The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band song “In the Arena” opens with a voice intoning: “Never before have you been able to witness so much cruelty, live and in color, in the privacy of your own room.” This song juxtaposes anti-war demonstrators being confronted by the police with the predictability of attendant brutality. At the end, a voice reminds us that other atrocities are on tap due to “popular demand.”
Absorbing public reaction to the televised “Town Hall” as it unfolded on Facebook provided crucial analytic and emotional distance. While I often watch certain political and cultural events in real time, there was something about his spotlighted venue that made me deeply uncomfortable. A friend of a friend posted that she thought of “The Hunger Games” and I took that comment to heart. What happened in that arena wasn’t a spontaneous act of conscience or civil disobedience, but an establishment sanctioned medium for public confrontation. Given early exposure to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”, I’m not a fan of political spectacle. I’m an advocate of political theater: by all means, go ahead an levitate the Pentagon, but understand the Yippie generated gathering was something quite different than what happened last night and earlier in the day at the White House. To me, the similarities between those two current media events (and their marked contrast to that of organic, dissident theatrical resistance like the Pentagon Levitation and “Billionaires for Bush”) are more interesting that the differences. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, there’s a message to be found in these mediums.
POLITICAL SPECTACLE I: THE WHITE HOUSE
In response to tragedy, presidential invitations are issued to Trump supporters with a direct connection to these horrific events or those victimized citizens who can be trusted to behave themselves. The presence of victims provides a convenient backdrop – legitimizing an embattled President and enabling him to quickly adopt and advocate an absurd solution – arming classroom teachers – which would mean millions of dollars for the gun industry. An explosion of horrific parental grief, an episode of outspoken dissent against the odds, gave the event color and texture…It’s so real…and it is conjured too. Which doesn’t make it any less real. The presidential summons sent a message: The suffering and fear of white parents and children of a certain class – it may or may not be substantively addressed. But it will be strategically acknowledged so accusations of official indifference can be countered. Something, no doubt, will be done!
POLITICAL SPECTACLE II: THE TOWN HALL
In response to tragedy, and with awareness of a potential ratings bonanza, a public “Town Hall” (the closest we’re getting to “Grover’s Corners” these days) is held with pre-selected gladiators. Grieving students brave the incandescent media spotlight that can illuminate and incinerate individuals as well as social movements. Law enforcement representatives, ideologues, and elected officials also took the stage and Senator Mark Rubio found himself burned alive at the stake. The Governor of Florida and the American President are, no doubt, amused by this development…Despite their ties to the N.R.A., they haven’t placed themselves in a media setting beyond their control. Surely if they wait long enough and delay long enough, those pesky students and their distraught families will disappear? Systematic efforts to discredit student activists will continue. But the young people are so idealistic and inspiring. Perhaps something will be done this time?
POLITICAL SPECTACLE III: THE ROAD AHEAD
So, what happens if/when the media grows tired of the story? What if teenage media stars are created and then fall from grace in some fashion? From an advocacy perspective, what is the legacy of Sandy Hook? From an advocacy perspective, what is the legacy of all the police shootings of unarmed African-American people in this country? The fact that nothing has changed. Daily life is…daily life. There will be new tragedies, new celebrity gossip, and additional media events to distract citizens and dull the sense of moral outrage. People will be encouraged to passively consume infotainment. If folks connect with one another in real time and space, while making concrete and coherent demands – only then will things change.
Choose your upcoming expression of dissent wisely. One media event materializing on Long Island preempts a local protest while claiming it offers a convenient, viable alternative to the N.Y.C. and Washington D.C. marches. It will probably be a public spectacle where well-intended citizens provide a backdrop for a premature “compromise” proposal that does not ban the AR-15 (and similar weapons) or require the collection of public health and safety data with regard to gun policies. The sponsors of this event are ignoring the implications of the presidential proposal to arm classroom teachers as it does not fit their “unity” narrative. The members of Congress spearheading this rally – a Democrat and a Republican – are up for re-election and want to avoid being viewed as too far to the Left and too far to the Right .They are interested in “shepherding” (their word, not mine) student opposition to the status quo. These local officials need to be politely but firmly reminded that students and other voters are independent citizens – not sheep.
Let’s see where the planned walkouts grass roots protests, and vigils lead. Please consider joining them! Reflect critically about what powerful interested parties are doing to corral dissent via mass media and legislation. Have discussions with your friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues. Create strategies of resistance and social transformation in their company. This is a painful process of learning, discovery, and radicalization. We (even the most politically experienced) are being schooled…