(This post originally appeared in the Washington Monthly)
Those of us who can actually remember the Vietnam War well remember the slogan: What if they gave a war and nobody came? It was used to protest the most modern of our useless wars, until the most recent misbegotten two, of course. In those days people actually took to the streets to try and do some good: bring the boys home, stop the senseless killing of innocents and the slaughter of our conscripted. It worked. Sort of. That taking to the streets. The war ended. It ended badly, but it finally ended.
Taking it to the streets hasn’t gone as planned for most protestors, with the exception of perhaps the most powerful march in history when, in 1963 the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King gathered 250,000 people for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It made waves that are still reverberating across America. Even so, we continue to bump up against racism and inequity all over the U.S. And people are still held and killed for having the wrong skin color. Black men remain chronically unemployed. We are far from post racial as Michelle Obama pointed out yesterday.
There have been several protests for women’s rights, one of which I attended. I was there with 500,000 men and women, trying my best to see above the crowd (I am quite petite). That’s when I knew I was claustrophobic and would have to do my protesting in slightly less physical ways. I was glad I went but women still don’t have equal rights.
Nineteen Ninety-five’s Million Man March for the rights of black men gathered slightly less than a million (somewhere in the wide range between 400,000 and 800,000) but left much less of a legacy than was desired. Thirty two years after Dr. King, the problems he spoke about remain.
Yesterday’s Operation American Spring which promised 10 to 20 million “patriots” got called on account of…. disinterest. The planned rally to call for the ouster of our first black president by the huge numbers, supposedly, of angry men and women who don’t like him, fizzled in the rain. Thirty million people may well support the motives of Operation American Spring, although I doubt it; but they certainly were not willing to give up a work day or anything else to prove it.
This may mean that all the fury and hate that clogs talk radio, blogs and news sites on the internet is perpetrated by far fewer people than we think. Certainly far fewer than the organizers thought. The 200 people who showed up in D.C. may be the same 200 who sound like legion when they have a phone or a computer in front of them. It is hard to tell. There have been other such similar rallies which have also failed (Glenn Beck’s euphemistically entitled “Restoring America” march may have gotten some big numbers, which are still very disputed, but Beck himself has fallen out of favor.)
So what is one to make of this? Are we all now closet claustrophobes? Or are we afraid to leave the comfort zone of our anonymity? Afraid Big Brother will be watching us on his camera or drone? Or just too lazy to make an effort?
Does nothing mean anything to us or is the idea of marching for hatred more distasteful than marching for peace, even among the haters? Again, it is hard to read anything huge into this, other than the quietly dispiriting notion that perhaps our powerless is real.
On the other hand, if a million people were to march on Washington to try and force our government’s hand to really deal with climate change I would take a Xanax and go with the flow.