Keeping the Flame of Anti-Activist Derision Burning at the New York Times

Posted on September 27, 2011


Long before Todd Gitlin became a defender of establishment Democrats, he wrote a neat little book about the media and Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-war group that became synonymous with anti-war protesting in the late sixties and early seventies. Though Gitlin derides such activism today, what he wrote then, specifically about the New York Times coverage of the burgeoning student movement, can be transported out of The Whole World is Watching four decades to the present intact to comment on the NYT coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

…the unifying tone is ridicule…interspersing laughable physical details among pieces of SDS program, conveying the impression that SDS’s ambitions were absurd.

trivialization and the attribution of menace are not such different frames of reference as they may appear to be. Far from being mutually exclusive, they are alternating expressions of a more fundamental notion…the deviant other. The marginality and menace themes were united by a subterranean logic: they were conjoint ways of evading the substantive political challenge proposed and embodied by the New Left.

Well, here’s the trivialization:

[…]they had come from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas and so on with drums, horns, tambourines and, in the instance of one young man, a knee-length burlap vest, fur hat, ski goggles and tiny plastic baby dolls applied to the tips of his fingers.

[…]One of the few New Yorkers I met, a senior at Bronx High School of Science, was stopping by in fits and spurts, against the wishes of his psychiatrist mother, who feared the possibility of tear gas and had chastised her son for giving his allowance to the cause.

[…]The group was clamoring for nothing in particular to happen right away — not the implementation of the Buffett rule or the increased regulation of the financial industry.

[…]Some said they were fighting the legal doctrine of corporate personhood; others, not fully understanding what that meant, believed it meant corporations paid no taxes whatsoever. Others came to voice concerns about the death penalty, the drug war, the environment.

“I want to get rid of the combustion engine,” John McKibben, an activist from Vermont, declared as his primary ambition.

[…]“I want to create spectacles,” Becky Wartell, a recent graduate of the College of the Atlantic in Maine, said.

Having discerned the intellectual vacuum, Chris Spiech, an unemployed 26-year-old from New Jersey, arrived on Thursday with the hope of indoctrinating his peers in the lessons of Austrian economics, Milton Friedman and Ron Paul. “I want to abolish the Federal Reserve,” he said.

[…]The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face — finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like “Even if the World Were to End Tomorrow I’d Still Plant a Tree Today”?

The menace came a few days later, when the NYT sought to explain the harsh treatment by NYPD–including the violence of a serial excessive force offender–which ironically, brought far more attention to the OWS than before. Sure, the protesters have in no way indicated that they could be dangerous or even, actually, much of a nuisance to Wall Street:

But to the New York Police Department, the protesters represented something else: a visible example of lawlessness akin to that which had resulted in destruction and violence at other anticapitalist demonstrations, like the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in London in 2009 and the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999.

OWS can’t win. Because when they stake out a space in the public-public sphere, non-violently and with a remarkable level of exactly that order and organization that they’ve been accused of lacking, they’re comical. And when they even hint that they have the potential to shut down Wall Street–again, through non-violent mass action of a more aggressive kind–we must suddenly recall the fire, brimstone and shattered glass of the anti-globalization movement and shudder.

I would only add to Gitlin’s slightly over-done hypothesis that this reaction has much less to do with “othering”, and far more to do with “selfing”. One look at the paper publication of the NYT, with its ads for oddly named enormous diamond and emerald jewelry and obscure haberdashery, shows exactly which group the paper sells news to in New York. Its not just well to do, but affluent people in the New York region and elsewhere. This includes the NYT’s employees, its editors and readers, all part of the same unique New York class. Far more than any group, it is they have the most to fear from either side of the coin–extended non-violent occupation of the Wall Street area is a bummer and guilt-trip at the least, and a cause for concern about tanking stock prices due to actual [and unlikely] favorable government response at its worst. A more aggressive non-violent response–like Sunday’s unauthorized march–could lead to wide-spread inconvenience and even danger, not to mention broken windows.


One interesting thing about the touchstone of Seattle used in the latter NYT article.

Nearly two decades ago, Deluca and Peeples conducted a media content study of television and print coverage of the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle [you can download a PDF here. After a few pages of boring analysis of the idea of the public sphere, it becomes very readable]. At the time, the nascent anti-globalization movement was a mystery outside of leftist circles, as was the World Trade Organization. The conference was to be the jewel in Bill Clinton’s globalization crown, the sign that the world was now united by capital, and that it flowed from and returned to the US like a great moebius.

The government and multinationals held a great advantage over protesters, in that they had an overwhelming control and access to media. Protesters hoped to counter that power to narrate with classical non-violent occupation and resistance. It didn’t work, according to D&P—coverage of the event in particular was flaccid, and tended to marginalize and ridicule the protesters at the beginning of the conference. Their issues were all but ignored, and it looked like Clinton and his globalization cronies would have the last laugh after all. It didn’t happen like that, but that wasn’t the result of non-violent protest.

In fact, the only thing that was capable of bringing the anti-globalization voices into the discussion was the destruction of property from a small crew of protesters, who were, in a sense, not invited and not welcome by the mainstream organizers. The introduction of symbolic violence, that is the destruction of property, not injury of people, created an image event that was capable of rivaling that of the Clinton administration and the multis. Coverage of the conference exploded after the advent of property destruction and entanglements with riot police. But contrary to the popular liberal sentiment that the symbolic violence distracted from anti-globalization demands and rhetoric, and converted it into a violent spectacle, D&P found that the media began focusing on rationales and explanations to a far greater degree AFTER the violence, rather than before it. The violence created a round the clock story that needed to be supplemented; yes, what bled, led. But television media especially needed something to fill in their wall to wall coverage, and that was the human interest story supplied by the anti-globalization movement. Symbolic violence, counter to expectations then and now, contributed to a richer and more substantive debate about the anti-globalization movement’s rationale and perspective.

This suggests some interesting inferences for the current crop of non-violent resistance occupations—the struggling Occupy Wall Street in NYC, this week, and anit-war events in the Capitol in October. For some time now, the activist left has been advocating a back to basics series of campaigns, with old school occupations, non-violent resistance and arrests. The thinking has been that the lack of this kind of image event so crucial to ending segregation and invigorating the anti-Vietnam war movement, has been what’s made the protests of the last decade so ineffective. But the near-invisibility of Occupy Wall Street—even in liberal media venues–shows that this perspective may be unfounded. Rather, the political image events that have received the most coverage, and that have benefited underlying discourses and viewpoints most have been those that have been accompanied by symbolic violence. Other countries have been the locus point of this inadvertent strategy in the last several years, that I don’t need to recount obviously. Within this “symbolic violence”, was embedded, or developed, similar kinds of occupation activism as that now seen in the Occupy Wall Street movement ignited by them.

I think the new reality calls for an expanded look at what “symbolic violence” means in the current day, where “legal” demonstrations have reached a level of media saturation and are ignored on a regular basis. Perhaps today’s “symbolic violence” need not include any kind of physical activity at all, but merely stepping out of the bounds of approved democratic protest. Marching down the wrong street at the wrong time without permission; this is different than merely sitting down and waiting to be arrested or occupying a space after its no longer contested. It is a challenge to the authority of the police, and something they obviously don’t seem ready to deal with as the NYT admits above. The effect seems devastating to an establishment that is prepared for people to play by the rules, or break them, but not to write their own. In this case, its worked, forcing mainstream media to at least talk about OWS, where they were  content to ignore it before.



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