First Tremors of the American Spring?

O, that way madness lies… No more of that. — King Lear

There’s a scene in Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s classic 1961 anti-war novel, that sticks in the mind long after other details have faded. In the rear of the plane Bombardier Yossarian tends to the wounded tail-gunner. Having succeeded in staunching the flow of blood and neatly sewing up the wound, he is about to move back into the body of the aircraft when he notices a red stain beginning to spread on the gunner’s lower body. He unzips that part of his flying suit and is aghast at what he sees—a huge abdominal gash that leaves the dying man’s guts literally spilling out onto the fuselage floor.

He’s been sewing up the wrong wound.

In the black political comedy we are currently living through, it’s worth reflecting on the psychological and literary allusions in this passage. Catch-22 is the military bureaucracy’s favorite double bind: you may think that after multiple risky missions you’re no longer mentally fit to fly, but complaining about it is taken by the authorities as clear evidence of rational thought, and results in your being put on the most dangerous mission available. It’s the perfect political instrument for deepening your doubts about your sanity.

The unfolding tragedy also has Shakespearean overtones. As the gunner lies dying, he keeps moaning “Tom’s a-cold, Tom’s a-cold,” a line from Lear when the king and his companions are out on the blasted heath in the middle of a terrifying storm. The king, whose duty is to uphold justice and protect his subjects, has gone mad, no longer capable of taking care of anyone, not even himself.

In these upside down times, though, it’s the idea, so graphically expressed by Heller, of sewing up the wrong wound that should most fix our attention. To put the matter plainly, ever since the presidency of Bill Clinton, Democrats have been attending to the wrong set of social and political issues. This is not to say that many of these are unimportant. But politics is above all a matter priorities. Multiple commentators have castigated the donkey party for focusing excessively on identity politics—the concerns of African Americans and Hispanics, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and feminists. While such concerns were and are entirely legitimate, favoring them came at the expense of a broader population of mainly white working families whose standard of living has for decades barely budged (or in some cases actually fallen).

Adding to the widespread resentment and disenchantment this narrow, fragmented vision produced was a spreading disillusion with the neo-liberalism embodied in the Democrats’ faith in the prosperity (for some) generated by globalized markets, trade pacts, and Wall St.-centered wealth. Bernie Sanders’ extraordinary insurgent campaign, grounded in solidly social democratic policies, pulled Clinton slightly to the left of center on these issues. Nevertheless in a speech to Goldman Sachs for which she was reportedly paid $225,000, she emphasized her strong preference for globalized free trade and more generally her pro-business orientation.

When the chips were down (Obama favoring the banks over homeowners in 2009; Clinton ardently pursuing money and influence not just on Wall St. but with wealthy donors and governments around the world; Chuck Schumer building a cosy right-of-center relationship with the Republicans), Democratic leaders and policy makers have consistently let the global business and investment community grab the lion’s share of their attention. Meanwhile, the festering wound of bitter disillusion among a broad swathe of the less prosperous segment of the electorate somehow went largely unnoticed.

The shock among Clinton supporters who woke up on Nov. 9th to the reality of a Trump presidency was palpable. As though going through the stages of grief, Democrats at first were in denial (demands for recounts, challenges to the Electoral College), then angry, and then depressed. The thought of four years of Trump in the White House was deeply disheartening. The prevailing gloom was punctuated only by occasional fantasizing about a Trump impeachment trial.

And then something extraordinary happened.

The Women’s March on Washington, mobilizing millions of women and men around the US and countries as far away as Antarctica and Malawi, stopped the Inaugural celebrations of the previous day in their tracks. As the president, wildly exaggerating, was claiming a crowd of 1.5 million, even provincial cities like Boston were easily able to beat the actual figure (160,000) on the Mall the previous day. The crowd in Washington was estimated at 500,000, in New York 400,000. Even Augusta, Maine (pop. 18,000) managed to muster a crowd of over 10,000. Some crowd experts rated the crowds as the largest mass demonstrations in US history.

In a little over two months, a determined, highly experienced group of women managed to overcome the many fractious differences that have long plagued left-of-center activists. They put together a platform for the march that restored the energy and political vitality of millions of women (and men) in the US and around the globe. More than any mere political message, this was a cry from the heart: Enough! We’re mad as hell about an extremist, male-dominated administration and Congress that is threatening our bodies, our livelihoods, and our freedom, not to mention global peace itself. And we won’t take it any more!

The sheer speed with which a massive, well organized, unified coalition-of-the-enraged emerged was stunning. As Amanda Hess noted, “‘women’ was the one tent large enough to contain almost every major strain of protest against Trump.”

A few days later, massive protests erupted virtually overnight at airports around the country, protesting Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants from seven Middle East countries. The apparent spontaneity of the demonstrations was an illusion, however. As Farhad Manjoo wrote, “Dispatched online, the protesters knew where to go, and they knew what to do once they arrived: to command the story by making a scene.” The protesters at both the Women’s and the airport demonstrations not only used social media such as Facebook and Twitter to boost turnout, they succeed in blotting out Trump’s media narrative and replacing it with their own. At the Women’s march, for example, pictures of crowds far larger than those that attended the Inaugural, colored by a sea of pink pussy-hats, went viral, as did photos of placards with far sharper, more resonant messages than the anemic “I’m with Her” and ‘Stronger Together”:


Similarly, during the protests against the immigration ban, pictures on Facebook and Instagram gave the lie to Trump’s absurd, self-serving claim that his ban was “working out very nicely — you see it in the airports.”

Perhaps the most important outcome of these two weeks of demonstrations was what the CIA likes to call the “demonstration effect.” Trump’s Twittering suddenly faced a massive social media competitor that could not only turn out huge crowds nationwide at will, but also overpower coverage of his own pronouncements and cut them down to size.

Social media also played a vital role in the Arab Spring of course, especially in the mass demonstrations in Tahir Square, Cairo, on January 25th, 2011. This failed for many reasons, few of them having to do with the use of social media per se. In Thanassis Cambanis’s insightful summary of  the course of events in Egypt, “Revolutionary Egyptians sought radical change only in the narrow lane of their relationship to the government and police. They did not reject the profoundly conservative mores of family, village, neighborhood and religious hierarchy, whose webs of control emerged relatively unscathed from the revolutionary period.”

No such webs of control are likely to constrain those participating in the Resist/Persist/Indivisible protest movements emerging around the US and indeed the rest of the world. These movements are characterized by three core features. They have mastered the full power of social media as a tool of both organizing and propaganda. They manifest a remarkable degree of solidarity across multiple groups, issues, and ethnicities. And they are powered by an enduring sense of outrage that is only likely to intensify as the Trump administration’s full agenda unfolds.

The first buds of the American Spring are beginning to blossom.

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