TCS Daily

They March for Themselves

By Michael Totten - February 8, 2005 12:00 AM

On the day President Bush was re-inaugurated, protesters clogged the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon with their usual lashing-out-in-your-face performance-art shtick. It took me thirty minutes to get home. It usually takes me five.

Almost 80 percent of Multnomah County, which includes downtown Portland, voted for John Kerry. You have to go out into the eastern suburbs toward Mt. Hood before you'll find a place where Bush supporters number significantly above 20 percent. So what, exactly, was the point of blockading and snarling tens of thousands of fellow Kerry-voters in traffic?

The objective certainly wasn't to persuade them to vote differently next time. Nor did the protest have any chance whatever of changing the outcome of the election or preventing Bush's inauguration.

Evolution of a Protestor

The activists marched for themselves. They were their own audience. Everyone else was a prop. Everyone else's eyes were mere mirrors. If they had any practical effect on the ground it was the alienation of their moderate allies.

I protested the Persian Gulf War back in 1991 when I attended the University of Oregon in Eugene. Every night I hit the streets with the rest of the university town's motley radicals. We carried "No Blood for Oil" signs. We flashed the peace sign (which I didn't then know also means "Victory") at the police who were -- I must say -- remarkably tolerant of our antics.

I knew there was no chance the war could be stopped. Approval-ratings for ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait ran as high as 90 percent. It was no-brainer for almost everyone; conservatives, liberals, and UN apparatchiks alike. I knew I was on the radical fringe, and it frightened me. I was honest-to-God afraid of being drafted into a Vietnam-style quagmire and having to kill or be killed on behalf of Kuwaiti sheiks who, I felt, didn't deserve my ultimate sacrifice.

The first Gulf War didn't impress me at all. Richard Nixon wrote in the New York Times that it would "not be a war about democracy." Secretary of State James Baker said it was all about "jobs, jobs, jobs." I hadn't seen anything so cynical and corrupt in my short little life. Thus an anti-war leftist -- me -- was then born.

Looking back, I'm embarrassed, even if Baker's rationale was offensive and stupid. My own "analysis" was thin adolescent gruel. A genocidal totalitarian regime would have been allowed to swallow the harmless country next door if Bush 41 had listened to me. It wasn't my finest or most sophisticated moment. Baker's absurd justification for his position did not excuse mine.

Some of my more moderate friends, both pro- and anti-war, asked me why I felt so compelled to protest every day. Well, I told them, because I was alienated and scared. Alienated because my view was so much in the minority. Scared because I would have been among the first, not the last, to be drafted if it came to that. Joining the protest movement was a way to surround myself with people who were on my side, who shared my detestation of war, and who could viscerally relate to my fears. I knew very well we were all tilting at windmills. I protested because it made me feel better.

The Vietnam War was incalculably more horrific and protest-worthy than the war for Kuwait. But something similar happened to some of the activists then, too. In Policy Review magazine Lee Harris recalls his own experience in the movement at that time.

"A friend of mine and I got into a heated argument. Although we were both opposed to the Vietnam War, we discovered that we differed considerably on what counted as permissible forms of anti-war protest. To me the point of such protest was simple - to turn people against the war. Hence anything that was counterproductive to this purpose was politically irresponsible and should be severely censured. My friend thought otherwise; in fact, he was planning to join what by all accounts was to be a massively disruptive demonstration in Washington, and which in fact became one.

"My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason - because it was, in his words, good for his soul."

It was good for his soul. And it was good for the war he hated, to boot.

Burying My Pacifism, Not My Liberalism

Bosnia buried my pacifism. But it did not bury my liberalism.

A few years ago I watched a May Day parade (which was really more like a protest) through the streets of Portland from an eighth floor balcony in a downtown corporate high rise. My co-workers, most of them fellow liberals, scoffed and jeered at the people below.

"The Labor Movement played a crucial role in American history," I said. "You owe a debt. Try to have a little respect. May Day is bigger than those goofballs."

My co-workers harrumphed. "They're flying Communist flags!"

They were. There was SeƱor Guapo himself, Che Guevara, on several red and black flags. The protestors banged drums. They chanted asinine slogans: "Hey hey, ho ho, this broken system's got to go." I guess they meant capitalism. Some, no doubt, included democracy itself as part of "the system." They were, after all, lionizing the totalitarian architect of Cuba's gulag.

I slunk back to my desk, feeling embarrassed and a little bit stupid. If the May Day revolutionaries had any bona fide sympathizers in my office building, I didn't know about 'em. I tried to defend them because I felt then (as I still feel now) that I do owe the labor movement a debt. But all those clowns did was equate the labor movement with jackbooted totalitarianism. My uber capitalist tech industry managers were died-in-the-wool progressives by comparison. I'm sure even they would say the labor movement at least had a point back in its hey-day. But on that day the labor movement's self-appointed torchbearers garnered little more than scorn even from liberals.

I guess it was fun, though, and emotionally satisfying. I certainly hope so, because it annoyed and embarrassed the rest of us.

I don't think protesting is necessarily the wrong way to go about making a political statement. The civil rights movement clearly was bolstered by protests. (Besides, white supremacists deserved to be confronted in the streets by their properly furious countrymen.)

But blockading city streets and rankling your own political allies is one of the more ridiculous ways a person can spend time and energy. Truly, there are better and more productive ways to get therapy. A grown-up discussion is oxygen for a healthy democracy. But our democracy does not need, and has no use for, losers who pointlessly lash out in anger at their own community.

I don't want to deny anyone's right to protest. This is America, not Syria. Still, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Disgruntled Bush-haters have every right go to door to door in their neighborhoods and tell everyone to piss off. But they really ought not.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


TCS Daily Archives