Listening to archaic hymns sung from the tower of one of Oxford’s most conservative colleges didn’t quite feel like the proper way to celebrate May Day. So, to reclaim some activist cred (and, in my own small way, to try to do right by the world), I spent my afternoon in Aylesbury – a town near Oxford – with United Against Fascism, counter-demonstrating against the English Defense League (a “counter-jihadist” group dedicated to driving Muslims out of England).
It feels completely demented to be writing this, but I think there is something appealing about mobilizing against fascism. Unlike nearly every other issue serious I care about, this is one where most of society seems to be on my side. In my extremely limited experience (and reading of history), counter-demonstrators tend to outnumber neo-Nazis and their ilk by usually about ten-to-one, and as a result these events are – in a weird way – fabulous moments of unity and people-power. After a week in which I was asked about fifty times, “You’re from Arizona, right? Why do you hate immigrants?” it felt good to be challenging xenophobia and racism (albeit of the English Defense League’s uniquely disgusting brand).
The protest, though, was a disaster. The city council decided to grant the EDL a permit to march but put UAF in an isolated city park, surrounded on all sides by police officers. While I’d like to tell some noble or romantic story about a group of outnumbered activists being swamped by vile skin-heads – or, perhaps, blame our failure on the absurd restrictions placed by right-wing local politicians– the reality was there were so few of us that the EDL could just march by. We listened to a few speeches that talked – dishonestly, I’m afraid to say – about how our little demonstration would be heard around the country and how this was a turning point in the fight against fascism, got back on our coach, and left. Everyone knew that, any way you might measure it, we lost – even newspaper coverage of the event relegated us to a footnote.
I’ve now been to a good number of demonstrations during my time in England: against the War in Afghanistan, pro-apartheid Israeli politicians, and animal testing, and in favor of university divestment from arms companies and action on climate change. At least compared to Americans, the British do seem to like protesting. But what has consistently struck me, though, is how old the attendees usually are. Today, our small group was composed mostly of a hodge-podge of socialists who talked about Trotsky like they knew him and aging trade unionists who seemed trapped in the era before globalization when unions actually mattered. Within Oxford, it’s largely the same group of pensioners that can be counted on to show up to wave placards. 18,000 students, and no more than a half-dozen can ever be bothered.
The running line in the U.S. is that if you’re not liberal and under thirty-five, you lack a heart, and if you’re over thirty-five and not conservative, you lack a brain. Increasingly, though, it seems to me like at least among the left, the reality is the exact opposite. The idealists are from an older cohort, while the twenty-somethings are more hard-hearted, committed to gradual change and political reform. My generation is extremely cynical about the efficacy of things like mass protest. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told by fellow Princetonians that they support a cause, but they won’t show up to a rally, because “that never changes anything.”
They are, of course, half-right. The 1960s brought us more riots, demonstrations, and marches than any decade before—but they didn’t bring us utopia. Waving placards and clogging streets probably isn’t the way to bring about a social revolution. I wonder, though, if while protesting hasn’t changed anything, maybe it prevents things from being much worse. Perhaps those scraps of citizenship and fragments of entitlements we enjoy exist only because there is a cadre of people who yell and kick and scream whenever the people in power try to take them away? Would Aylesbury be a worse place now were it not for a handful of people registering their dissent? And maybe, just maybe, it mattered that there were 75 demonstrators, not 74, and that extra sign-waver was an young American from Arizona.
Who knows if I’m right? Maybe protesting really is a waste of time. I suppose, at the rate the activists around me seem to be aging, we’ll find out in a few decades.
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Jukebox: Rise Against – Halfway There
3 thoughts on “The Revolution Will Involve Mostly Retired People”
I mean, yeah. I went from being a teenager who believed that change could only happen through marching in the streets (and who had a strong historical interest in the radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s) to a young adult who believes that the right way for *me* (though not necessarily everyone) to effect change is through my historical scholarship and through my teaching of history to the next generation. My research interests have maybe become more elitist–now I want to become an intellectual historian, studying the people who had the education and social privilege to write literature and make art and have Big Ideas–but I believe in the political (at times radically so) aspects of my chosen life: an imperative to write books and articles that are accessible to the public as well as to specialists in my discipline; the importance of teaching undergrads not just what happened in history when, but how to think critically and have an open mind and be engaged with the world. And I think (though maybe this is my life-choices bias showing) there’s a certain value in the belief that there’s more than one way to make change in the world: not everyone’s skill lies in marching in the streets, and we shouldn’t view that as the only route to changing hearts and minds. Sometimes a different approach might be better, whether for the cause at hand or for ourselves as individual agents of change.
When I was in Moscow in the summer of 2006, I saw a scraggly parade of a dozen or so OAPs wave an old communist flag through Red Square. It was in a way cheering that Russia’s government, if not precisely democratic, now allows expressions of support for a regime other than the one in power, even in the context of a country which, we all know, did not practice communism properly or even responsibly. And yet it was also tragic that those few elders was all to which the promise of liberation for the average worker has come… and perhaps equally tragic that I took a photo instead of joining in.
But, nevertheless, there’s more than one reading to “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs”! Not all of us are cut out to be marchers and flag-wavers; those of us who are cut out to be scholars and teachers would do a great disservice to the world by refusing to do the work for which we are best suited, or for feeling as if there are compelling ideological reasons not to labor in accordance with our inclinations.
Point well taken. Personally, I am hoping that a similar course – as a sociologist – is going to help me be the change I wish to be in the world. I’m not very good at movement building or organizing rallies and protests, and so I certainly hope those aren’t the only ways to accomplish things.
I do think, though, that there are moments where we need to stand up and be counted. Groups like the EDL thrive on the intimidation that comes from controlling the streets and shouting and waving flags. I’m not sure how to counter them except by shouting louder. And I think that sometimes our generation is disdainful of this sort of activism, because you can’t put it on a resume.
All of these things are huge generalizations, of course. In reality our generation is way more progressive on a lot of hugely important issues. But I do think we are going to see, very soon, the passing of a certain type of leftism, and I’m not entirely happy to see it go.
Yeah, essentially I agree–though maybe I just work so hard to justify to myself my hours in the library that it winds up keeping me off the streets even more than I otherwise would be. The solution to speech is always more speech, though I’m not entirely sure whether that speech should always occur in person, or whether it can as successfully occur in another democratic forum like on the Internet. I’d be hard-pressed to say whether the protest I organized last year against the National Organization for Marriage was more effective than my journalism critiquing the organization’s hypocrisies and questionable financial practices, and it’s probable that neither had any concrete impact at all.
I’ll be very sad to see the folks who were on the barricades in ’68 go. But as their ideology becomes a part of intellectual history, I’m wary of passing judgment on the ideologies to come just yet.