Don Davis

Laughter: A Tool of Asymmetric Warfare?

Filed By Don Davis | December 09, 2010 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Barack Obama, Burnt Corn BBQ, Congress, Democrats, election 2012, John Boehner, politics, Republicans

So here it is, almost halfway through this President's first term, and it's starting to become abundantly clear that there is no way Obama is going to pursue the same agenda that he ran on in 2008. menagerie nationale.jpgIn fact, as the President announces a deal that even he agrees the majority of the American people do not support, and he prepares the Nation for the news that we're going to have to borrow money for the very tax cuts he said we couldn't afford a few weeks ago, it's starting to look like Obama isn't even going to pursue the same agenda he campaigned for in October. Now it is true that a lot of the problem here is the President's, but it's also fair to say that we progressives have failed to force the President, and certain reluctant members of Congress, to govern in a way that promotes that agenda. That's a real problem, and it needs a real solution; before we get done today I'll offer a suggestion that could be not only highly effective, and a lot of fun besides, but a great chance to release your artistic muse as well.
"...Private Pyle has dishonored himself, and dishonored the platoon. I have tried to help him, but I have failed. I have failed because you have not helped me. You people have not given Private Pyle the proper motivation." --R. Lee Ermey, as "Sergeant Hartman", from the Stanley Kubrick film "Full Metal Jacket".
Now before we go any further, a quick comment on that Presidential news conference: if this President was this passionate about his positions before he made deals with his opponents, maybe he wouldn't have to pick so many fights with his own side... and, to use his own words, he wouldn't have to do so much "negotiating with hostage takers". But then again, what do I know? And speaking of fights: we assume there will be no effort, in the 112th Congress, to advance "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", because this President is unlikely to want to pick a fight with Republicans, and Democrats no longer have the ability to control the House legislative calendar. We will probably be pressured by our Republican friends to make some decision about Social Security, right now (well, in 2011, anyway), and we can assume that among the demands they'll make will be to raise the retirement age and break the connection between the cost of living adjustment and the actual rise in the cost of living. It wouldn't surprise me if this President also finds himself forced to make unwanted compromises on health care; all of this because the House threatens to refuse to fund something else that he wants at the time. And all of that means we'll constantly be "fighting to catch up" instead of framing the messages and defining the issues ourselves. And that means we'll always be facing a tactical disadvantage. However, it may be that there's another answer to be found--and it's possible that the answer might be found in, of all places, Bhopal, India. It was in Bhopal that Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary operated a chemical plant that produced the pesticides Sevin and Temik. The process to make Sevin involved the use of chlorine, methyl isocyanate gas, and phosgene, which makes either a dandy reactive compound for industrial use or a dandy nerve gas, depending on how it's applied. Over the evening, as December 2, 1984, turned into December 3rd, some or all of these gases leaked from the plant into the neighborhood that had sprung up around the plant (that's the bad way to apply phosgene); it's estimated by the local government that 3787 people died that night. Others have estimated that as many as 15,000 died as a result of the events of that evening. Almost 575,000 people were compensated for losses related to the event. Many are frustrated that neither "American" Union Carbide nor Dow Chemical, who eventually absorbed the company, have ever stepped up to acknowledge their own liability, but on the 20th anniversary of the leak, a window of opportunity had appeared, thanks to a realistic looking fake website that "reframed" Dow's intentions in a subtle, but very unflattering manner. That website got "Jude Finisterra," a fake Dow representative, invited on BBC World Television, where he fake announced that Dow was now going to take full responsibility for the disaster and begin cleaning up the site and providing the medical care that the survivors could badly use. Naturally, this forced Dow to publicly come forward and deny the whole thing, which created lots of new awareness around the issue. This "identity correction" tactic is the specialty of "The Yes Men," who have also done this to the WTO, when they fake proposed slavery for Africa at a Wharton Business School conference they got themselves invited to, and to Exxon, when they posed as Company representatives attending a Canadian energy conference and distributed "Vivoleum" candles, which was a proposed new fuel made from the human bodies of the victims of climate change. And it's not just The Yes Men who are following this path of "awareness refocusing." Remember "Billionaires for Bush?" ("Make Social Security Neither!") They were a very effective visible image that made the Bush folks look like what they really were, and when people saw them marching, they got the point. Why isn't Sarah Palin Vice-President today? Tina Fey clearly deserves at least some of the credit. So how do we apply this kind of thinking to our current problems? Well, suppose you live in Oklahoma. Why not put on a "Coburn For Global Warming" BBQ, with blackened birds and burned corn? Then get the video out to the Web and if you do it right, you've got a shot at getting noticed nationally. Do it every month, maybe even with new victims ("Oklahomans For 1959!") and it becomes a symbol both the Republicans, and the national media, will find harder and harder to ignore. Texas? How about an LBGT "Big Bad John" Cornyn drillteam that follows the Senator to public appearances and campaigns for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell--and then moves on to address the Senator's unwillingness to tackle the bullying issue? Feel like doing something for the unemployed in Ohio? Why not organize a "Where's My Job, John?" campaign to start sending thousands upon thousands of job applications to John Boehner's offices in West Chester and Troy...and then, start dropping by in groups, cameras in hand, to check on the status of your applications? By the way: this kind of project would be a great way for someone to "organize with allies", and if there's a labor union or social justice activism group or loosely organized gang of Merry Pranksters around you might want to make an effort at email and in-person contacts to see if you can grow the impact of the idea. Do you live in the Bible Belt? How about taking the cameras to a megachurch with your petition to ban divorce in order to protect the sanctity of marriage? Arizona? How about "Tamale Tuesday" immigration reform parties at John Kyl's and John McCain's and Jan Brewer's offices, with dozens or hundreds of Hispanics and friends showing up every week to make the point that political power in Arizona ain't always lily-white. Are you liberal and live in Mississippi? Well, you may have to move. But what about all that buildup where you were talking about pushing the President back on a leftward tack? Ok. How about this: set yourself up with a couple of desks in a very public place, with a "rope line" in front so that it looks like a bank line. Then use a "greeter" to grab members of the public and get them to "apply" for the loans that we'll have to take out to pay for the tax cuts for the rich. Do that, or something along the same lines, somewhere in Washington, DC, or do it in a bunch of cities, either all at once or "tour style", meaning week after week after week, and all of a sudden it's a lot tougher for Obama and reluctant Congresscritters to ignore the symbolism, and, once again, Americans get a bit of their voice back. Of course, the big trick here is to get ahead of the issues, not to have to constantly react to constant attacks--but the way to do that is to get behind an issue with a strong symbolic campaign (and the more absurd the thing is that needs the reform the better) and repeat the reform message so often that it becomes absurd not to support reform, placing the opponents on the defensive, and forcing them to become the ones reacting to events, instead of driving the narrative. So how about that? We do have tools, even in unlikely places, that can apply some of the proper motivation to this President and the reluctant Members of Congress, and they're the kinds of tools that can be used by a few people or hundreds. And I think we have reached the point where it's become clear that, without constant outside pressure from us, we cannot depend on this President or many of those who represent us in the Houses of Congress to promote a Progressive agenda. It's true: we are going to have to be the ones who force what we want out of these people, and if it takes a whole lot of comedic embarrassment to drag them along, kicking and screaming, to join the effort to advance the Progressive agenda...then let's get to it, let's get creative about how we do it--and most importantly of all, let's create a situation where the political risk of fighting for causes that work against the American people becomes more costly than fighting for the American people.

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Thanks for the link to The Yes Men. I knew (vaguely) of their one action against Dow, but wasn't aware of their ongoing work and presence online.

Good, creative suggestions, too. Satire can be very effective. :)

you are more than welcome--and for those who might like to join the fun, here's a link to the yes lab for creative activism, where volunteers get to help put the pranks together.