Published September 30, 2005
Now that they are over, we can ask what were the anti-war demonstrations in Washington last weekend for? Though the demonstrators professed to want to meet with George W. Bush, they cannot have had much of an expectation that they would or that, if by some fluke they did, they would have stood the slightest chance of changing his mind about the war. No, the point of their protest was to make sure that they themselves were noticed. Like the “Not in my name” protestors in London last year, they found it important for some reason to tell the world that they dissociated themselves not only from their leaders’ policies in Iraq but from their leaders themselves. “Cindy [Sheehan] speaks for us — not George Bush,” the London Daily Telegraph reported a demonstrator “bellowed.” Well who, besides you, cares who speaks for you? Who are you, anyway, to suppose that this is a matter of moment to the rest of the world anymore than whether or not you agree with President Bush about the war? What difference does it make, since you have no standing to influence events one way or the other?
Of course it would be a different matter if the demonstrations were like those of the Vietnam War, their ranks swollen with hundreds of thousands of frightened draft-aged youths and their girlfriends to the point where the social and political fabric seemed threatened. But these protestors hardly even seemed to aspire to such revolutionary action. Remarkably pacific for pacifists, they seemed content to pronounce their grand acts of dissociation along with some viciously personal insults against the President, perhaps get decorously arrested (as Cindy Sheehan herself did) then immediately released, and go home feeling that they had made their point. The unspoken assumption behind their protests was that, merely by existing the protestors had acquired a right not only to speak up on the issues of the day but also to be listened to — even though they have only slogans and no serious geopolitical or strategic arguments to offer. At the protests, the level of debate was typified by one of the Telegraph’s other interviewees who said: “Bush is so uncool.”
It is not by coincidence that these sound like the words of some air-headed celebrity. For the demonstrators expect us to listen to them not as serious people but as celebrities are listened to — that is, simply because the rest of us are interested in how they identify themselves politically as we might be in how they dress or whom they are dating. The protestors see themselves in the same way that the contestants on reality TV shows do: namely, as candidates for minor celebrity status. We should be interested in their point of view on things for the same reason we are interested in that of anybody who appears on TV. In fact, appearing on TV is itself a validation of their right to be noticed and taken an interest in. And TV, ever the democratizer of celebrity as it has been from its beginnings, is happy to oblige by turning up at the protests and promiscuously handing out its precious sound-bites to those who can be relied upon to mouth the TV point of view — that, say, Bush is uncool.
When you think about it, something similar must be true about the much-reported rediscovery of poverty after Hurricane Katrina. “For the poor, sudden celebrity,” headlined the Washington Post last week. The Post went so far as to say that “the celebrity poor” were “a new subculture created by Hurricane Katrina,” but in fact it was only the same celebrity subculture that has since been on display at the antiwar demonstrations and that is always finding new ways to celebrate victimhood. The poor — who are inevitably seen as innocent victims — were simply seizing their moment in the camera’s eye in the same way that Cindy Sheehan did. Nobody has any very clear idea of what to do about poverty, but everybody appears to share a passionate belief that the poor ought to be noticed. They too deserved their soundbite moment on the television when, for just a moment, the whole world would be witness to their sense of grievance — whether against President Bush, Kathleen Blanco, Ray Nagin or cruel fate. We may not be able to rescue them from poverty, but at least we can pat them on the head and say, “There, there. It’s all right. We notice you.”
In fact, I wonder whether we couldn’t go further and say that the very idea of poverty in this land of plenty involves putting near the top of the list of intolerable deprivations that of a lack of access to the media. I have always been struck by a line in the refrain of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” recently voted the Greatest Song of All Time (no kidding!) by Rolling Stone magazine, where the poet characterizes someone brought down from a high social position to the lowest of the low as being “like a complete unknown.” The phrase is of course taken from the publicity industry. An “unknown,” let alone a complete unknown, is not literally unknown. Like the girl in the song who was at least known to Dylan and the others he sings about, the unknown may have quite a large acquaintance yet remain an “unknown” in the sense of not being a celebrity — not even (hence “complete”) a small one. That, at one point in his career anyway, was just about the worst fate that Bob Dylan could imagine befalling a person. As usual, he was ahead of his time.