Coffee shop, post-protest. Today’s youth: there’s a guy at the adjacent table at the coffee shop; he has a Mac open with an email client and three IM programs. And he has a cellphone out. He just made a call to someone, then said “I’m over here” and waved to the back of the cafe, and a guy six rows of chairs away waved back and came over.
Yes, I went to a protest Sunday afternoon. My first one!
Or rather first counter-protest. Granted, it consisted of seven guys standing on the other side of the block with signs and a flag, but I’d just seen “300,” so naturally I equated our small numbers with the rightness of the cause, and imagined I was participating in the modern-day Battle of Thermopylae! It was so cool! Then we all vowed we were going to “dine in hell” that night, although the Falafel King restaurant would have to stand in for Hades. AARRWWWWGGGH!
Well, that’s what some will no doubt think I was feeling, so I might as well pretend and make them happy.
Let me be clear: There are serious, reasonable critics of the war whose arguments deserve attention and consideration. You generally don’t find them at protest rallies. There are people on the left who are concerned about, say, losing the values of the Enlightenment in order to accommodate misogyny in the name of cultural tolerance; they promote different responses to the problem than those offered by the right, but are unlikely to march next to a fellow wearing a Hamas T-shirt or a Truther who thinks the Jews got advance warning on 9/11 so they could move their tanks of Gentile blood out of the giant Zionist Abbatoir on the 94th floor. So I don’t think that the march spoke for all critics of the war. It spoke for those who think that “Halliburton” and “Mission Accomplished” represent piercing arguments that dispense with the need to even consider the matter of radical Islam and its enablers, or the possible downside of ceding the battleground. No, the world is a garden of flowers and lambs, with one bad wolf. (Who is also a racist wolf.) Remove it, and peace can only flourish.
Anyway: I don’t go to rallies or protests of any kind, because they’re like Led Zeppelin concerts without the Led Zeppelin. There’s lots of people who agree that Led Zeppelin is incredible, but no actual Zep. Instead you have giant banners, chants, giant puppets, drums. These are not a few of my favorite things. But I’ve opined on these things based on reporting done from a distance, so I thought it would be a good idea to see it all first-hand. Some fellows I know were assembling on the counter side, and I figured I'd join. See what all the fun's about.
This example will disappoint people who enjoy good flaming craziness, since there wasn’t much of the F-the-troops / Hands off North Korea / Bush = Hitler stuff. It began here, with a large contigent from yawp.org or yarw.org or rowrlbazl.org, or something:
The actual gathering point was not Milo's, but an Army recruitment station, which was closed for Sunday – cowards! – and as soon as enough people had assembled, they limbered up with a few basic slogans: Hell no, we won’t go, we won’t die for Texaco. To which one wants to respond, well, then don’t. Or perhaps You must be drinking David, Mogen / That explains your clichéd slogan or something like that.
We followed the group down the street, where they blocked traffic for four blocks; the Man having been duly Stuck To, they returned to the sidewalk, threaded through a largely deserted mall, came out the other side and headed north, chanting:
“Who is the Terrorist?”
The chant-leader used the cadence that traditionally indicates an inquiry about the identity of the person responsible for letting out the dogs.
“BUSH!” was the overall consensus, I’d say. Some of us answered “Ahmadinihjad.” Merry Pranksters, we! Next week we’re going to drop copies of Abbie Hoffman’s book on the Stock Exchange floor. Oh, there's no end to our devlish monkey-wrenching.
Some random shots and stats. I didn't get a shot of the people with a flag that said PACE, which I found impressive: Latin protestors! They'd been protesting for 2000 years. They probably protested the first occupation of Palestine.
Number of home-made signs printed up that morning: beyond measure
Number of people who asked if I was FBI because I was taking pictures: six. Number of people who seemed confused when I said I was Section 31: six
Number of guys who threw his weight into a much larger counter-protestor then screamed the F word in front of two little girls while shouting about his eight years of military service: one
Number of fellows who met the criteria above and insisted he had just had brain surgery: also one
Number of men dressed up as penguin, or perhaps a nun impaled by a rusty car part: one
Number of people whose idea of “dialogue” consisted of screaming “WHAT DO YOU DO TO SUPPORT THE TROOPS? YOU WATCH TV” and then backing away with a look of pure fury on his face: one. The Pure-Fury sorts were in the minority, though; the protest was half Unitarian think-happy-thoughts people, and half Shaggy / Velma types. Plus the Code Pink Men's Auxillary:
Number of new colors for ‘07 offered in the Che button line: one (it’s blue!)
Explanation offered by kind nice middle-aged lady who was asked why she was beating on that drum: it gathers the energy, and provides a beat and a focusing point. I had to ask, because they always have drums. They'd do so much better with a brass band, like a New Orleans funeral. A little mournful music, then some jazz. But no, it's always drums.
As the characters in anime always say with tiresome, ponderous voices, it has begun:
Number of people incensed about Costco's decision to abandon its no-questions-asked / no time-limit policy on consumer electronics return: one
Conversational line not pursued with woman wearing a white trash bag that said “IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE”: since that Lennon song also encourages imagining the absence of religion, how do you feel about all those Unitarians here today? Or are they okay, because deep down you think that Unitarians are what you get after you’ve successfully imagined no religion?
Number of people who, judging from their first qestion of the counter-demonstrators, appear to believe that military service is a prerequisite for free speech: two
Number of people carrying "NOT ONE MORE DEATH" signs who will show up next year if all the troops leave tomorrow and the killing continues:
Well, you answer that one.
That said, a lot of people in nice cars honked their support for the protestors. A lot. It was amusing to watch a steady stream of big expensive cars pour down Hennepin, honking approval at the NO BLOOD FOR OIL brigade. I also struck by how shabby and empty Uptown felt. When I lived there it had its gritty patches, but it was a going concern. There’s a big dead GAP store on one corner; the Calhoun Square mall, mired for years in redevelopment limbo, might as well have tumbleweeds bouncing across the floor (excess stock from the upscale tumbleweed-only boutique on the second floor). In the summer the sidewalk cafes will fill up again, and the streets will be filled with enthusiastic young drunks and stick-thin spotty runaways who dress like it’s 1977, and it’s London, and they’re on the dole, and it’s even worse for them than the real punks because they have full foreknowledge of the Thatcherite horror to come.
Video? Why, yes! This Veoh version might work by Monday, but I'm not hopeful; I've been having no luck with this host at all. The credits are small and grainy, so I'll provide a transcript:
1. There was a protest, and there weren't any puppets
2. The chant was refined and perfected
3. The protest invaded the MALL, holiest of holy places where capitalism happens
There's a backup here, but I expect the bandwidth will be consumed quite quickly.
I did see “300,” and count me among the fans. Many reviewers found it chilly, empty and distant – visually stunning, as the cliché goes, but all shine and no boot. I expected to feel the same way, based on the previews; I expected to be impressed and awed but not quite engaged, except on that adolescent fanboy level that detects the presence of coooool, and responds with shiny eyes and an idiot’s grin. But it connected from the first frame to the last. Neil Stephenson nailed the reason some despised it: it did not acknowledge the presence of Camp and Irony, which I’d add are the two defining critical postures of the post-modern age. It was what it was – but even more than that, it seemed to come from an era when everything was what it was, even the falsehoods. Especially the falsehoods. (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds transgressively post-modern.) I enjoyed this observation:
The less politicized majority, who perhaps would like to draw inspiration from this story without glossing over the crazy and defective aspects of Spartan society, have turned, in droves, to a film from the alternative cultural universe of fantasy and science fiction. Styled and informed by pulp novels, comic books, video games and Asian martial arts flicks, science fiction eats this kind of material up, and expresses it in ways that look impossibly weird to people who aren’t used to it.
Yes. And this is something many people cannot bring themselves to do: draw inspiration from a particular culture at a particular time without glossing over the defects. The people who can’t do that are, in my limited experience, the ones most likely to excuse evil in other cultures, and exaggerate evil in their own.
Last summer I read an excellent book about the Persian / Greek conflict – it’s a wonderful primer if you know nothing, and a merry refresher if you
know the basics. The author reminded us that the Greeks were not all Noble Philosophers who spent their time sitting on the weathered steps of the Parthenon debating Truth and Beauty; in the case of the Athenians, they were riven by the usual petty concerns of politics, and in the case of the Spartans, they were just plain batshite mad, at least to modern eyes. But such judements make sense only to modern sensibilities, and he does a grand job of explaining Sparta in the context of its time. As for the Persians, well, they had a grand and magnificent empire with astonishing accomplishments, and I had a new respect for them after reading the book.
Still rooted for the Spartans, though. Because no matter how you adjust for politics or historical distortions or modern template-overlays or Marxist theory or any other Ism you clutch to your breast, the point of the story is universal: individuals defending liberty against tyranny. (To use the crazy words.)
That said, you can split hairs: the individuals were drawn from the upper classes; liberty was not extended to slaves; tyranny as defined by the upper class might have meant certain liberties for the lower classes, according to the rules of the invading empire. Maybe. Point is, the Spartans were asked to kneel, and chose not to. Every culture has a myth like this. If they don’t, they will be vassals to culture that do.
In the general non-specific post-modern sense that understands camp and irony, of course.
Anyway: On the way out of the theater I looked around for signs of the culture we’d just seen. Anything: Greek architecture, Spartan Sporting Goods, Leonidas’ Gym. Nothing, of course. The suburbs are not rich with classical architecture, and the rise of “relevant” education means that no one knows about the old names and the old stories anymore. But over here, well, ah hah. I pointed out a car to the Giant Swede:
This was the Lord of Light in whose name the Persian king fought and conquered. Ahura Mazda. (Which explains those Maxfield Parrish posters for Edison-Mazda bulbs that may have confused many.) The name survives now in the car company, chosen because it represented the ideas of wisdom and harmony set down by the Zoroastrian religion. Also because it sounded like the auto-maker’s name. Imagine waking up in 4007 and discovering that 17% of the population flies around in Allah or Yaweh or El-Ron personal transport vehicles: same thing.
To get home we took York, named after the Englishman; it turned into one of the main north-south roads in Minneapolis. They’re arranged alphabetically. Naturally, York is followed by Zenith. But it is preceded by Xerxes.
It's 2500 years after the battle. People leave the theater, get into their Mazdas, and drove north on Xerxes. History haunts our every step. Particularly the ones that move backwards.