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Living in the post-protest age

Allen Ginsberg reads a poem to a crowd in New York’s Washington Square Park. Ginsberg and other writers and followers in the beatnik movement became disillusioned with conventional society and created their own subculture.

Associated Press (1966)

Allen Ginsberg reads a poem to a crowd in New York’s Washington Square Park. Ginsberg and other writers and followers in the beatnik movement became disillusioned with conventional society and created their own subculture.

NEW YORK

A brief survey of current events:

The stock market has gone nuts, and the federal government is treating Wall Street with experimental cures that will cost nearly $1-trillion. An unpopular foreign war, now in its sixth year, has resulted in more than 4,100 American deaths. For the first time in history, the presidential campaign includes an African-American candidate for president and a Republican female candidate for vice president.

Taken together, these data points give this moment in American history a once-in-a-great-while feel of Something Large. But if this is truly a pivot in time, its most peculiar feature may be how un-peculiar it feels. For all the social and political upheaval, for all the banner headlines and for all the bipartisan calls for change, there is plenty of unease — but a very notable lack of unrest.

It's as though the gods of turmoil threw a party and nobody came. When was the last time you saw a street protest? Or a burning effigy? Or a teach-in? Or a boycott? It's kind of odd: We have the sense that this is an emergency, but open the window and give a listen. There aren't any sirens.

How come?

Washington Square Park, near Greenwich Village, seemed like a good place to pose that question. Forty years ago, this was one of New York City's counterculture epicenters, a frequent site of protests and rallies and as close to an open-air drug market as one could find downtown. If you had been near the south entrance at 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, 1968, you would have witnessed a spectacle: New York University students shouting obscenities at Ambassador Nguyen Huu Chi, South Vietnam's permanent observer to the United Nations, who had come to lecture at the nearby Loeb Center. A Nazi flag was tossed around his neck, and then someone poured a pitcher of water over his head.

Last Sunday, by contrast, the park looked serene. A jazz band played, a street juggler performed, and the only sign of politics was the "Bakin' for Barack" sale in the northeast corner. "Make a donation, take a treat," read the sign next to the slices of banana bread and chocolate chip cookies.

Making a difference

"My sense is that nobody feels they can make a difference in the same way that students did in 1968," said Sachin Makani, 29, a graduate student in neuroscience and one of a handful of people collecting money here. "A lot of us don't see the point in rallying in the streets."

As a historical reference point, 1968 is useful not just because it was an election year that unfolded in the midst of a grim and protracted foreign war. It was also the high-water mark for exactly the kind of radical activism that seems largely absent today, apart from the occasional horde that shows up whenever the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meet.

The differences go well beyond the occasional attack on visiting dignitaries. The culture back then was suffused in the atmospherics of insurrection. There were celebrity radicals, such as Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary. The Beatles, who only a few years earlier wanted to hold your hand, were singing Revolution. There was a lot of talk about "the system" and how to avoid it, destroy it or drop out of it.

That's gone.

"I've been to meetings for political clubs and they never seem to have any momentum," said Robert Hoyer, an NYU junior who was standing outside the library, wearing a pair of headphones. "I know people who really care about what's happening in the world and are trying to get something off the ground, but it's hard for me — and a lot of students — to see a way of making a contribution that means anything."

What happened to the street-fighting man? The answer has to start with the draft, or the lack of it.

Because it was personal and nearly unavoidable, the draft lent the same urgency to activism then as hunger and homelessness did during the Great Depression, when unemployed workers marched on the Ford Motor Co. and thousands of World War I vets camped in Washington demanding bonus pay. The draft felt as immediate and potentially deadly as racial discrimination did to those who suffered it and took to the streets to fight it. It was the thing that drove masses of angry kids to Chicago, where they made a shambles of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 — a far cry from the relative handfuls of Iraq war protesters who were kept on the periphery of the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., this summer.

But the draft didn't just terrify and galvanize students. It forced them to be curious about the world and serious in a way that isn't required today.

"Our friends were getting killed in Vietnam, and any day you could get a letter from the government saying 'Time to go,' " said author and anthropologist David Givens, who teaches at Gonzaga University. "So for survival, we read and we talked. And the people who got up to speak at demonstrations, they were highly literate, they were great orators, they were writers. They had to be articulate. Everyone did."

That's missing today, Givens said. "It's not that kids are stupider. They're just not as interested in the world. They don't read as widely. They don't have to."

Now the outs are in

Some students sound every bit as underwhelmed by the level of intellectual curiosity on campus. Rachael McMillan, a senior at Columbia University, worked for two years with the Columbia College Democrats and found the experience pretty unsatisfying. But at least she tried.

"I hate to say it, but a lot of my peers calculate the opportunity cost of coordinating with others — or planning a sit-in or a walkout or just some protest — against the urge to write a paper, get an A and go to Harvard Law School."

McMillan isn't exempting herself from this charge. She quit the CCD last year after spending five hours squabbling with the Socialist Club about what to put in a news release. It all seemed tragically disorganized to her. But she knows what's happening in the world beyond Columbia, which is more than she can say for a lot of her classmates.

"No one was really curious about Iran until the president of the country came to speak at our campus," she said. "Then it was like, 'Oh, yeah. Iran.' We spend more time padding our resumes than trying to stay informed."

The draft, McMillan believes, would transform Columbia. But to explain the relative calm of college life today by focusing solely on the draft would be a mistake. It runs deeper than that, said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia professor of journalism.

"There was a culture of confrontation back then," he said. "You were either on the side of the authorities — not just the president, but the police and the suits — or you were an outlaw. You took psychedelic drugs and you protested and you drew a line between yourself and the prevailing culture."

That line is getting harder to draw, Gitlin said, in part because the counterculture has been mainstreamed. Rebellion is no longer a clarion call; it's a marketing pitch.

"Where is the Frank Sinatra of today? Where is the Tony Bennett? Who represents easy-listening normality? Popular culture is now a rebel industry. There is no inside to it. It's all outside now."

Look at rap. Gangsta rappers such as Jay-Z and Rick Ross are self-professed outlaws all right, but they don't want to opt out. They want to buy in. Their aspirations are hard to distinguish from those of a hedge-fund cowboy — luxury cars, Cristal, yachts. They are unabashed fans of success just as it is defined by the latest crop of MBAs.

"430 Lex with the convertible top," Big Tymers rap on Still Fly, a song that also name-checks Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Prada and Gucci.

Luxury product placement in a song from the mid or late '60s? No way. Music was ominous (Dylan's All Along the Watchtower), sometimes sardonic (Creedence Clearwater's Fortunate Son) and occasionally satiric (the Beatles' Piggies). It reflected the gravity of the times or it looked forward to a utopian future that seemed distant but possible. There wasn't a lot of rhapsodizing about money.

If anything, the almighty dollar was scorned. So was Wall Street, at a time when it was rolling along without incident. Abbie Hoffman and 20 friends visited the New York Stock Exchange in August 1967 and gleefully tossed dollar bills from the gallery above the traders. The group was quickly tossed out of the building, but photos of the episode firmed Hoffman's reputation as the nation's greatest yippie prankster.

And now, after a $700-billion bailout? No street theater, no demonstrations. Wall Street has been bloodied and embarrassed, but on-site, public displays of rejection have yet to materialize.

"It might happen," said Steven Fraser, author of Every Man a Speculator, a history of Wall Street's place in American culture, "because what we've seen is so bad and so serious, and its ramifications are so scary." But, he said, we're a long way from the kind of anti-Wall Street rhetoric that was particularly common after the Depression.

"It's partly a function of Americans becoming familiar with the market," Fraser said. "Half of all American families are, at least in a passive way, invested in the market. We've become accustomed to looking toward it to finance homes, vacations, college, whatever."

That wasn't true in 1968. But back then, long before the age of the mutual fund, life on the margins was surprisingly affordable. If you decided to move to a hippie hothouse such as Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, you could live decently on $100 a month. Today, without a law degree or an MBA, you can't afford the rent. And the whole firebrand lifestyle is tricky when you live in the suburbs with your mom and dad, as a record number of college graduates now do.

New kinds of action

But what if we're just looking for dissent in the wrong places? What if there's just as much rage against the machine as ever, but it's vented in ways and in places that aren't as loud and unmissable as a street march? Web sites, for instance.

"I think the Internet has become a channel for all kinds of countercultural expression, including discontent and critique," said Miles Orvell, a professor of American studies at Temple University. "But it might have this paradoxical effect. It enlarges the conversation, but it can also produce a kind of passivity. It's like, 'I've said it and that's all I need to do.' A lot of young people seem to use the Internet as a surrogate community, and to that extent, it might diminish participation in the visible sphere."

But there are those who say that most political agitation today isn't on the Web or on campuses. The action now, according to Daniel May, who once worked for the Service Employees International Union, is all door to door. They're raising money, they're getting out the vote.

"The organizers of my generation were shaped by 1968," said May, who is working toward a master's degree from Harvard. "But one lesson is that 1968 marked the first year of 40 years of conservative rule. Why would we want to replicate that? There's a real limit to protest politics. It's politics as catharsis, and that eventually leads to cynicism."

It would be a mistake, in May's estimation, to confuse the lack of effigies with a lack of passion. The kids who once marched are now trying a different approach, he said, using techniques that were dismissed by their parents as too establishment. May's mother, Elaine Tyler May, a historian at the University of Minnesota, says she used to think that the youth of today just couldn't be bothered. But she has changed her mind.

"My son tells me it's politics that's more interested in power than in protest, and on a good day, that's how I see it," she said. "I still have this impulse to go yelling in the street, but what I see my kids doing is far more effective. I think we're just old and we don't realize — there's a groundswell of political engagement that we just don't see."

Living in the post-protest age 09/27/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 27, 2008 4:32am]

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