Tuesday, February 21, 2012 / 12:03 am
If You’re Talking About Destruction, Count Everyone Out
How I got a free trip to France.
by Jim Washburn
Resistance is futile, but it is kind of endearing, how the downtrodden masses persist in speaking up for their inalienable rights. Usually, it does little to budge the entrenched powers. Sometimes, protest has an effect for the better, though a promising dawn usually devolves into a grey afternoon of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
As much as we all love mischief, with flaming tires rolling down the street and bricks flying, it just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore as a means of changing things, if it ever did. The form and manner in which people protest has to change.
We—the human race and the poor critters who share our planet—can ill afford old school protest: not economically, but even much more not when considering the world’s finite resources and the scant spiritual capital that is ours to expend. One numbskull hurling a beer bottle filled with gasoline can destroy a building that hundreds of workers did their earnest best to build, using materials that hundreds more strove to wrest from nature. And destroying all that work generally doesn’t change a goddamned thing, except that now the numbskull’s kids will have to play in soot and rubble for years.
Look at Greece, would you? The idiots are broke. The country spent oodles of drachmas it never made while its leaders cooked the books to mask their debt. They’re insolvent as fuck, running one of the world’s highest deficits relative to GDP; they’re teetering on economic and social collapse; and even on the best of days the country was barely making the case to the rest of Europe that it could be trusted not to piss away $172 billion in bailout funds.
So what do the Greek people do? They riot. They torch businesses. They loot and vandalize. They trash cars and buses. They throw Molotov cocktails at cops, who are themselves facing budget cuts and layoffs and don’t need to be set afire by their fellow Greeks to get the point.
Sure, there are inequities, where Greece’s poor and working folk are being hobbled with an undue share of the nation’s austerity measures, while some of the rich always seem poised to profit from any misfortune. A lot of government debt is essentially a matter of borrowing from the rich to give money to the rich for various worthy-seeming projects, and then repaying the rich, with interest, for the money you borrowed from them to give to them. Well, that’s rather the fun of being rich, isn’t it?
They’ll doubtless profit from whatever eventually gets rebuilt in Greece, as they’ll also profit from the gasoline used for the firebombs. And the Retsina-whacked Zorbas who threw the bombs can feel proud of themselves for going up against “the Man,” while little changes except that maybe their younger siblings get asbestosis from playing in the wreckage they made.
Which reminds me of a joke: You know why the Greek was reluctant to immigrate to the US? He didn’t want to leave his brother’s behind.
Was that needlessly crass and rude to Greeks? I can only hope so, for reasons to be explained shortly.
These rioters, meanwhile, have created nothing, imagined nothing, done nothing to build a better future. There’s enough fire, decay and destruction in life already without adding to it. The human population just keeps surging on this overfished, overfarmed, overwhelmed world, while our day-to-day activity has almost certainly increased the number and severity of weather-related disasters, which hit a new record in the US last year. We don’t have the resources or the right to add to that misery.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t protest and fight for change, but that whatever shape protest takes needs to be a form of change itself, such as Gandhi attempted through non-violent opposition.
Build something, paint something, share information, band together and find new ways of circumventing the corporate world. That requires accomplices, and you don’t win most people over to your cause with mayhem.
I first wrote against destructive protest in 2000, when the handiest reference to it was the French protests against McDonald’s restaurant, which had begun the year previous with the dismantling of a McDonald’s by French activists opposed to globalization, genetically engineered foods and the ever-creepy McFish sandwich (I once busted a vegan ex-girlfriend coming out of a McDonald’s with a McFish sandwich in her mouth. Her justification? “This is so far removed from nature it hardly counts.”)
It was a non-violent act, in that people weren’t harmed and it was only a McDonald’s under construction that they deconstructed. The action did get a whole lot more publicity than a less confrontational one would have—because the press for sure loves mischief–and helped galvanize Europe against malbouffe, but it also inspired some violent attacks, including one in April, 2000 in which a server was killed in an explosion.
I wrote then in my now long-gone MSN column that the French approach to protesting McDonald’s was wrongheaded and counter-productive, in that it wasn’t going to win over hearts and minds. I made a lot of cruel fun of the French along the way, because they are such easy targets and because I was still pissed off by the French foreign intelligence service’s sinking of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior in 1985, a bit of anti-eco-terrorism that resulted in murder.
Boy, did we get mail. Some was from people correctly calling me to task on my mean-spirited snipes (one even from the French Consul in Washington), but a far greater volume was from people hating on France, agreeing with things I’d never said: “You’re right, we should bomb them back into the Stone Age!”
MSN had me do a follow-up column, in the course of which I joked that if enough more people wrote in, maybe Bill Gates would pony up the dough to send me to France. Fat chance of that ever happening, wrote in Brian Pawlowski, a fine fellow at a rival software company, who offered to himself pay for me to experience France firsthand, which I did, thanks.
(My articles have vanished from the internet, as MSN isn’t into that newfangled archiving nonsense, but you can still find Brian’s photographic account of the trip, showing what several parts of France look like with me drunk in them.)
One of our goals was to find Jose Bove, the French sheep farmer who led the initial anti-McDonald’s protest, whom I had come to admire quite a bit for his quotes like “The world is not merchandise.” But it turned out that he was in South America for an environmental conference the whole time. Instead we visited an aunt of mine in Provence, whose husband’s brother cooked us a decidedly non-corporate meal of mushrooms he’d picked that morning; poison mushrooms, in fact, that made us all volcanically ill the following morning. I suppose I had it coming.
But back to protest: Are there situations where violence is called for? Sure, when you’re living under a despot who shells his own cities, for example, but not when your nation, of necessity, is asking you to give up a few admittedly hard-fought benefits, the likes of which your American counterparts could only dream of winning. The Greeks, for example, take it as a feta accompli that they deserve a minimum of 24 paid vacation days a year, in addition to holidays. Last year Greek workers lost a battle and their retirement age has now been raised to 63. How much more of this can they stand?
And in this country, the USA, idiots should know that just because their president asks them to help pay for poor sick kids’ health care, it doesn’t quite equate to the perfidies of Nazi Germany. (Just this week that darling Rick Santorum did indeed compare the prospect of a second Obama term to the rise of the Third Reich, while Karl Rove likened Obama to a Third World dictator, this from a man who supported torture, unchecked spying on American citizens, a criminal war, secret meetings with the energy industry, and so on.)
Italy may be the boot of Europe but Greece looks like the pincered-larva-that-crawled-in-Chekov’s-ear-in-The-Wrath-of-Khan of Europe.
I don’t have the energy to really insult the Greeks properly here, but I was hoping that if I did, someone would offer to send me to Greece. I’d love to go. I hear the sunshine is great, and I’m so addicted to antiquities that I had to join Parth-Anon. And with all those shuttered, burned-out storefronts and cops running down the street as screaming human fireballs, the hotels and bistros shouldn’t be too crowded.
Maybe the new generation of protest won’t even look like protest, because it also encompasses solutions.
Want to know what that looks like? Go check out Open Source Ecology, a marvelous enterprise that fusty old NPR was nice enough to inform me about. It was founded by a young physicist, Marcin Jakuybowski, who’d had his fill of physics and began farming. When his tractor broke, he designed and built one, then shared the plans for free. Others joined him, and there are now detailed plans available for building economical, efficient versions of 52 machines that are important to a community—they call it a “civilization starter kit”–such as wind turbines, compressed earth brick-makers, steam engines and even an automobile. The idea is to fight corporate globalization by sharing information that helps people build the things they need locally, without copyrights or profits to slow the progress. Much nicer than blowing shit up, don’t you think?