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Friday, October 1, 2010

March madness

I’ll admit it. My feet are tired.

I say this as organizers rally to herd earnest masses onto buses for yet another march to Washington, D.C. to draw the attention of legislators – and more accurately these days, the media – around progressive values. It’s poised to be chockfull of the pre-Election Day red meat needed to galvanize those 2008 new-to-the-process voters that were so passionate about bringing change to how business in this country is conducted, from Wall Street to Main Street to K Street.

That’s not to say the cause is not just. But the method seems painfully dated.

Coxey's 1894 brigade in D.C. Courtesy: Library of Congress
We’re fighting wars with remote controlled drones and cyber sabotage, but when it comes to raising a ruckus about equality and justice, the tactics seem squarely and stubbornly rooted in the last century. Just as we no longer protect the homeland with antiquated surface-to-air batteries of the Camelot era, we should be thinking a bit more deeply and creatively in how to sway people toward reason.

Yes, such marches have impacted the national psyche – in the past. But like any other one-trick pony, repetition weakens the wow factor.

Gathering up the troops in a mass display of shock-and-awe to decry ill-considered policies has been the American civil activist’s trump card since the 1890s. Jacob S. Coxey stirred passions as he led the unemployed to storm the Mall, to the strain of familiar concerns – from the aggrieved, who felt those in power recklessly and callously abandoned core principles for greed, to the powerbrokers and social observers, who feared an insurrection among “the radicals.”

History shows that such demonstrations have had merit; Coxey and his 500 or so collected cohorts prompted sympathy and long-term effects that later manifested in efforts such as the New Deal. Women descended on Washington to “welcome” President-elect Woodrow Wilson in 1913, presenting a visual reminder of voters he had yet to tap, seeing as though the laws refused to recognize them as full citizens. Hundreds of rabbis stood forth days before Yom Kippur 1943 to protest the decimation of their brethren and culture in war-savaged Europe. And for sheer magnitude, few can top the iconic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – though the sea of collective calm that strikingly countered overhyped fears about the 1995 Million Man March is up there.

But you can’t help but to think that media personality Glenn Beck was trying his best to emulate those grievances and demonstrate that “real” Americans – read: graying, WASPs – are suffering at the hands of this government, especially now that it’s run by the “others.”

Contrived causes plus hijacked methodology equal diluted punch for ensuing protests. Increasingly, marches for social justice issues seem to be falling into a trap of devolution, a game of whose is bigger. And that sets up dangerous one-upsmanship, with the possibility of issues being trampled because they are not deemed as aligned enough with the American public, based on turnout. Since the National Park Service stopped offering its independent tallies after 1995’s debacle, neutral observers are more skeptical when attendance numbers are bandied about these days, anyway.

Even if it were about bodies, it’s not been made clear, mathematically or otherwise, why having 200,000 people on a dead D.C. day outweighs, say, 20 key legislative district offices facing 10,000 constituents each. Or even 40 facing 5,000 constituents.  As I understood it, demonstrations are supposed to capture the imagination, focus the attention with some breathtaking, novel display.
Then again, maybe that sexy bus trip with the smelly rear bathroom, the limp, plastic-wrapped sandwiches in cardboard boxes and the yawning rhetoric that spills from the mics and mouths of appointed leaders makes it all seem so much more noble, a sacrifice for a greater good. Not sure. 

When things get to the point of near parody, though, a la the “marches” being “organized” by satirists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, it makes you start wondering whether the strategy is still the best one. Especially since Congress is out of session, and lawmakers are back in their districts, stumping for midterm votes right about now.

It’s a free country. And the Mall is known as America’s Backyard. If it’s time for a major-league public bitch session, fine. I’m more interested in probing for more innovative approaches to reaching and appealing to the hearts and minds of my fellow Americans -- not just legislators, but also the constituents that elect them. 

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