You may or may not remember this, but in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s it was impossible to purchase an attractive pair of eyeglasses in the United States. My best friend was diagnosed with poor vision, and the best option that she could find was a pair of child-sized frames that had the “Annie” logo written on the side of them. Why did the hit musical movie put out a line of eyewear? We were in middle school at the time, and my friend used red nail polish to cover up the Annie logo. Nowadays, having the logo for an 80’s musical on your glasses would probably be a selling point. Back then, though, we were getting tired of looking like that. We wanted something new, and the people who made eyeglasses hadn’t figured it out yet. After my senior year of highschool I went abroad as an exchange student to Denmark and I was shocked to find a whole nation of people outfitted in attractive eyewear. Everyone was wearing exactly the modestly sized, square shaped eyeglasses with understated frames that I had been dreaming of for years. It felt like stepping into a technocolor world after living in black and white. It was a feeling that was echoed in many other aspects of being young in the nineteen nineties; it felt like things were finally going to be the way they always should have been.
There was a happy streak of time where things felt just about right to me (and to be sure during that time I simply avoided thinking about the things that were bad) and then after some years everything started seeming not so fantastic. It has now become impossible to ignore. I went down to the OCCUPY WALL STREET installation a couple weeks ago to attend a demonstration and to check out the scene. I was glad to have made it down there because I am unhappy about many of the things that the occupiers are fighting against, and I was happy to support their efforts. There was a little march, and I walked along with it. People around me were chanting slogans, and although I agreed with the things they were chanting, I found that my mouth was clamped shut. I can totally get on board with the messages, but I just don’t have anything in common with the style in which they are being presented. For better or worse, style counts for a lot. I know that my mom and dad agree completely with the basic points of the Occupy movement; they are angry about the deregulization of the banks, they are furious about the control that lobbyists and special interests have over congress, they are 100% pissed off. But I can’t see them ever taking part in this type of demonstration, with the cardboard signs and the tarps and the shouting, because it doesn’t appeal to their aesthetic at all. They just can’t find themselves in that picture.
The optimist in me believes that we are presently stuck in the moment before we figure out how to do it right. We are using the crusty old style of protest (which probably felt fresh in the 1960’s) because we haven’t yet figured out the new way. I found one piece of evidence for my theory in this cartoon which was published a few days ago. When the need for something becomes widespread enough, the force of collective frustration will create a solution. The results of this phenomenon aren’t necessarily always nice, taking for example the French Revolution and the rise of Nazi power in Germany, which both resulted out of massive popular poverty and unhappiness. I am, however, hopeful for something nicer in our case right now. One example of protest that I find really inspiring is the sex columnist Dan Savage’s internet campaign against former Senator Rick Santorum. After hearing the insane comments Santorum made about gay people, Savage enlisted the assistance of his readers to redefine Santorum’s name to mean a filthy by product of anal sex. If you search “Santorum” on the internet, Savage’s new defintion is still the first thing that comes up. He found a way to make his voice heard, and we who agree with him were able to help make it happen, and the collective protest statement against Santorum echoes again and again across the internet. (I didn’t actually take part in the campaign, but after hearing what Santorum said a few weeks ago about denying contraception to women because it makes them more likely to become Democrats I am doubly happy that it was successful.) This is how it’s done.
For the time being, I am going to join in with the protests that I don’t feel totally comfortable with, because it is the only option I have. However, I am very much looking forward to:
-A Presidential candidate who speaks like a normal person, who uses charismatic comedic timing while also standing up for the things that I care about. (Hopefully the party whose policies I hate won’t pick up on that idea first).
-More parties. Times are hard, and we need actions that feel fun and funny, and that lift us up in the doing of them. Fun and good style are actually free, if you go about things properly. Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear is a good example.
-A street march of some sort which is visually designed in a very beautiful and unified way, such as 5000 people dressed in neon green against the nuclear reactor, doing something quiet and compelling that makes you want to look closer. Also, I want to see more protests that clearly communicate to bystanders what is being protested. I walked in a march against the very scary procedure of hydrofracking for methane gas (which can contaminate ground water and crops and is a nightmare for local food production, and which is being pushed all over the country) and it was clear that nobody outside of the marchers knew what hydrofracking is. So what was the point of the march then? If you are yelling and agitating, and your actions aren’t communicating, then you aren’t communicating. When there were big actions in Seattle pushing for a monorail there, I envisioned a march where people would walk the route of the proposed monorail, carrying beautiful lifesized cardboard likenesses of the monorail cars along the whole route so that onlookers could see the vision. And a parade is a fun thing whether or not it results in anything else. Did I take my vision for the monorail parade and make it happen? No I did not. Maybe the zeitgeist is partly waiting for me.