August 16, 2000
9:25 AM   Subscribe

Michael Lynch characterizes the D2KLA (or whatever they're calling it) protesters as idealistic and irrational. Also there's some interesting quotes and tactics discussion from the LAPD.
posted by dcehr (20 comments total)
Of course, there's always a kinder, gentler way of saying the same thing...

What skallas and others don't seem to realize is that the Lynches and the Kasses do actually remember the 60's and know enough of history to recognize that the Lowells-of-yesterday are living next door to the Lynches and the Kasses in the suburbs, working at white collar jobs and driving SUVs.
posted by m.polo at 10:15 AM on August 16, 2000

On a related note, here's an NPR report filed by some friends who were there to cover the DNC. Nothing like hearing about people you care for getting billy-clubbed for doing their job.
posted by RakDaddy at 10:25 AM on August 16, 2000

That Kass article is a good one. The thing about "kinder, gentler" is that it doesn't always get the point across. A good sharp rhetorical jab, I think, goes further in making an impression on those who are long on passion and short on rational objectivity. Consider this exhange, from Neal Pollack's account of the Philadlephia convention:

But the day before, he said, he had been to a health-care march that had really inspired him.

"It's just amazing to walk down to the commercial area and see people with their shopping bags staring at you," he said. "It's that kind of mentality that's screwed up health care."

"What kind of mentality?" I said.


"OK. But what does that have to do with health care?"

"I'm against for-profit managed care," he said.

"Well, Jesus, so am I. But what does that have to do with shopping?"

"It's all part of the system," he said.

Um, what?

posted by dcehr at 10:27 AM on August 16, 2000

Quite an insightful post, dcehr, especially in light of skallas' comment. You've certainly convinced me that there are some inarticulate protestors out there. How could I side with such blatant inarticulariocifity? I'll never challenge authority again!
posted by sudama at 11:09 AM on August 16, 2000

Sudama, try reading a little more carefully, a little less knee-jerky. What I take issue with isn't "inarticulariocifity" but rather the mindset (for lack of a better term) evident in non sequitur-laden vagueness like:

"the system" = "consumerism" = "screwy health care"

... or the jump from "I don't feel free" to "I have to work for rent money". I see the connection, but it's a little tenuous. Is he protesting the fact that he has to work?
posted by dcehr at 11:49 AM on August 16, 2000

dcehr, just because neither he nor you can articulate the connection doesn't mean it's not there. why don't you critique the arguments of the intelligible protestors instead?
posted by sudama at 1:36 PM on August 16, 2000

"Intelligible protestors"... "Military intelligence"... what was that called again...? Whine, whine, whine, whine, whine... Are you kids done? OK, now go get a job and shut up.
posted by m.polo at 1:42 PM on August 16, 2000

Oh dear, where to begin?

The fellow whom Neal Pollack interviewed gave an rough outline of his understanding of the problem of health care and its relationship with consumerism. I presume he didn't have time at that particular moment to issue a dissertation on the subject.

Well, here is an abstract. First let's define the terms used in the passage which dcehr quoted.

"Consumerism" is the idea that well-being is positively correlated with consumption (or the capacity to consume)

"The system" refers to the basic assumptions underlying current economic policy in the United States (and much of the rest of the world).

So let's start with "Consumerism". Consumerism, as defined, is a crisp, nonvague proposal, subject to empirical verification or falsification. In fact, it has been put to the test repeatedly over the last few decades, using a wide range of techniques -- from brain scans and measurements of neurotransmitter levels, to recognized survey methodologies. The results have been consistent from test to test: Beyond the threshold of absolute poverty, the correlation coefficient = zero. That is to say, Consumerism is false. Period.
Of course, this shouldn't be surprising -- in one form or another "Money doesn't buy happiness" has been platitude for at least two millennia. [This book collects and explains most of the important results on the subject of Well-Being, as of 1999]

Now, "the system" involves at least two assumptions, one concerning consumption and one concerning production. On the consumption end, the system includes the consumerist notion that a prominent goal of economic policy should be to maximize per-capita GDP. Roughly, the idea is that you can keep adding "units of utility" to infinity, thereby making people happier and happier forever - a metric according to which Americans of the near future might 100 times happier than they are today, simply in virtue of possessing more "stuff".

Sorry bub, but biology just doesn't work that way. In every organism there is a "set-point", around which the level of well-being will fluctuate from birth to death, provided a level of basic subsistence is maintained. The fluctuation is sensitive to several variables, such as level of satisfaction in social relationships, the feeling that one is doing something important, etc. Again, the "capacity to shop" is not one of those variables, and yet Western governments (and the World Bank etc) insist that this quantity should be maximized above virtually all else. Is that rational?

[By the way, I don't think it's a coincidence that corporations, who now exercise great political power, should be in favor of maximizing GDP, given that stock market returns are over the long term constrained by the rate of gross economic growth. (And it's a platitude that corporations are structured to maximize shareholder value)]

On the production end, "the system" assumes in effect that the Earth's essential resources are inexhaustible. This assumption is also demonstrably false. For example, oil is a nonrenewable resource, and the burning of oil causes destructive and nonreversible changes to the ecosystem, creating a situation doubly limiting to future production. Regardless, the US government has implemented *no* serious policy measures to eliminate destructive overproduction. Relative to ExxonMobil's profits last year, the amount spent on nonrenewable energy research is trivial. Is that rational?

Right, so what does this have to do with health care? As it happens, physical health turns out to be a very important variable in the well-being equation. Anyone familiar with the theory of natural selection will understand why. [Ill-health is positively correlated with premature death, which is negatively correlated with number of offspring. And of cource well-being is correlated with the criteria of Darwinian success; see Why we get sick]. As such, health care should be absolutely central to global economic policy, whereas "capacity to shop" can be safely ignored. Moreover, health care, unlike capacity to shop, is a finite quantity. I think that most people, upon reflection, understand this, which may be why there is such popular support for universal health care.

The important thing to remember is that there is an easy solution to all this. The Earth's resources are finite, but *so are human needs*. Any system that assumes the opposite (on both counts) needs to be dismantled -- on empirical grounds.

Regarding Michael Lynch, it's hard for me to do anything but laugh at his sloppy and lazy "reporting". Yes Michael, sneak into the air-conditioned Biltmore Hotel, where the police can "protect" you from the burden of serious thought. I spent a lot of time around Pershing Square on Monday and Tuesday, and I noticed lots of mainstream media folks clustered in a shady ghetto away from the action. The problem is there is no pressure from management to get this story right, so a lot of mainstream journalists are treating this week as a kind of vacation. At the Convergence Center, where I also spent a lot of time, I noticed only one event that attracted mainstream media people -- a Green Party press conference at which the brilliant Medea Bejamin spoke. They left half way through.

Of course, within this cesspool of irresponsibility, Reason magazine is rather an extreme case. With Virginia Postrel on the editorial board (a proud purveyer of irrational discourse), the journalistic standards there are highest I know of...

posted by johnb at 2:30 PM on August 16, 2000

The sentence above should read "the amount spent on *renewable* energy research is trivial"

M.polo, in your latest remark, you imply that rational people are disproportionately unemployed. If true, that might be a momentarily interesting piece of trivia, but you refuse to provide the relevant statistical evidence. Nothing personal, but it looks to me as if you are the lazy one...
Also, your use of the term "whining" to denote rational criticism is very revealing.
posted by johnb at 2:59 PM on August 16, 2000

I presume he didn't have time at that particular moment to issue a dissertation on the subject.

Evidently somebody did have the time. Is there an executive summary or something?

No, seriously, I think you're right. The gentleman no doubt lacked the time to potificate on his views. Maybe his goals (and the greater good, for that matter) would have been better served if he hadn't brought them up at all, or stated them differently. Wouldn't it be behoove the protesters to make certain their people are fully indoctrinated, so that they stay on-message, on a simple, easily-digestible message? Unfortunately, that's how the game is played; it seems to me that in the absence of something like that, the mainstream media is just going to focus on sensationalist stuff (such as Lynch's so-called "Black Block").

There's certainly an intelligently written body of discussion regarding the protests, what they're about, what's happening. But, for whatever reason, that's not what comes across. It seems to me that the good stuff is getting lost in the translation, and too often what most people see is muddle-headed and simplistic at best and early-twenties-angst-y or "happy hippy horseshit" at worst.
posted by dcehr at 3:34 PM on August 16, 2000

Wouldn't it be behoove the protesters to make certain their people are fully indoctrinated, so that they stay on-message, on a simple, easily-digestible message?

Perhaps, except that there seems to be no central organisation with the power to "indoctrinate". This isn't one big series of protests; this is hundreds, perhaps thousands of semi-related protests, which are all getting clumped up on the same times and places in order to share public attention.

At least, that's the way it looks from my cube.

posted by Mars Saxman at 4:50 PM on August 16, 2000

What we're seeing now in the corporate media is the kind of breathtaking degradation in information quality that one normally associates with a totalitarian regime. Instead of information, we find information pollution: an effort to undermine rational inquiry and replace it with an irrational and passive acceptance of the status quo. Here is an excerpt from an excellent essay by Phil Agre, UCLA professor of information studies:

"Rationality is ultimately about mental health: the kind of contact with reality that we can only maintain if we have good boundaries and a supportive community of similarly healthy people. To oppress people one must wound them, so that wounded patterns of thought are reproduced from one generation to the next.

Conservatism focuses attention on the transient pathologies that inevitably arise as people try to regain their sanity. It does not focus on that sanity itself, or the considerable progress that people have in fact achieved in recovering it. If we neglect the tidal wave of insanity that pours forth daily from the punditry then that progress will be lost. "

posted by johnb at 6:54 PM on August 16, 2000

Earth's resources aren't limited, what is limited is our knowledge to convert things into other things that we want. Tree-things into paper-things. Oil-things into little explosions to move us around. Also if anything human needs are not finite. They are most likely infinite. Physical needs such as food, water and air are finite. But our need for entertainment, new thoughts and ideas are not very limited in a lot of people. That appears to be the problem in societies that advocate the evils of consumerism. They feed you, clothe you but don't provide for your "spiritual needs".
posted by PaperCut at 8:19 PM on August 16, 2000

There's certainly an intelligently written body of discussion regarding the protests, what they're about, what's happening. But, for whatever reason, that's not what comes across. It seems to me that the good stuff is getting lost in the translation, and too often what most people see is muddle-headed and simplistic at best and early-twenties-angst-y or "happy hippy horseshit" at worst.

Dcehr, I think you've put your finger on the problem. But I don't think the solution is more "indoctrination". I think the solution is more democracy, not less -- in particular, a democratic rather than authoritarian media. I think new media outlets like the ones you linked to -- Monkeyfist and Indymedia -- are not only excellent sources of commentary, but also plausible future alternatives to corporate media. Even right now, in covering the new protest movement, Monkeyfist is vastly more interesting and reliable than, say, ABCNews. A radically decentralized and distributed media that rivals the corporate media in power and scope is not, in my opinion, a utopian fantasy. We could make it happen.

With regard to encouraging people to stay on message (whatever it happens to be) and to remember crisp soundbites, you have a good point. Lots of people in the movement are aware of the problem, and we're definitely working on it. As Mars pointed out, it's kind of hard to coordinate the activities of 10,000 people, organized into hundreds of autonomous affinity groups. Very few of these groups actually went through basic media training (whether at Ruckus or in LA). Basically nobody was excluded from the D2KLA alliance unless they endorsed property damage or violence (such as the so-called "black bloc", many of whom are teenagers who still have some "rebellion issues" to work out). In any case, what the media need to do -- as part of their duty to inform -- is identify the core activists who know what they are talking about, and distinguish them from the poseurs. After all, possession of a nose ring does not automatically make somebody an authority on global trade. This goes back to Sudama's point. *Of course* some individuals will be more articulate than others -- this applies to *any* large group of people. Imagine grabbing a person at random from some shopping mall in Nebraska, and asking them to explain the motivation behind current US economic policy. If the person is completely clueless, does this undermine US economic policy? No? -- then the same applies to those who tacitly *reject* rather than tacitly accept the status quo (people who hang around the Convergence Center vs. people who hang around the mall).
posted by johnb at 8:20 PM on August 16, 2000

I gotta admit, this is the most confusing thread I've yet read of MeFi. So I might as well add to it. :)

First of all, we've got to stop with the instantaneous dismissal of every writer and commentator that doesn't take your side by slamming their skills or claiming the place they were published is inherently "irrational" or "irresponsible." (How many people here automatically eat up everything FAIR writes as Gospel Truth while automatically laughing at and dismissing anything out of the MRC?) All it does is show that you're willing to demonize anyone that doesn't side with you out of hand, and makes it hard for others to believe you're really interested in any sort of informed debate.

Whatever Lynch and Pollack wrote is completely legitimate unless there's some reason they made up their interviews out of whole cloth, Stephen Glass-style. You may not like it, but the people they interviewed exist, and their lack of ability to coherently explain what they're fighting for highlights important points about the protest culture. Like it or not, some of the protesters are "crybabies" who don't have any particularly well-developed reasons why they're there. (Would you really have been as quick to similarly dismiss an article that contained an interview with one of the more wacked-out, ultra-right-wingers to be found hanging around the Philly convention?)

On to consumerism. And I have to admit you've kind of lost me there, johnb. Are you really claiming that one can physically measure an ideology's validity through medical tests? Besides, the way you've described it, it seems one can just as easily claim from the results you've given that it's not the belief in consumerism that is false, but rather the idea of consumerism itself. I'm hard-pressed to think of anyone I know that actually goes around thinking "I must buy lots of things or my existence will be incomplete." Most people simply don't think that way. They want things like family and friends more than a Lexus. So obviously it wouldn't be hard to "prove" that people are not phsyically affected by how well their lives correlate with an ideology they've never even thought of. I mean, how do we know what was in those shopping bags of the sheep seen by dcehr's quoted protester? Most of them probably contained standard day-to-day items: clothes, laundry detergent, food. The sorts of things people would be carrying around in shopping bags no matter what sort of a political system we lived under. Their stares of confusion cannot be automatically taken as proof of blind consumerism unless you're looking at them from an already set-in-stone viewpoint that they are sheep that Just Don't Get It. The likely explanation for their looks is that they honestly didn't have any idea what the protesters were doing.

And the further down you go, the less I can buy into the basic concepts you're putting forth. There's certainly a "System" out there, but I certainly don't believe they do what they do for the reasons you describe. Governments try to expand GNP because: a) Increased GNP leads to a better standard-of-living for its citizens across-the-board. If I'm making more money, I can live better all the way around. That means things like better housing and better health care (in that better economic situations lead to more R&D and then to better medicines, disease treatments, etc), not merely the ability to buy an HDTV set. And, more importantly for this debate, b) Because doing so benefits all and hurts none. Economics is not a zero-sum game; it literally is possible to create wealth out of nothing. (As PJ O'Rourke likes to say, "There is no fixed amount of wealth. That is, if you have too many slices of pizza, I don't have to eat the box. Your money does not cause my poverty ... True, at any given moment, there is only so much wealth to go around. But wealth is based on productivity [emphasis mine] ... Productivity is expandable.") This doesn't have anything to do with "consumerism." No productivity, and nobody gets anything. At all. And that people can shop is but a side effect of high productivity, and a side effect that itself adds to productivity. I'm not sure what a "set-point" has to do with this being bad. Do you really think it's bad for people to have a better standard of living? Do you think it would be better for all people to live on a subsistence level forever than to aim for a point where all people can live well?

WRT production, our resources are inexhaustible. Specific ones do have limits, but: 1) Those limits are nowhere near what we used to believe they were. In the '70s, many many people, even academics, really believed we would run out of oil before now. Then new sources were discovered, enough to carry us through the next couple of hundred years at least given our current usage levels and their expected levels of increased usage. 2) Levels of uses change. Human creativity is in high gear, and we've got more potential alternative fuel sources than ever. Look at, for example, how hybrid-fuel-source cars are actually about to be made in meaningful numbers. Look at all the potentials of solar, nuclear, hydrogen gas, etc. We're adapting, slowly but surely. And the only reason it's slowly now is because there's no immediate threat to us if we don't do it more quickly.

Health care. It is central to economic policy, even if you only care to look at it from the supposedly-selfish reasons that without adequate health care, productivity goes to hell, and because health care itself is a huge part of productivity and GNP. (The health care industry in the US is something like 15% of GNP.) There's also the extremely important reality that in order for any meaningful level of medical research to go on, or any decent level of health care at all, you need all that money and productivity stuff. Look at old Soviet health care, for example. It's just a simple fact that without all the selfishness of health care as it is (doctors able to get rich, drug companies able to get rich, etc), there won't be nearly enough of them to go around. And things like AIDS drugs would take far far longer to develop, if they were ever developed at all.

In short, I don't see where any of your points can even be made unless you really do go into it from the get-go assuming that consumerism exists, that all people subscribe to it in their hearts and that governments do as well, thinking that nothing matters but letting people shop. And even if you do start from that assumption, the rest of what you talk about doesn't really work the way you say it does, or for the reasons you say they do. IMHO.
posted by aaron at 12:02 AM on August 17, 2000

Earth's resources aren't limited, what is limited is our knowledge to convert things into other things that we want. Tree-things into paper-things. Oil-things into little explosions to move us around.

True, but I don't see how that affects the substance of what I was saying. Right now, the earth contains a finite supply, X units, of oil. There is no evidence that more than X units can be "created" on a practical scale, and there is no evidence that the damage to the earth caused by burning oil can be reversed on a practical scale. If such evidence existed, then oil would belong in the "renewable" category. But it doesn't.

Also if anything human needs are not finite. They are most likely infinite. Physical needs such as food, water and air are finite. But our need for entertainment, new thoughts and ideas are not very limited in a lot of people. That appears to be the problem in societies that advocate the evils of consumerism. They feed you, clothe you but don't provide for your "spiritual needs".

I'm not following you. Some people have a voracious appetite for food, others have ravenous intellectual curiosity, or are exceptionally "needy" lovers. This is perfectly compatible with the fact that you've only got so much dopamine to work with, i.e. there are limits to human euphoria and dejection. For example, once I have a certain amount of reading material available to me, say 300 million books, doubling that amount is not going to double my dopamine level, so to speak. It just doesn't work that way.

In any case, none of this really matters, because "spiritual" things like creativity, friendship, love and intellectual curiousity are renewable resources, and are not measured by GDP. It may be inconvenient for your theory, but people in Cuba love their families too.
posted by johnb at 12:44 AM on August 17, 2000

Johnb: great post on the media. What I would really love would be someone who could play the game, but had progressive ideas-- someone who could bring a nightly program that criticized our corporate, money-mad culture, but did so in a way that the corporate censors wouldn't notice. It's funny that just a few years ago, America was patting itself on the back because we could poke fun at our leaders and governmental system, but the Soviets couldn't. Of course in Soviet Russia I don't think there was a law against disparaging agribusiness. Anyway I'm totally rambling, not that that's inappropriate for this thread, but what I'm wishing for some form of popular entertainment to come along in a hidden form and wake people up! peace to the mother.
posted by chaz at 12:47 AM on August 17, 2000

Aaron, I'm saying the economic concept of "standard of living" needs to be reexamined in light of what has already been discovered by biologists and psychologists studying the structure of human happiness. Growth in the capacity to consume does not bring more happiness (unless you are dirt poor, in which case the money is spent on necessities like food); this result is well confirmed and yet it hasn't been assimilated by the designers of US economic policy. If you want something quick and easy-to-digest with roughly the same message, see this article from
...more tomorrow.

posted by johnb at 1:07 AM on August 17, 2000

Thanks, Chaz.... For some comic relief on the subject of consumerism, see Komar and Melamid. They are two Russian artists who during the Soviet Era made some hilariously subversive political art (check out the painting of Stalin with the naked maidens). Then they moved to the US, where they find precisely the same misinformation techniques employed by corporate propagandists (here we call it "advertising"). The site contains the "Most Wanted Painting in America" (and other countries), created using a standardized telephone survey...

posted by johnb at 1:29 AM on August 17, 2000

WRT production, our resources are inexhaustible.-aaron

Earth's resources aren't limited, what is limited is our knowledge to convert things into other things that we want.-papercut

Unfortuneately, the second law of thermodynamics guarentees a limit to the useability of all resources insofaras they require energy to be converted to useable things. This limit is beyond other forseeable limits to human existence but it is real. More immediate is the limit imposed by heat generated in the process of using resources and regenerating resources. This is the other side of the entropy coin. One could argue that ingenuity is all that is required to find the next source of useable energy but human physiology will not tolerate the heating up of our ecosystem for as long as our intelligence can come up with new ways to heat it up.
posted by plaino at 1:59 AM on August 17, 2000

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