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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Modern Movements

Now that TimesSelect is no more, NYT columnists are again free to roam the most-emailed articles list. (Which, I admit, has undue influence on which articles I read.) Today, both Tom Friedman and David Brooks talk in broad terms about my generation. This stuff is kind of ponderous on the whole, but the second half of Friedman's column gets at a real issue -- the changing means of political activism:

"America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q [Ugh! Another Friedman coinage! -ed.]. That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country. But they can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.

"Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy didn’t change the world by asking people to join their Facebook crusades or to download their platforms. Activism can only be uploaded, the old-fashioned way — by young voters speaking truth to power, face to face, in big numbers, on campuses or the Washington Mall. Virtual politics is just that — virtual."

Okay, good point. Much of what now passes for political action is totally lame and impotent (e.g. the ONE Campaign), but large quantities of people marching in the streets still have the power to force action, or at least change the debate. However, I've heard some folks, especially people my age, saying that mass protests are outdated, a relic of another era. And it's true that there hasn't really been a successful mass movement (to my mind, anyway) in the U.S. since the civil rights/Vietnam era. So I'm not convinced that protest marches remain the best political tool for grassroots movements at this moment in our history -- they may be, but it's worth considering the alternatives.

(A slightly peripheral observation: Economic research I've read about says that the value people place on their time has increased substantially in recent decades. Given that the biggest cost in attending a rally is time (especially if you're taking the overnight bus to DC from Minnesota), this could be a factor in the difficulty of getting together a big march to protest, say, the Iraq War. But I would guess that cynicism and lack of consensus on alternative policies play a big role, too.)

So, what are the alternatives to protest marches? I admit that I don't have a good answer for that. But I think we can identify some basic characteristics that would make an effective mechanism for mass political pressure. Movements need to demonstrate the depth of their commitment to the cause to political leaders, as well as galvanize/convince fellow citizens. With protest marches, the commitment is shown by virtue of the fact that people have taken the time to come to the rally just for the sake of the political cause. The convincing of other members of the public is helped by the same mechanism ("gee, I guess it is important, all these people care about it so much"), as well as by the fact that people tend to feel more comfortable on a bandwagon.

Any alternative to protest marches would have to demonstrate to political leaders the commitment of the individuals involved, and some mechanism to speak to and convince not-yet-committed citizens is also needed. Current internet activism tends to fail this test -- "click to sign petition" merely signals that you had an extra minute at the end of your lunch break. Your resolve might be much greater, but the people who get the petition won't know. MoveOn.org has tried to organize real world protests in many cities using email bulletins, but I'm not sure this is effective -- too dispersed. (MoveOn might be considered successful if you look at all their activities, but many of their techniques are actually pretty old-school, and I'm not sure they're really a mass protest movement, anyway.) It seems like there should be some virtual or real-world action that people could take as part of an online-organized protest movement which would take some commitment and signal the importance of the issue. And new communications technology could give it an advantage over protest marches in the persuading of fellow citizens.

Anyway, if I had a really compelling, specific vision of what that could be, I guess I might be off trying to make it happen. But although I don't have any actual ideas (and this makes for a pretty boring end to a blog post), I'm not writing off the possibility that someone will make online activism really work by inventing a new model. Though, until that comes along, we could probably use several different protest marches, stat.

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