes the objects of their charity regard them with contempt and resentment. A poor person can legitimately say to the affluent white person who wants to help them, “You are an ignorant fool who understands nothing of my life. My life is hard and I work hard. I don’t need your fucking pity.”

Now for the most profound part of my analysis of the affluent white conscience: expand this scenario to the entire globe. Now colonialism is part of the picture, a massive system of economic exploitation that spread over the entire Earth and lasted centuries. We affluent white people exist because of the enormous effort our ancestors put into creating the massively unequal share of wealth among humanity today. If you think the resentment of a Canadian poor person toward a rich person who doesn’t understand their life can be powerful, imagine how someone who lives on the equivalent of a few Canadian coins each day would feel.

Even if affluent Western governments actually donated all the money in their foreign aid budgets to actual foreign aid, it is still an utter pittance. We live as we do today because for hundreds of years, our ancestors destroyed the economies of entire continents for their own gain. Today, we feel guilty about it. So we pity the poor of the world, and send some pocket change to them so they can buy an extra chicken and we can feel better. But it’s nothing more than our pity, which demeans and dehumanizes the people who are pitied. If an affluent Western person thinks they can restore the world to peace, harmony, and brotherhood with a few gestures of contrition about our society having reduced their societies to mud, she’s in for a rough surprise.

The global economy is an enormous crime against humanity. And I’m not even talking about the ecological destruction. That’s another post, and my PhD thesis.

There’s a beautiful and terrifying film that expresses the emptiness of the affluent’s contrition very succinctly. It’s called Cobra Verde, and it’s about the last gasp of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1880s. There’s a scene, included in the trailer, where Klaus Kinski, playing Cobra Verde, the head of the slave trading port, takes a visitor to choose a slave woman to screw that evening. The women live in cramped quarters, in an underground hole. The chosen woman climbs out of a ladder. The visitor asks who these woman are, and Cobra Verde responds, with clear understanding of everything he’s done, “Our future murderers.”

Kinski plays a slave trader who understands exactly the horrifying criminal nature of the slave trade. He does it anyway because he is a criminal. He doesn’t pity his slaves either. He knows that one day the slave trade will end, and those who are oppressed now will take a place of dominance. He doesn’t call the slave woman an avenger, someone who will bring justice. He calls her a murderer. In this way, he understands that the only way to escape a system built on terror and injustice is not charity or contrition, but destruction.

But that’s not how the movie ends. The movie ends with a song by an African choir of young girls, singing in Akan, dancing in their own style, wearing their own clothes, and smiling. It’s an act of creation and celebration of life. The resentment engendered by pity, the confusion of a desperate conscience, the never-ending guilt of restitution, the ridiculous charity of affluent boredom; these are all forgotten. The scales of justice are thrown away, and we are left with dancing and laughter.

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