In Praise of Protest

By Patrick Lawrence – Jan 10, 2021

If the Jan. 6 demonstrators defaced the Capitol in the name of one thing a year ago, Pelosi and all the other clowns rendering “commemorative” performances last week defaced it in the name of something else.

The over-the-top theater staged on Capitol Hill last Thursday, the one-year mark for the Jan. 6 protests against the official 2020 elections results, can be read in various ways. We are advised, here and there by prominent voices, that we ought to laugh (Glenn Greenwald) or dismiss the spectacle out of hand as “melodramatic anniversary-related nonsense” (Michael Tracey), “endless hyperventilating” (Matt Taibbi), and an “orgy of psychodrama” (Greenwald again).

O.K., but let us not spend too much time laughing or dismissing. As these and other serious journalists and analysts are the first to understand, last week’s variety show, kitschy as it was, bears close scrutiny and interpretation. If the Jan. 6 protesters defaced the Capitol in the name of one thing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and all the other clowns rendering “commemorative” performances defaced it in the name of something else.

Let us sort this out. Who, we need to consider, acted in the name of participatory democracy and who stands against it? What, we need to decide, is the place of protest in the land of the Boston Tea Party and the antiwar movement of just a few decades back? From whence does violence spring in our violent republic?

One is half-tempted to speculate that the elite of the Democratic Party hired a Hollywood producer to block and direct the scenes on Capitol Hill last Thursday. A cameo appearance by Dick Cheney, Democrats lining up to greet him as one of American democracy’s protectors? Kamala Harris’s comparison of Jan. 6 to Sept. 11, 2001? We can always count on our vice–president (and may she climb no higher up the greasy pole) to add a note of the preposterous.

Inviting the cast of Hamilton, the Broadway musical, to sin   g democracy’s virtues? This was an insult to our intelligence on the face of it — and the more ridiculous given that Alexander Hamilton stood for an elite democracy as against Tom Jefferson’s popular variety.

Ask yourself: Is turning the Capitol into a set on which to stage a propaganda farce a responsible use of the “sacred” building wherein our laws are supposed to be made?

As to the media, the major dailies and the networks performed just as they have for the past year, serving up indigestible mounds of exaggeration, bathos and sentimental rubbish — always in defense against the “threat to democracy” posed by “insurrectionists” intent on a “coup” supposedly abroad among us. I leave it to readers to find what portion of this gutless drivel in the service of power they may want to see. It’s everywhere, unfortunately.

What happened last week and what our media told us happened: The moment arrives to look beyond the awfulness of both to find some home truths about politics, propaganda and its power, and what has become of our memories and minds.

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One of the features of contemporary American politics, and it is hard to say when this took root, is the use those in power make of imagery. Laws are made of language. So are the debates that should produce them. Language is the means by which those making the laws and policies of our land should communicate with those who (if only in theory at this point) elected them to office. Language is the medium of thought. Language allows us to accommodate subtlety, complexity and the capacity to make decisions.

It is remarkable how little language has come to figure in American politics. When political figures speak it tends to be in the language of tabloid headlines. Their resort to imagery is incessant. Our president’s minders allow him to speak hardly at all and it is no matter, for Joe Biden is at bottom a mere image. Put a speech by any of our “leading” politicians next to one by JFK, FDR, Henry Wallace, Gene McCarthy, or any other serious figure from yesteryear. You now have the story of the deterioration of public life in America in two chapters.

This privileging of imagery was essential to last week’s events — hence “stage set,” “spectacle,” “variety show.” The last thing the pols and the press want people to do is think about Jan. 6 in a coherent way. And we are now on notice that this is beginning to get very dangerous. It was the Fascist movement in Italy, back in the 1920s, that discovered the power of imagery in maneuvering a population in the direction of mindlessness, and we know how the Italian story ended. Forget about “it can’t happen here.” It is already starting to happen, and I choose my verb tense in the name of caution.

We have the related question of memory. Nobody still capable of thought missed the gross offense of Cheney’s presence in the House and the fawning reception Democrats gave him. Taibbi got this down best in his day-after“Tale of Two Authoritarians.” It has long been evident that mainstream political figures in America depend on the short memories of the majority of the public. Receiving Cheney as a defender of democracy is so contradictory it amounts to a dare, as in Remembering will get you in trouble, or a commandment, Thou shalt not remember.

Milan Kundera’s famous observation in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting has been quoted too many times to count. Apologies, but too many times is not often enough, given the truth of it. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” the Czech great wrote. We ought not miss that this is the front-line struggle of every American who wants to make sense of this nearly senseless country.

Political Violence

Deadly deadly deadly, violent violent violent. [Ed.: The only person killed that day directly by violence was a protestor shot by the Capitol police.] If you have been reading steadily of the Jan. 6 events, you have read these words again and again and again. Here we do well to pause and think very carefully.

The (over)emphasis on the violence of the Jan. 6, 2021, protests is intended to prompt us all to condemn them. It is an article of faith in America today that violence, especially political violence, is a terrible, never-to-be-condoned thing. But wait just a minute, please.

Every American living in poverty is the victim of violence — political violence, indeed. Every child who doesn’t get enough to eat has been violated. Every one of us who can’t find decent work, who cannot afford a doctor or a medication, who suffers from psychological dysfunction, who is deprived of his or her dignity, who can’t hold a family together, and so on and on and on — these are all victims of political violence.

Generalizations are of limited worth and can prove incautious. But to venture one, those protesting at the Capitol a year ago, who I read numbered in the high hundreds, were by and large among the dispossessed of this country. For better or worse, they seem to have settled on Donald Trump as the emblem of their aspirations. How many of them sustained one or another form of violence as I have just defined it? How many were in effect responding to this violence? Where, then, did the violence begin, and who is responsible for it?

This leads us to another matter so far neglected. The Democrats making such a fuss about a protest that simply went further than the protesters appear to have planned or expected have had not a word to say about what brought them to the steps of the Capitol. And to mark them down simply as “Trump supporters” is to obscure who they truly were (and are). The press has been similarly silent about the identity of these people. Nobody this past year has been invited to think very much about inequality, deprivation, or dispossession altogether.

“Every American living in poverty is the victim of violence — political violence, indeed. Every child who doesn’t get enough to eat has been violated.”

What has been done in this connection is pretty simple. The Democrats and the press have pulled off a variant of the trick they played when the party’s mail was leaked in mid–2016 and subsequently published by WikiLeaks.They said as little as possible then about what was in all the stolen mail while obsessing on the theft. Same thing, different context: Don’t mention what fundamentally drove those protesters to the Capitol, apart from their objections to the vote count. We don’t want to hear from the American underclass or those who struggle against joining it. Instead, go long and only on what they did that afternoon.


Trump supporters on Jan. 6 crowding the steps of the Capitol after displacing the police shield wall preventing access. (TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I come now to the question of protest. Here we are faced with the bitterest of truths we must face now that those who are supposed to lead us have made such opportunist use of what should be understood as a protest whose deepest motivations are deserving of thought and remedy.

Greenwald published a pithy piece concerning these matters on Jan. 6, Greenwald being impressively quick out of the gate in response to public events.  Here is a portion of it:

“Putting the events of January 6 into their proper perspective is not to dismiss the fact that it was a lamentable event…. The day after the 1/6 riot, I wrote in this space that ‘the introduction of physical force into political protest is always lamentable, usually dangerous, and, except in the rarest of circumstances that are plainly inapplicable here, unjustifiable.’ I still believe that to be the case. There was nothing virtuous about the 1/6 riot…. “

I must vigorously disagree with these thoughts. We have, first, the problem of “the introduction of physical force.” The neoliberal order in the U.S. is is enforced by physical force — by violence or the threat of it, as I have already suggested. The foreign policy of this country begins and ends with same. We are possessed of a violent tradition. Greenwald, surely, has read Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence. We are urged incessantly to abhor violence by people who make profligate use of it.

We cannot pretend on this point any longer. What violence there was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and let us not join those exaggerating this point, was preceded by incessant violence, and incessant violence has continued since. I am not an apostle of violence. But we need to come to terms with its origins and prevalence in America and then decide what we want to do about it.

“The neoliberal order in the U.S. is enforced by physical force — by violence or the threat of it. … The foreign policy of this country begins and ends with same.”

We come to the validity of protest qua protest. “There was nothing virtuous about the 1/6 riot”: I must disagree again. I am not a man of Trump and do not know what was in the minds of the Capitol Hill protesters other than to question the election results. But are we making believe here that the general idea of a stolen election is so preposterous as that? I can’t sign on.

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Setting aside what the protesters were for or against, I see considerable virtue in the act of protest itself. Is street protest in the name of whatever stripe — street protest that genuinely confront power — now off the table in America? All politics is now institutional politics and everyone must simply vote and stay home? Is the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ’70s among the things we have all forgotten? The great protests marking the true history of this country, not least those that changed it in the 1930s, are lost to us? These were authentic challenges to power.

Very, very few of us care to face the reality of our circumstances as they have come to us over the past couple of decades or so. In our time, our political process is broken, thoroughly broken. Those in office to represent us are corrupted absolutely and do not do so. Is there somehow some question of where our responsibilities — to ourselves and each other — lie?

This is not convenient.  Nobody wants to live in a time that requires them to resort to the street, the village green, bridges in Alabama, the Washington Mall, the steps of the Capitol — all of which are public spaces, the spaces of citizens. But sooner or later we will have to face the fact that we live in such a time, and that if we want to make things better in America it is in protest that our voices will be heard. In this the Jan. 6 protesters are a step ahead of most of us.


Featured image:  Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role of his musical “Hamilton,” April 20, 2016. (Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

(Consortium News)

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Patrick Lawrence
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Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.

Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site.