Friday, October 14, 2011

Taking Hope From Right-Wing Ridiculousness

I almost never spend any time reading material from the right-wing blogosphere -- I can appreciate that understanding the discourse of various categories of opponents is worthwhile, and I respect those like thwap who occasionally put energy into argument and rebuttal, but it has just never felt like much of a priority for me. However, for a major piece of work for school I'm looking into various kinds of writing, video, audio, and images produced before, during, and after last year's G20 summit in Toronto. This has lead me to dip my toe into the toxic waters of the online writing by Stephen Harper's grassroots groupies and critics from the right. I haven't got very far yet but I ran across a piece that, among other things, made some general comments about "protest" in the lead-up to the G20, and I thought it might be worth engaging with as the Occupy movement picks up steam. I should say I have no idea who the author is or where she is situated within the murky ecology of Canada's online right, but I find her aggressive disinterest in actual fact posed as the asking of critical questions to be morbidly fascinating.

Here's the link, and here are the paragraphs that interest me:

Hmmm. Well, at least we know the Falun Gong have something to protest about. But what about this one: Some protesters "reportedly Chinese officials...". CBC, have you ever thought to explore the "recruited" theme with any of the other protesters - you know, the spoiled middle class brats? Like, what and who is behind these organizations? Does their "message" stand up to scrutiny or is it skewed mightily by an ideology? Do they ever attempt to get their message out through other means - writing letters, visiting politicians to explain their issues? And especially, do the groups protesting have aims more lofty than simply protesting and rabble rousing and if so, what are they, and how do their protests ever help, if at all, to achieve any of those aims?

Let's take the poverty one, for example? Have we seen any direct evidence that would show organized mobbery leads to better funding for groups that work with the poor, never mind more money in the hands of the poor, or more to the point, more poor lifting themselves permanently out of poverty? Do these groups actually make a difference in the lives of the poor or are they only a band-ade on an perennial problem that has always been with us and cannot be fixed, in which case, why do their protests get so much attention from you media types?

Have we seen the CBC or any other media outlet or any of these protest groups ever explore the relationship between "protest culture" behaviour, especially at past heads of state or powerful international institutions' meetings, on the one hand, and the need for massive expenditure on security? Duh!! We know you're not into self examination but don't ya' think there might be a link, CBC?

Come on folks. These protests serve only one purpose, and it's narcissism. The immature little groupies (some of whom may indeed be chronologically challenged, but still intellectually and emotionally immature) who show up to protest simply want to be able to say, "I was there when....and I was sooooo radical chic!"

It is -- to borrow a popular piece of internet phraseology -- full of fail. It's hard to know what is deliberate demagoguery and what is ignorance caused by social and physical distance from the groups in question combined with aggressive disinterest in remedying that ignorance. Generally speaking, the many different organizations involved in protesting the G20 are pretty open about who they are, what they do, and why they do it. The idea of shadowy backers and recruitment in any sense beyond, y'know, talking to people, is pretty giggle-worthy. And while middle-class youth are disproportionately represented in certain segments of an action like the anti-G20 protest, all it takes is standing in the middle of a crowd at such things to see what a high proportion of participants you erase in such a generalization. Similarly, the "narcissism" she asserts to be the primary motivation for protesters in her final paragraph is kind of puzzling to anyone who has ever actually talked to people at a protest -- again, all groups have lots of different people with lots of different motivations, and things like Margaret Wente columns tend to cherrypick less flattering moments and amplify them for bloggers such as this one to pick up on, but it just doesn't hold up to even the most elementary empirical investigation. And, again, the passive-aggressive accusation in the question about whether these groups "ever attempt to get their message out through other means" is more a display of the writer's ignorance of how these groups and those of us who participate in them work than anything else.

What interests me the most, though, are the various assertions about the efficacy of protest, especially around poverty. Motivation is always invisible and inside people, and if you want to imagine shadowy conspiracies rather than looking at what's right in front of you, it is always possible to invent ways to do so. But the connection between organizing against poverty (which is often done by people who are themselves living in poverty, despite what this blogger claims) and gains for poor people can only be avoided by refusing to look. Because the fact is, if you are willing to look for it, there is plenty of evidence that the diverse forms of organizing represented by the tens of thousands who protested the G20 can do something to alleviate poverty. You can see that on a big scale by looking at the impact that the Canadian welfare state had on poverty, if you compare the pre-welfare state years to the years of its height. This was especially true for seniors. Without actions along the lines of the anti-G20 protest, there would've been no Canadian welfare state -- yes, it was more complicated than that, but mobilization by poor people was essential to that victory. And you can see it by looking at examples that are smaller in scale and more recent too. For instance, take two of the key groups that were involved in some aspects of the anti-G20 organizing, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and No One Is Illegal - Toronto. Not everyone who participated was as grounded in communities and in ongoing struggle as those two groups, and I think there is more to say about that, but they are prime examples of the kind of work about which this blogger is being so dismissive. Their actions have many, many positive outcomes. Otherwise they wouldn't be doing them, since results are more or less the point of it all. Not that I've never had questions about choices they've made, and not that everything they do works, but OCAP's direct action casework is an amazing model that directly benefits people living in poverty, and their years of work around the "special dietary supplement" -- including the ways their work opened space for more moderate groups to take advantage of it -- brought many millions of dollars into the hands of poor Ontarians. Similarly, No One Is Illegal has won numerous victories that specifically benefit immigrants and refugees in the Toronto area.

There's one way to look at this blogger's take on protest that might make you want to pull your hair out. The idea of shadowy backers, spoiled narcissists, and the pointlessness of efforts to create change are hardly uncommon, after all, and it can be hard to have to face them again and again. But I think there is also something hopeful about how ridiculous and how open to refutation it all is. I mean, I don't think this blogger is about to be convinced any differently, and I certainly don't believe that learning and growth are a simple product of excavating and publishing "facts." But in the course of struggle, in the course of engagement with ordinary people in all of the different spaces and ways that our movements need to do so, the fact that anti-protest sentiment is so centred on straight-up inaccuracies actually favours our side. And that's hopeful.

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