You know things are getting bad when you start looking back with nostalgia on the Watt's riots, and when anti-war demonstrations, sit-ins, and the burning of draft cards seems like the good old days. Two recent riots underscore the extent to which rabble rousing no longer includes much that can be called "rabble," and is characterized by little that could be portrayed as "rousing."
Riots in the old days were organized in the back rooms of coffee houses or smoke-filled dorm rooms and were always about something: better race relations, the subversion of authority, opposition to the War. At their worst, they were nihilistic. Nihilism is specifically about nothing, which is at least something.
Today's riots? They're broadcast on Facebook and have the feel (and practical danger) of just another lifestyle app: the cultural equivalent of a fashion accessory.
When 60s radical Abbie Hoffman penned Steal This Book, he did it as a protest against the establishment, and he knew his message would be noticed--even if those who read it hadn't paid for the book.
One of the most salient facts about the recent London riots was that the rioters looted all kinds of stores: shoe stores, clothing stores, and computer stores. But they left the book stores untouched. "[B]ooks are losing out to high-end jeans and Apple-made gadgets," said the Economist.
It got so lonely in Waterstone and WH Smith, two British chain bookstores, that one aggrieved employee even dared the rioters to loot his store. "If they steal some books," he said, "they might actually learn something." About, you know, ideas.
You can say one thing for book burning, it sends the message that, whatever form the protest takes, it at least has something to do with ideas.
The protesters of yore could at least muster a real physical threat.. At my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara, we could boast that students in the 70s (the decade in which most of the 60s really happened) had burned down the Bank of America building. It wasn't a particularly constructive demonstration, and it was that much less impressive for the fact that it was performed by a bunch of spoiled teenage children of upper middle class families who wouldn't have known suffering if it had a sign on it.
But they at least had some coherent platitudes they could spout as a reason for burning things down.
The protesters of the 60s questioned authority; made love, not war; tuned in, turned on, dropped out; and Hell no, wouldn't go. What would the London protesters paint on their signs if such an alien thought had struck them? "Give Reeboks a Chance!" "Bring our toys home!" And, had they had Barnes & Noble in London: "Steal this Nook!"
They didn't steal bras in the 60's. They burned them.
The Occupiers of Wall Street can't bring themselves to burn anything. It has been the wimpiest protest in the history of mankind. And ideas? They're not sure what they're problem is, how to solve it, or who is responsible. In fact, some of the protesters seem to be there for purely therapeutic reasons--as a way to deal with their ennui.
"I was too young for the civil rights movement," said one 66 year-old woman. "And during the Vietnam War, I was too serious a student. Now, I just want to stand up and have my voice be heard." For some people, in other words, this is just one big, boisterous encounter group.
The media has made a big deal out of the fact that, for many of the protesters, it was their first time. So maybe that's the problem: a lack of experience. I'm now in favor of federal subsidies for protester training: how to set something on fire; how to formulate a reason to protest; and how to write a proper slogan
The 60s protesters had enough courage of conviction to constitute a palpable threat. The Wall Street protesters, lacking conviction in anything in particular, haven't even managed enough of a legitimate physical threat for police to resort to their riot gear. And the only possible use for tear gas would have been to disburse the crowds of reporters who were trying to figure out why exactly these people were marching.
It is a measure of the ideological seriousness of the protesters that one woman was overheard on a bus saying that she was going to return to a department store from which she had stolen some clothes to exchange them for something else.
The political and philosophical emptiness of the protests in London and Wall Street don't even rise to the level of nihilism. Nihilists are actually dangerous--like the ones in Dostoevsky's The Possessed, a book the London protesters could have burned, if they hadn't been so busy trying on the clothes they were stealing.
In fact, had the London protesters not been standing in line patiently waiting for their turn to steal (no joke--It's apparently a British thing), they could have been down the street at Waterstone Books, where, in the process of looting, they could have taken a few moments to leaf through Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book in which Nietzsche prophesies that, once Western culture has given up on Christianity, it will, in its death throes, produce what he called "The Last Man."
The Last Man is a figure who merely seeks warmth, has no real commitment or passion for anything, is averse to any real risks, and, because he lacks the imagination even to dream, is completely incapable of anything great.
The Last Men of this Seinfeld Revolution can't tell you what they are protesting because they don't know, and the signs they carry don't tell you much, other than that they want the government to do everything for them and that they don't like credit card swipe fees.
Translated, what they mean is they want America to become the North American equivalent of Greece.
These people may be rebels, but they're rebels without a clue.