Dissent Rendered Moot

Posted: October 14, 2007 in Idealism, Philosophy, Politics

Dissent is among the most basic postures of conscience, so much so that it’s arguably the foundation of existential philosophy. It’s also one of the foundations of American-style politics from the time of the American Revolution forward. The logical trajectory of dissent, however, is to establish its points in opposition to and eventually become the dominant paradigm. The counterculture of the 1960s eventually became part of the establishment it rebelled against. Similarly, so-called political correctness began as dissent and devolved into mere formalism. That’s the irony of success: it establishes contrary thinking as dominant. The savvy among the power elite also know that nothing mutes dissent so much as co-opting it as a chic lifestyle accoutrement. Give the appearance of appeasement and make dissent disappear, i.e., the driving force behind activism often dissipates once an objective is realized (or appears to have been).

More recently, however, these dynamics have been altered. For a generation or more, depending on how one counts, political activism and dissent have been at a low ebb compared to most of the 20th century. Those issues that still pack the necessary punch to motivate public assembly and statements of purpose, if not full-blown manifestos, have not been transformed or co-opted. Rather, they have been smartly ignored. A new dynamic has emerged: routine dissent is a mere cost of doing business that can be disregarded, whereas an even modestly raised voice is an immediate ground for dismissal as either radicalism or insanity. Take to the streets in a nonviolent protest with placards and chants and it’s “just another pointless demonstration” enacted to provide the demonstrators a brief ego massage and salve to conscience. Politicians and corporations alike are utterly unmoved and unconcerned. Self-immolation on the sidewalk in front of the White House results in the complete loss of message, branding the poor soul as a crazy person (despite myriad examples in history of similar self-sacrifice to a cause or to conscience).

I learned recently that agents are sometimes sent to infiltrate nonviolent protests and stir up trouble, pushing the cause over the edge from irrelevance to something that can instead be dismissed as criminal. A violent protest, despite being a hallowed American tradition and indeed a necessary thermostatic response to abuses of power, is rebranded by those holding the monopoly on violence as un-American. Violent protest in Seattle at the WTO conference in 1999 is a good example of how disruptive behavior meant to block the meetings and raise awareness of the perils of globalization were perceived instead as mob activity, unrest in the streets, and a threat to the status quo. With that lesson still lodged in mind, it should be no surprise then that the Bush administration suggested that Americans should go shopping in response to the events of 9/11. In fact, the status quo has been so tightly maintained, despite a complete collapse in public support for Congress and the Bush administration, that Americans have no sense of actually living in wartime, which in past wars required some level of sacrifice. The only sacrifice we’re being asked to make now is our integrity. Since disruptive and/or violent dissent of the citizenry in response to what can only be called the criminal behaviors and abdication of moral authority of our elected leaders and captains of industry have been taken off the table and rendered moot, what is left but a sort of learned helplessness in the face of ongoing abuses of power? Our collective response is as predictable as is it prescribed: we shop.

  1. Your assessment is all too true, Brutus. What then, I’m forever asking, can we do?
    Two years ago I attended a march against the war in Iraq and the administration (a few names have changed since, but the trajectory remains the same.) One traffic policeman handed out helium balloons, free of cost and slogans. A few people wore elaborate costumes, complete with giant heads in effigy. The protesters overran NYC enough to snarl traffic the entire day. Several restaurants served free food to the body smash stalled along the sidewalks. Every mile or so someone with a battery amped bullhorn shouted strenuously for a little call and response.
    No newspaper I saw mentioned the event, however. No one even put up a YouTube video.

  2. greywhitie says:

    dissent happens every single day, in ways small and great. not all dissenters crave publicity. some call quiet, or indirect dissent, “passive aggressiveness.” well, fine, call the guerrila fighters passive aggressors. not everyone chooses to fight collision style, rearing ugly head against ugly head. if you can’t fight out in the open, for whatever reason, then you have to go around the situation to get what you want. this is something the americans just could not understand when they tried to squash the viet cong.

    open dissent seems calmer this century because, as you said, there have been fewer wars. yes, there is iraq, which is becoming yesterday’s news for some people. what was 9/11? we have a short memory. what do they call it in psychology? ADD?

    dissent happens on an individual level, subtly or not so subtly, in their interaction with others. someone can put a gun to your head and order you to do something, and you can choose to do it or die, but no one can tell you what to think, unless you become brainwashed for whatever reason. the question, then, is: is dissent an action or a thought or attitude? it’s getting late, so i am not going to google it or look up on wiki wiki or whatchamacallit.

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