Guns and the Art of Protest: Thinking about What is to be Done on the Left

Obama’s deeds don’t always match his words. Thus, he is a hypocrite and worse: a corporate stooge, the commander and chief of the prison industrial complex, and a war criminal. This is the sort of judgment one hears from the left. It seems this was the ground of Cornel West’s recent expression of self-righteous anger. And this, I believe, is all the result of a lack of understanding about the relationship between politics as a vocation and the art of protest.

In my last post, I expressed my indignation, my criticism of West and this sort of criticism (not for the first time, and certainly not the last). It is with the same concern that I have regretted the lost opportunities of Occupy Wall Street, which had real prospects to expand its influence, but fled instead, for the most part, into utopian fantasies and irrelevance. In Weber’s terms OWS activists chose completely the ethics of ultimate ends and fled responsibility, the articulation of the dreams over consequential actions. For me personally, the saddest manifestation of this was in the events of Occupy New School and its aftermath. Students and colleagues posturing to express themselves, to reveal their sober judgment of the realistic or their credentials as true radicals had little or nothing to do with the important ideas and actions of OWS, centered on the concerns of the 99% and the call for equality and a decent life for the 99%.

But my hope springs eternal. Perhaps with Obama’s new inauguration the protesters will get it.

A friend on my Facebook page summed up the problem. “It’s really difficult to be on the left of the current White House in the US nowadays.” Apparently hard, I think, because both easy full-throated opposition and full-throated support don’t make sense. Binary opposition is off the table. Struggles for public visibility of political concerns and consequential action are the order of the day. It’s difficult but far from impossible. Politicians will do their jobs, well or poorly, but so will social protesters. The key to successful protest, it seems to me, is that it responds to public opinion, pushing it forward, as it pushes forward politicians.

Take, for example, the problem of guns and gun violence in America today. Look at the recent demonstration in Washington, as depicted in Jo Freeman’s photos accompanying this text. I think of this demonstration as a case study of a sound answer to the classic question: “What is to be done?” Make visible and embody the progressive agenda, coordinate when possible with potential real change in public opinion and the laws of the land.

For a long time when it came to guns, there was a paradox. While most of the population favored reasonable gun control, those who opposed this were much more willing to vote on the issue, and they were well organized through the leadership of the National Rifle Association and its corporate patrons in the gun industry.

And things got worse. Slowly, this paradox shifted. Being more active, visible and consequential at the polls, gun advocates changed hearts and minds. The absence of serious opposition to their position (the Democrats, including Obama became all but silent on the issue of gun violence) let the pro gun position to prevail. Public opinion shifted from a concern about gun violence toward a concern about gun rights.

But now, there is a chance to turn the tide again. The President has played a leading role. Obama clearly is against the gun culture with its cult of violence. His forceful response to the Newtown massacre demonstrates this. Although he says he supports the individual’s gun rights and the Supreme Court’s recent reading of the Second Amendment, I, along with the NRA, have my doubts as to whether he is completely sincere about this. His is a political calculation, which the demonstrators don’t and shouldn’t accept.

But, nonetheless, the time seems right and Obama realizes that the nation was as shocked as he was by Newtown. He is clearly pushing to put gun control again on the agenda, now cleverly packaged as gun safety. He is calculating, political, searching to do the possible, and if he fails legislatively, he still seeks to push forward a change in public concern.

Of course, the push back was quick in coming. Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association spouted his convoluted fact free arguments almost immediately and continues doing so, “manhandling facts and logic” at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, as it was put in the Washington Post. Pro gun advocates are rallying nationwide. State legislators are even preparing state laws that would criminalize the enforcement of federal gun safety laws within their borders.

Clearly, meaningful gun control legislation is far from assured. The politicians must argue the issue, but the public demand for change of gun culture and gun violence is even more important. The demand must be visibly present, as in the D.C. demonstration, pushing in a progressive direction, supporting the politicians when they can, being critical when they must.

I imagine similar demonstrations in the coming months on immigration, drone warfare and on issues that assure that the promises of the Obama’s Inaugural Address are moved forward. Closing the gap between Obama’s words and his practice is not only his responsibility.

  • susanai

    One of your better articles, I agree with you about the left but they don’t seem to be harkening to your words.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    Thanks. Of course, it remains to be seen what the left will do. Let’s hope that a certain faction actually responds to the understandings and interests of the 99%, speaking to common sense and moving it in a progressive direction. I actually think this is a good time for such hope and action based upon it. Thus the remarkable successes on LGBT concerns and the concerns of immigrants.