Down With the Protest Warriors

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

The last few years have brought into the open some very ugly aspects of American life and thought. There have been riots in the streets, physical attacks on individuals and groups based upon their political dispositions, and the adoption by one of our two major political parties of lunatic paranoid conspiracy "theories". These are just some manifestations of the social rot permeating the American landscape. A certain disposition to chaos has always been around, at least within the American social scene. Going back to the founding of the Republic, American independence was not gained through negotiation but through riots, which eventually turned into bloodshed. Within a few years of the Revolution, there was the Whiskey Rebellion and Shays Rebellion. American history is a testament to relying upon violence for political change. Rioting and, in general, protesting has always been considered a right inherent to being an American. Hence, we have the significant degree of support garnered by BLM, despite many of their demonstrations causing a significant degree of damage to private and public property. The argument I put forward in this paper is that, despite the surface similarities and apparent continuity between contemporary forms of protest to their historical progenitors, there is a darker and more sinister nature to what we’ve seen over the last few years in comparison to the past.

There are two different aspects to protesting, one being the desire for self-expression, the other the need for discipline. When balanced, protesting serves a useful social and individual function. When out of balance, either anarchy or totalitarianism prevails. Traditionally, the rationale provided for tolerating politically-oriented street protests is one of valuing expression for its own sake, i.e., there is a marketplace of ideas, and those ideas with more inherent worth will win over those with less, as long as they’re allowed to compete on a level playing field. Hence, tolerating dissent is a self-evident good. There have been modifiers to expression, though. The violent aspects of protest personified by the early years of the Republic are no longer tolerated by most (though this is beginning to change, but more on this later), and certain forms of expression considered hateful to others or obscene, consistently have had their places in the marketplace of challenged ideas. This is the disciplined aspect of protests. In ideal circumstances, both expression and discipline work through each other, with the former being integral for genuine thought and the latter existing for the same purpose through applying limits to destructive action.

Using human understanding, we view an act of protest as part of a larger whole, seeing the consequences of certain actions and recognizing the moral effects of those actions. When balance is lost between expression and discipline, these two are stripped of context and looked upon as formal universal truths. Absent context, terms become meaningless, due to an inability to apply them. Love and hate, to exist at all, need objects to love and hate. The same standards apply to expression and discipline. Expression without an underlying goal is a meaningless glob of bodily movements. Meaning only comes onto the scene when a goal is introduced, such as fighting poverty, protecting the environment, etc. Discipline exists within a similar framework; without the vision of an end idea, discipline becomes nothing more than a fetish. Today these two tendencies readily manifest themselves within extremist movements on both the Left and the Right as weekly we encounter scenes of both sides engaging in physical and verbal confrontations with whatever dialogue existing being nothing more than ‘f*+* the fascists,’ or ‘f*+* the communists.’ Every speech, every writing, is just an expanded version of the same diatribes, with a crusader-like mentality and a call to arms.

There’s no doubt that at times a figurative crusade becomes necessary, but when all public pronouncements come across in such a manner, it shows a lack of knowledge and a need to overcompensate for some shortcoming. These movements on the extremes have always been around, perhaps illustrating an endemic defect in human nature, but using technology, we can see that what was before constituted a small portion of the population has now infected most individuals who are politically aware or active. Perusals of social media contain the same verbiage, whether from the Right or Left; portrayals of the other side as being the epitome of evil, treasonous, or the source of national decay. The thin line between a shooting war and verbal jousting is becoming progressively thinner.

By objective metrics, the violence and the protests are not as extreme as other times in American history, especially during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, apart from the Civil War, at no other time than today have these protests seriously threatened to tear apart the national fabric. Why is that? What makes today’s protests that much more toxic? While it is inevitable that the opposite tendencies of expression and discipline do drift away from each other during acts of protest, usually these acts contain a genuineness to them. Those who participate honestly believe in that which they’re protesting, so violence as the byproduct of the protest never becomes all-consuming. In a similar vein during WWII, Giovanni Gentile, who was opposed to the Italian alliance with the Nazis and the subsequent racial laws that were its byproduct, nevertheless chose to stay loyal to Mussolini, notwithstanding his deep objections. This is an example of the opposite tendency of discipline over-manifesting itself in action. Despite his loyalty to Mussolini and fascism, Gentile during the war helped Italian Jews escape the country and avoid the camps up north. During the latter stages of the War, he argued in courts of law against incarcerating political opponents of the regime. The over dedication to discipline Gentile showed was tempered by the humanity and authenticity of his ideals.

Well-thought-out and coherent ideas provide a bulwark against dogma and rashness. It’s not enough to just ‘believe’ in something, but to be conscious and aware of what we believe is integral when translating that belief into action. A love of country is an ideal which we should all strive for. However, when that love means to ignore the evils of your country’s past or present wrongdoings, or when “my country right or wrong” becomes a self-governing ideal, then that so-called love becomes meaningless. Just as in personal relationships, love towards another only comes through mutual struggle, recognizing the good and bad of the other person, and accepting that bad as part and parcel of what you love. When a loved one goes astray and against his/her wishes, you escort them down a difficult but needed path. You do it out of love, not through an action on your loved one right or wrong. Yet, what society presents to us is the opposite principle, about people finding their personal identity narcissistically and embracing it as an absolute without mediation.

Let’s go back to January 6th and the storming of the Capitol Building. By this time, there had been recounts in several states where the election was closely fought. President Trump’s Attorney General had researched the issue and found not enough evidence to pursue the investigation. In fact, all the research done into election fraud allegations uncovered nothing more than isolated occurrences of individuals committing fraud through simple ignorance of the law. And with Trump’s history of making similar baseless allegations in 2016, the benefit of the doubt should have, from the beginning, been against the President. With that being said, almost half the population accepted the accusations verbatim through nothing more than Trump’s word or manipulative social media posts. No attempt was made to cross-check information or look deeper into the investigations; all contradictory evidence was disregarded as the product of a conspiracy. January 6th was an illustration of the discipline ideal taken to its logical extreme. The vision most on the Right have of an idyllic, moral country was drowned within a disciplined dedication to a man who to them transcended all advocacy of truth and justice, and, over time, became synonymous with the terms to many of his supporters.

Whereas Trump’s supporters showed a zealousness to him as an individual, many others showed the opposite tendency in a desire to engage in expression for its own sake. Someone who’s willing to threaten others and call them a traitor or to engage in contemporary political rhetoric should have a solid intellectual foundation (not the least of which is logic) in whatever prompts them to action. Yet, relative to previous historical periods, there is basically none. Only 50% of the population can read at an 8th grade level or above. The works of the Western tradition, both cultural and political, are now lost to a generation who has neither the desire nor will to familiarize themselves with them, being content to play video games or the latest app on their phone while engaging in a destructive nihilism when it comes to brief periods of political activism.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with the aforementioned activities in themselves. In fact, some with a disposition towards gaming definitely should pursue that field as a career. I know several such individuals, who choose to do so and don’t want anything to do with politics, realizing that it’s not something they’re cut out for. I have nothing but respect for these individuals as they treat others with kindness and respect while ignoring the siren’s call to fulfill patriotic obligations and duties by investing themselves within the political process. On the other hand, the toxic byproduct of political activism and the source of much fear within the political sphere is the degree to which the typical individual, most likely disposed to other fields of interest, thinks it is obligatory to engage in political activism and engage in activities threatening the safety and well-being of not only others but the nation as a whole. Otherwise stated, these individuals simply are out of their league in knowledge and competence, merely emoting and just acting

without aforethought.

Cavalier terms like "traitor", "communist", "fascist", are thrown in political dialogue, and protests are joined, which cause losses to people’s livelihoods and damage to public property and, at times, loss of life. Yet, when the act is done, rarely is a second thought given to what was said or the moral consequences of what was done. Calling someone a traitor is basically to condemn that individual to a fate deserving of death. To use such a term sparingly should be the norm, but in today’s politics, it’s become common fare. The passion used for politics, you think, would produce a corresponding desire to learn all there is about it. Condemning someone for nothing more than a belief usually requires a real reason. But seldom is any concern shown for the individual being condemned. The scary aspect of all of this is not in the formal comparisons with previous eras, but in the unprecedented disregard for others for no other reason than a narcissistic desire to fulfill an empty meaningless role, not to fulfill a need or a feeling already within, but to try and find a need or feeling where now all there is emptiness.

In essence, the fault of both expression and discipline when isolated from each other is a dearth of genuine thought and feeling. Most people realize that the professions they end up in are not going to be of their choosing or align with their dispositions. With the realization that the occupation they’re engaged in for many of their waking hours lacks meaning, that meaning is sought elsewhere, typically through participation in the political process. The constant messaging that political participation is an obligation; that it’s the fulfillment of a patriotic duty and somehow the failure to participate is also a moral failure, has become internalized in a vast majority of the population looking for meaning in their lives. Not being disposed towards politics, a person's participation becomes formalized, because opinions and assertions are expected, and these individuals oblige by giving them. What results is the anticipated chaos we see playing out in the political arena.

One of the oddest manifestations of this phenomenon is the almost religious-like zeal people have towards condemning both major parties and politics in general, while at the same time showing an equal amount of zeal towards partisan causes. Those who supported Trump, even though condemning him for over-friendliness towards free-market capitalism (enabling large corporations to thrive) during his four years in office and claiming to condemn equally the Left and the Right for being the source of national decline, almost universally support the absurd proposition that the election was stolen, based solely on his word. Even more extreme Q-Anon types have so isolated themselves even from the mainstream ends of political discourse that their zeal seems to have become an end in itself to the extent of denying reality. How much more absurd – save for an offbeat sci-fi show - can you get in claiming the existence of cannibalistic pedophiles running a global child sex trafficking ring? In a similar vein, those on the Left most adamant that the system needs to be overthrown, and like their counterparts on the Right pretending to advocate the equal guilt of both sides of the political spectrum, celebrated and displayed jubilation when Trump was ousted from office.

What’s happening is not hypocrisy. Hypocrisy implies a knowledge of the individual or ideals being betrayed; most individuals don’t have that. We are witnessing people trying to fill a hole within themselves (signifying alienation from themselves) by answering the question, "What is my purpose?". Lacking intellectual foundations to identify a viable way of thinking philosophically, they seek to belong to something or seize on a set of beliefs, regardless of their absurdity. Participation becomes an end in itself (think of Jerry Rubin, the 1960s anarchist with no social philosophy), purely formal, similar to someone who works at a job they detest or a married couple incompatible with each other but choosing to remain married for the sake of the children. The heart of evil in our society is artificiality, being someone and doing something which we were not put on this Earth to do.

Imagine expanding upon this concept, except replacing politics with art or poetry. Lacking the desire and will to invest a significant time in those disciplines, individuals would rely upon friends, families, or trusted spokespeople. Participants would become shells with no interior. The art world now would be artificial and fake, its normal core originality rarely seen or heard. Likewise, in the political realm, due to mass involvement, true substance would be lost within the stream of political rhetoric. Now, we can understand the dilemma facing contemporary America and why the political and social chaos we see, while representing genuine anger and frustration, is artificial.

To begin addressing the disconnect within individuals, we first must dispel the very limited notion of what meaning is. A toxic effect of the Baby Boomer generation is the ideal they ingrained in society that ‘true meaning’ is a political concept; that to ‘really’ change the world, change must be done through the political process. Hence, the growth of protest culture to the present day. Arguably, this mentality got its impetus from the likes of the latter-1960s Youth International Party (YIP), or "Yippies", a chief spokesman, Jerry Rubin, always shouting "do it", also the title of his book.

Activism is viewed within very narrow confines of making your voice heard, getting in people’s faces, and becoming known through whatever means possible. Whereas previously protest was looked upon as a means of change, it is now looked upon as an end in itself, with the theatrics involved used to prop up individual careers or demonize an enemy. In other words, protesting has now become an exercise in self-indulgence. Far from creating change, contemporary ‘protest warriors’ often reinforce the present system through their antics being dismissed as the empty showmanship that it is or through achieving their ends through intimidation, Rubin case in point. The vacuousness of his "anti-establishment" protests was attested to by - using Wikipedia's eloquent account of "Jerry Rubin" - " ... becoming an entrepreneur and businessman. He was an early investor in Apple Computer, and by the end of the 1970s had become a multimillionaire." So much for being against "the establishment".

A system built upon artificiality can only be reformed through genuine action. When political action is considered the only effective means of social change, all the other components of human interaction are disregarded as being less relevant. Whereas modern protest movements rely upon theatrics to communicate messages, a mother taking her children to school or the doctor or helping the children with homework has an actual effect on the people involved and, in turn, the people affected by those originally affected. Internalization of values (living them) is so much more powerful than the externalized showmanship of contemporary protests. Look at a father coaching his son’s little league team, the artist who paints for the pure love of painting, writers who are passionate about their works, not for the prestige and money they may bring, but for the act itself. While the effects of these isolated acts of genuineness may not be readily visibly apparent, their accumulation and integration into daily interactions are profound. An act, regardless of its aim, affects more than just the immediate subject and object, and, like a wave at sea, is constantly moving and changing. While each successive wave might look like the one previous, there are always indiscernible quantities gained from what came before that differentiate it from its predecessors. In a similar vein, we only exist in this life through our relations with others. A father cannot exist without children, a wife cannot be a wife without a husband, and so forth. What we are and what we do always stands in relation to another. How we conduct ourselves daily is just as impactful a political statement as the loudest most obnoxious activist carrying a microphone, and, if done from a genuinely honest intent, every bit more powerful than its colorful counterpart.

Whether disposed towards politics or not, effective activism is about balancing the need for self-expression and discipline in our personal lives, not through trying to impose those qualities upon individuals not disposed towards politics, but through those same individuals realizing their own potential through participation in those activities which they are disposed towards.

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