Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Witless In Seattle

The Man Without Qualities and family were in Seattle over the weekend, visiting old friends. We - including a total of four eight-and-under children - took in the Science Museum located in the park around the Space Needle. While we were inside the Museum exclaiming at the device that permits one to create huge soap bubble membranes, a fully functional beehive and, of course, the picnic table arrayed with various edible insects, the antiwar protestors were massing outside for their march into the city. The protestors began to assemble after we entered the museum and the last of them had just trotted off after we came out, leaving the enduring park population of popcorn, doo-dad, hotdog and cotton candy vendors making surprisingly (at least to me) skeptical comments about the demonstrators. One wondered if, perhaps, the demonstrators didn't buy enough for all the ruckus they made, while displacing the more reliable family purchasers of such victuals and paraphernalia.

But we rode the Monorail into their midst, since Seattle Center - the zone immediately surrounding the southern Monorail terminus - seemed to be a point of regrouping. Many of our fellow passengers on the Monorail could be heard repeating what a few of the park vendors had also suggested - that there were north of 30 thousand people in the demonstration. I'm not sure where that number came from, although some of the people repeating it said it came from the "demonstration organizers." In any event, it was clearly absurd. The Man Without Qualities grew up in a town of a little more than 30 thousand - and there were certainly far fewer than that on the Seattle streets. Later news reports placed the number at between 10 and 20 thousand - about half of number the protest "organizers" claimed. There was some - but not much - drizzle.

The protestors carried utterly predictable, pre-printed signs and chanted utterly predictable pre-processed slogans. There seemed no strong emotion. The entire affair resembled not so much a popular outpouring of outrage or concern as something lifeless staged for a made-for-TV movie on a tight budget, close-ups to be mostly avoided.

This form of protest seems odd to me. Printed placards, chants, 60's nostalgia, the obvious staging for television news effect. The form of protest seems to overwhelm its intended content, and the strongest message conveyed was simply:


Where there is no better means of communicating one's message, the restrictions and implied message imposed by this form may be overcome. It is in just such circumstances that the form developed and remains vital. Where, for example, the government controls most means of communication - the Shah's Iran or the later Soviet Empire, for example - how else can one communicate effectively? Even where there is a free flow of information, one can see a role for such protests where the media simply fails to present one's argument to the public. But these protestors' message and arguments are already and constantly disseminated in many ways: from Senator Levin's petards to the squirrelly reporting of National Public Radio to the sly, self-serving omissions and distortions of Dan Rather and most of the rest of the liberal media. In such circumstances the form seems to convey yet an additional message of the protestors' deliberate misconception of the society in which they live and their inflated and self-mythologising opinion of their place in it.

UPDATE: Tim Blair posts interesting comments. And more from Angela Bell.

FURTHER UPDATE: This San Francisco report squares pretty well with my Seattle experience as far as the inflated crowd size goes.

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