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

A typical stupid Greek person.

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?

Jim Washburn has written for the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, various MSN sites and just about anybody else willing to trade a paycheck for a pulse.


Dude….What do I do with these Molotov Cocktail plans I was intending to share ?

2012-02-21 by Sechs

Just alter the formula slightly and market it as eco-Coca Cola. As if you could afford the gasoline anyway.

2012-02-21 by Jim Washburn

“Well, that’s rather the fun of being rich, isn’t it?” Hmm not sure about that as justification for ills of international capitalism Jim.

The Greek economy was and is a basket case but a very large percentage of the western economic crisis is down to the US exporting it’s mad property bubble debt to the rest of us poor saps - thanks a bunch fanny may or whatever the thing is called.

Violent protest is an outlet for the understandable outlet for the frustration of a large proportion of society who are powerless - can’t really see basket weaving in the streets having much impact.

2012-02-21 by Jim Heinemann

Hi, Jim. How’s the family? You’re right that I’m rather simplifying the causes for things being screwed, and thanks by the way for taking on our toxic mortgages. They were harder to get rid of than Girl Scout cookies.
Yes, the violence is understandable, but is it useful? You live in London, which had some ugly riots last year. Did they make everything better?
I’m just not the rioting type, I guess. I prefer to think humanity has had enough opportunity to get smart over its couple of million years that tearing things apart like enraged ants doesn’t have to be our default setting. It’s one thing if you’ve just seen your family machine-gunned by government thugs; but if it’s about being handed a smaller packet of crisps, maybe the wrong isn’t worth burning your brother’s house down.
I’d love to pop over for a cuppa sometime, if I ever get two Euros to rub together.—Jim
A great many inequities require complicity

2012-02-21 by Jim Washburn

This comment is from one of Washburn’s readers who wrote in about this post thread:

That is how I felt about the 60s radicals, who I remember well. I remember them trying to destroy universities, marching kids into confrontations, all so they could make their ideological and political points. Today there is a lot of rehashing of the late 60s philosophies and attitudes, which were not a particularly wonderful time and threatened to tear this country apart.

So it is not just the Right.

The Who wrote that line about the “same boss”. John Lennon in Revolution rejected them.

I never thought those guys would be in charge. I knew and was round members of the Weathermen, the Panthers, the SDS and others who proclaimed the “new order” or were so alienated by events that they literally hated this country.

I remember the fads with Chairman Mao and with the North Vietnamese- and Castro. We all lived through those periods. I personally was impressed by the growth in Malcolm X; I thought his autobiography was incredible. More people, particularly in government and in the political communities, particularly those who want to divide the races, ought to read and really understand what Malcolm was saying. And MLK.

It is easy to categorize anyone who disagrees with the some dogma as a joke or ignorant or biased.

However, there are many of us, including people who came from very left places like Cal, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, etc,. who were exposed to all kinds of thought, political and otherwise. We make our own decisions and we do not like extremism, radicalism, fundamentalism or people who think they have the answers to save the world. Alternative systems, as in Russia, Eastern Europe and Cuba have all failed- as does Christian fundamentalism and segregationists

. If you want to understand people like me, look at the Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski, done in the 1970s. He distinguished knowledge from certainty. People who are certain oppress those who disagree. He also quoted Cromwell, who we Irish otherwise hate, who stated : “I beseech you; think it possible you may be wrong.”

The quick demeaning and rejection of people of opposite views, calling them names, thinking they are idiots or worse, leads to a belief in superiority and trying to impose a system that is divisive and destructive. Radical Islam is an example.

This country is in real trouble, including economic and internationally. It does not take a genius to see that. Regardless of manipulation and posturing- and divisiveness- to win an election, which is cynical, this country will pay a severe price for what is now occurring. We are living way beyond our means and making stupid decisions, including internationally, that pose a real risk to our survival. If one truly understands history, the handwriting on the wall is vivid. But the leadership care only about themselves, are doctrinaire and rigid, and arrogant. They are marching us toward a cliff. History teaches that and cannot be ignored.

Finding scapegoats, as these rioters do, reminds me of 1930s Germany.

We should be very concerned that close to 50% of this country does not pay income taxes and the entitlement mentality is pervasive. That is very dangerous, as Europe shows.

Neither established party, with few exceptions, is addressing the real issues in my view. That is very unfortunate.

I see a myriad of commentators and shows, particularly on HBO, that attack Wall Street for the derivatives and the sub primes that helped cause the collapse in 2008; they were greedy- a replay of 1990-1 when the S&L and RTC crises occurred.

However, virtually none talk about the conscious policy that Clinton implemented tried to give every American a chance to buy a house, even if they could not afford it. Then Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae made loans available to people who were not qualified. I have represented lenders; it was incredible. because of government intervention, qualify for loans and underwriting were forgotten. It was very political and however well meaning, disastrous. When housing prices declined, people had no value in their property and stopped paying loans. Loan mods, short sales, etc. were all evidence.

Then Wall Street did its part by bundling and selling bad loans as securities which were worthless. When that was discovered, the bubble collapsed.

This process should have been regulated. However, two of the biggest culprits were Barney F and Chris Dodd. Then, incredibly they turn around and sponsor a bill, now law, that strangles lending.

Obama, again for political reasons, now has government again stepping in and forgiving these bad loans.

When someone suggests that the poison pill needs to be taken and corrected, they are called heartless.

Ok fine. win the election. Appeal to the masses. The economics do not change. The reality will hit. Of course, the blame game will continue selectively according to one’s politics.

When everyone is taking and no one is contributing, the system collapses. Expectations are not met and people take to the streets.

This group has already encouraged that process. Next step will be violent rioting- all seeking the perceived enemy.

Look at Europe.

This is just one example of how ideologues and cynical politicians- on both sides- are failing to serve the country and leading us to an avoidable crisis.

In the past, we had Lincoln, Washington and FDR; even Truman and JFK.

Today, we have arrogance, a belief that their position is absolutely correct, and no one listens to any dissent. Both parties just attack and have no real solutions.

The Senate does nothing, kills bills; the press says nothing and Obama pontificates.

The Republicans are idiots and do nothing to correct the course. They are so tied to ideology, witness Santorum and Paul, that they will nominate someone who will alienate the independents. I know that. I was involved in politics a decade ago- saw this happening and grew disgusted.

So, I stay with John Lennon and the Who. I believe both sides suffer from the same feelings of absolute rectitude.

Last time I looked, none of us is God. And yes, after years of being an Existentialist with Albert Camus as my hero, I have seen and experienced too much to deny that there is a Higher Power, and thank God for that.

2012-02-21 by Leslie

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