As the optimistic mood of the OWS movement starts to wane and police with riot gear ready their batons, I am reminded of another grassroots attempt at American revolution, back in the 1960’s. That counter-cultural movement had some success tearing down centuries-old, multi-generational social institutions.
How did it succeed? Well… mass media, redefining itself and testing its new electronic power in the late 1950’s, is the weapon that empowered sixties radicals to achieve some measure of victory with far-reaching, lasting effects on western society. Media power allowed people to jointly express their distaste for certain institutional behaviors, making the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s extremely effective at denouncing and pulling things down.
When a successful cultural revolution ends, new social dictates have been emplaced that must henceforth serve the needs of all. Except… the sixties cultural revolutionaries didn’t really achieve much in that area. They tore down, but they did not build. Theirs was a knee-jerk revolution, bringing with it no long-term plan. The newly-powerful media enabled them to bring force to bear against the former system and alter it, but not to replace it with something better. So when the dust settled, the same old institutions and machinery of society revved back up to full speed, slightly modified, but still in place. But now with some missing parts.
Subsequent generations, who have been taught since childhood that protesting ANYTHING is ALWAYS a good idea no matter WHAT the cause (since THE MAN who secretly runs everything is unfairly trying to keep us down), now spend a surprisingly large amount of time protesting in defense of causes we find compelling, if a trifle vague…at least until boredom sets in and we wander over to the nearest coffee house for a latte. Sadly, our budding revolutionary zeal does not always translate into enlightened activism: for many TV-educated armchair radicals, Darfur is no more or less real than Gilligan’s Island.
We really need to take these things a lot more seriously. It is always wise to exercise care when committing ourselves to serve any social cause. Let us be certain that the causes we champion are both just and necessary, and not just some form of gigantic communal whine. Most of all, let us never adopt anyone’s rhetoric without fully understanding the potential consequences, lest we ourselves wind up swinging batons and wearing jackboots.
In the words of brilliant political scientist Robert Paxson: “Fascism is a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Sound familiar? I see a lot of the same rhetoric floating around out there lately among grassroot movements. But it always starts as a mob of angry people. If we’re not careful, that mob could be us.
The seeds of fascism can flower amidst any group, at any time. Let’s be sure when it arises that we are on the opposite side of the fence from it, and that we have an exit strategy and a back-up plan.
I’m waiting to see what OWS has left up its sleeve. I want it to be awesome. I just hope it doesn’t involve coffee house poetry and lattes.