On the uselessness of street protest and the usefulness of web 2.0 lobbying

Juan Cole

I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t matter if tens of thousands of people demonstrate in Paris. Oh,it might put a little pressure on Sarkozy to remonstrate a little harder with the Israeli government, but in the larger scheme of things it isn’t very significant.

US Israel policy is driven by . . . the Israeli rightwing.

If all those people waving useless cardboard posters in the air really want to change things, they have to change the US domestic political equation.

Cole says, use Web 2.0 tools like Obama did in getting elected. Mass presence. Create a broad-based movement, in this case of multiple organizations nationwide working to directly lobby and influence Congress and the president to rollback the Israeli colonization of Palestinians.

I underline that such an organized push in American politics for more equitable policies in the Middle East is not anti-Israel, but rather intended to help Israel find a way forward with its neighbors that does not involve continued displays of sado-masochistic politics on both sides. Make no mistake. AIPAC and other rightwing Israel lobbying organizations are enablers and drug dealers, hooking Israeli politicians on the high of power and violence, and we can only heal Israel and Palestine by cutting off that supply.

Look, mass protests don’t change things anymore. People in the streets no longer inexorably leads to social change. These were effective tactics during the labor organizing of the 1930’s and the civil rights and Vietnam war protests of the 60’s. But that was then. There have been enormous anti-Iraq War protests, but politically they accomplished practically nothing. Times have changed. Media and the world moves much faster now, and big protests aren’t really newsworthy any more.

Obama used the web in extraordinary new ways to build a mass organization in cyberspace and on the ground. We need an organization like that that can directly influence and lobby Congress to bring about peace in the Middle East.

We lost 2.5 million jobs in the US last year. This effort would create jobs for progressives. In fact, the people who get in on the ground floor organizing it will likely get to be rather well off. And, it might prevent another big terrorist attack on the US, or prevent your child from being drafted and blown up near some godforsaken oil well in Khuzistan someday.

  • AS the t-shirt says: “I have given up my quest for peace and justice and will settle instead for a good fantasy…”

  • DJ

    We’ve sure got a good fantasy going. I for one have not given up the quest.

  • UJ

    So, right off the bat you know when someone starts an essay with “I’m sorry, but it just” it’s not an indicator that what follows is a precise intellectual discourse on a particular topic. Rather, it’s code language for “I’m about to take a big old dump on you with my opinion.” Thus its no surprise that with just a smidgen of evidence (it’s the Israeli rightwing!) he feels free to vehemently declare that protests are totally worthless. Awesome!

    Now, putting aside Cole’s provocative theories as to which levers of government the jews do or do not control, what other evidence is provided that protests don’t work? “Times have changed” and “media moves faster now” is all fine, but what the hell does it mean? I’m way too young to have lived through Vietnam, but I’m willing to bet a fair amount that the antiwar protests succeeded without respect to the specific logistics of printing a newspaper or the lack of cable news.

    Then there’s always my favorite criticism – RESULTS! Protests never produce any results. For this one you have to completely misunderstand the point of direct action. See, it’s not like there’s a couple Generals sitting outside the Pentagon counting protesters like “998, 999…yep, that’s over a thousand! Call off the war, boys!” *cheers!* Protests are SUPPOSED to make you angry! They’re supposed to threaten and mobilize authorities, they’re supposed to polarize and energize the population! If your protest is expected to make people feel good and win, you’re doing it wrong!!

    So what are we supposed to do? Do it the Obama Way(tm) of course! Great, but again, what the hell does that mean? OK, so start by being a Senator, then use a shitload of cash from multinational corporations to buy up television airtime, real estate in every city and plenty of websites and iphone apps to organize millions of supporters. Excellent, that sounds super easy, right? First get a bajillion dollars, then get super popular, then your cause will succeed! Flawless!

    You’ve probably already noticed exactly WHO it is in the progressive realm spouting these kinds of views. The activists on the frontline of prop 8, Israel-Palestine, immigration, education, labor, the people out there actually fighting and scoring victories, they don’t say shit like “do it the Obama way!” They’re too busy getting teargassed and infiltrated by the FBI to think about buying an iphone app. No, it’s only folks like Juan Cole or Lee Stranahan shitting on their fellow progressives, telling them to give it up and come out of the streets because they’re just so fucking useless.

    Give me a break! Show me real actual irrefutable proof that protests are useless and don’t accomplish anything and I’ll go along with it completely, but you’re going to have an awfully difficult time convincing me that protests, the tactic that’s achieved almost every single social and civil right in the last 200 years, is somehow antiquated and only worked in the past. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would like us to believe that public action is stupid and useless, but that doesn’t make it true.

    Shame on Juan Cole and anybody else peddling this authoritarian apologist garbage. They can stay home and wish upon a star for Rupert Murdoch to magically turn into Amy Goodman, but the rest of the population has work to do.

    • I disagree with Cole saying the Israeli right wing controls US foreign policy towards Israel. They have serious clout but it suits the US to have Israel as a client state.

      His real point is, as protesters often say, D.C. doesn’t listen to the people. So how do we make them do so? By direct action in the lobbying chambers, that’s how.

      I was involved in the 60’s protests. They did have effect. But in our era of rapid response and instant commentary by the opposition on TV and websites, any message can get spun or blocked quickly. Besides, unless the protest is huge, it just gets ignored. And the point is to get media presence and sway minds, right? Not just feel good.

      John Robb also says the same thing, mass protest is a relic. 4GW and 5GW (the super-empowered individual) tactics are what’s happening.

  • UJ

    I don’t mean to be so rude to Juan Cole. His body of work is invaluable, and its not as if I deny there is reasonable compelling evidence of the Israeli government engaging in questionable “extranational” activities. However, on the whole I think blaming all of our problems on “Big Jew” is like the all time LEAST helpful way of advancing a particular point of view.

    Just like when immigration hawks say they want to close the border to protect against Hizbollah, what they’re really asking for is SWAT teams breaking up blue collar Mexican families, when people like Cole denounce the Zionist lobby, what they’re really asking for is a lot of Coens and Steins to get frog marched and dragged through the mud. These things never work out like you think they will.

    I’m not saying it’s all antisemitic conspiracy theories, it’s just not an appropriate avenue for advancing your objective.

  • DJ

    I agree that protest has its place. But it has to be a demonstration of solidarity with the majority, not a minority whining about the injustice of it all. The Vietnam-era anti-war movement was exactly that: a movement representing a frighteningly large (if you’re a politician) segment of the electorate.

    While the majority of Americans oppose the Iraq war, clearly it’s not a high enough priority for them to vote the bums out of office. Bush got re-elected in 2004, and the War wasn’t the big issue of 2008. Why not? To be frank, not enough of our young men and women are dying– and not enough of them are are middle class or higher. College kids and their parents don’t fear being drafted. So yeah, it’s a sad thing and I’d like to see it end (they say) but give me an iPhone and a latte grande and we’ll discuss it in intellectual terms until I gotta go to class.

    Here’s an analogy: Most Americans support an ammendment to ban flag burning. Personally I think that’s absurd. However, for the vast majority, even though they favor such an amendment, it’s so low on their list of priorities that they wouldn’t change the way they vote or even write a letter to a legislator to implement it. So you could protest all day long and not influence a single leader– they know most people don’t care enough to translate what you’re saying into political power.

    Can you look at the Rose Revolution, the Cedar Revolution, and so forth, and say protest always fails? Hardly. The fallacy in modern American protest movements is not that protest no longer works– it’s that the proponents have failed to bring the urgency of their cause to the majority of the electorate. In short, they’re taking shortcuts.

    Protest is only one tool, and for a successful campaign you’ve got to use more than one.

    Let me ask you this: lot’s of progressives and farher left-leaners read this site. Who is your strategist, and how does he/she explain translating protest into political change? I’m betting they haven’t thought that far ahead– or, as Bob often describes, their priority really isn’t to end the war, it’s to increase their own organization’s influence.

  • I fear the violence we’ve seen will rapidly intensify proportional to the ongoing economic circumstance, and when history is written the killer cop and the spontaneous “protest” cum (quite possibly incited) riot will be seen as the spark, the turning point, of yet another irrational cycle of violence with no good point intent.

  • UJ


    –“I agree that protest has its place. But it has to be a demonstration of solidarity with the majority, not a minority whining about the injustice of it all.”

    Who’s supposed to be the judge of that? Who gets to decide who is showing the right kind of solidarity and who’s “whining?” Is it you? The media? The police? And what’s with the minority/majority stuff? That’s the Rove mindset, the 50+1 philosophy. Some things have absolutely nothing to do with the sheer amount of humans who do or do not support it. See: Civil Rights, or your own example, Flag burning.

    –“So yeah, it’s a sad thing and I’d like to see it end (they say) but give me an iPhone and a latte grande and we’ll discuss it in intellectual terms until I gotta go to class.”

    –“Who is your strategist, and how does he/she explain translating protest into political change? I’m betting they haven’t thought that far ahead”

    Where is your evidence?! Please show me all the proof you have that says protests don’t achieve political change. I think you’re confusing your anti-hipster rage for actual useful information. It’s not. Guess what? Everybody hates that fictional activist cartoon character in your head, but we’re not talking about that. I get that EVERYBODY has a damn chip on their shoulder because too many coffee drinking college students try to join our special magically elite political conversation, but it seems we spend more time bitching about the blot and mixture than actually accomplishing anything ourselves.

    I don’t have a “strategist” but I guarantee if I did have one, it would not be one who starts out by deriding other people just wanting to participate and then moves on declare who is really showing solidarity and who’s a whining phony.

    In other words…stop hatin’

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