On Nathan Heller's August 21, 2017 New Yorker "Out of Action" - a review of four books on protests in recent American history
MY FIRST TAKEBack in January, I spent a lot of time following, supporting, and writing about the Women's March. But now, eight months later, I am thinking, what the hell difference did it make, does it make? And reading Heller's review of the first of these books, I was ready to answer, "None." But reading on, and thinking on, I came to a different conclusion. I hope you will read Heller's whole review, not just for his summaries but also for his trenchant, thoughtful prose. Meanwhile, here's my summary of his summary-- and then, a conclusion.
FOUR BOOKSAfter his own discussion of Occupy Wall Street in 2003, Black Lives Matter in 2014 and the Women's March in 2017, Heller reviews four books. The first, "Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work" is pretty depressing, if, like me, you've been a folk protester for 40 years. They really question whether protests have any value, call them "boring" and exercises in nostalgia. And these are writers from the left!
He moves on to "Assembly" by Hardt and Negroni, philosophers who focus on movements without leaders. I am no philosopher, and I don't follow this, but maybe the reviewer doesn't either. He says that maybe the authors "have much clearer-minded friends than you or I."
Heller reviews two more cheering books. "Direct Action: Protest and the Reinvention of American Radicalism" by A. Kauffman analyses the past 50 years of American protests, going back to Washington, D.C. in 1971, about the time and place of my own first protest, which she finds a pyric victory for its having rattled the Administration.
Still, the most fascinating book for me looks like "Twitter and Tear Gas: the Power and Fragility of Networked Protest," mostly for what it reveals about the Civil Rights protests of the 1950s and 60s. She provides great detail to show that while passion was at the center of this great movement, what made it great was the strategic, thoughtful, careful planning. For example, King had given the "I Have a Dream Speech" several times before the 1963 March on Washington, but for that march, they had the very best sound system ever, and when it was sabotaged just hours before King spoke, the organizers had their previously-made connection to Bobby Kennedy to get it fixed. She reports they even considered the food for the journey and ruled out mayo so no one would get sick in case it turned. (Lots more fascinating details here: read it!)
Heller ends up by debating between the don't-make-no-difference side (he calls them "the Jacobins") and a
hope that protests matter. He seems to feel that in fact, protests don't really work, if by "work" we mean "gain political results."
AND YET...This is where I was before reading the review. Really, what difference did The Women's March make in the long run? My friends and I had been pretty euphoric at the end of that weekend, but now? The past grinding-on seven months have been horrid. My husband and I had agreed every Monday we would sit down and decide our political action for the week. We finally (having stabilized our small, unstable income after a half-assed moved half across the country) sent money or other support to any number of causes and entities we feel are important-- national and local political, cultural, social, and arts orgs. We had phoned and emailed our Senators (one uselessly, the other so good he didn't need our calls) over the health care bill. But we haven't had a Monday meeting in months. Meanwhile, health care is stalled and the upcoming autumn Congressional session looks bleak; meanwhile our President dismantles nearly every form of justice I have ever cared about
But here, Heller lifts us up. He says, "maybe direct action is something to value independent of its results... the Women's March...produced no concrete outcomes and it held no legislators to account. And yet...."
His conclusion is heartening. For my friends who marched in January in D.C.-- for Patricia Buchanan, for Kathleen Welsch, for Carole Elchert, and everyone who went to D,C, (Elena, Julia, Laura) and for everyone who in January marched elsewhere (Peggy, Indigo, Aaron, Larry, Laurie, Rosemary) and anyone else who supported the march, you need to hear his last paragraph:
"What was the Women’s March about? Empowerment, human rights, discontent—you know. Why did it matter? Because we were there. Self-government remains a messy, fussy, slow, frustrating business. We do well to remind those working its gears and levers that the public—not just the appalled me but the conjoined us whom the elected serve—is watching and aware. More than two centuries after our country took its shaky first steps, the union is miles from perfection. But it is still on its feet, sometimes striding, frequently stumbling. The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home." --Nathan Heller