It used to be that every time I went to a meeting to figure out some action we could take to raise awareness about something or other, there would come what I called the “helicopter moment.” That was the moment when someone said, “It would be really great if we could charter a helicopter and” … parachute onto the field of the Super Bowl – land in front of City Hall during the mayoral inauguration – drop the ashes of people dead from AIDS ….
It was a flight of fancy, an expression of the wish we all shared that we could somehow break out of the mold of ritualistic protest people have gotten so good at ignoring. But I would always get irritated because people would spent more than a minute talking as if we could actually get a helicopter, and if we could, that we could actually do what we imagined with it. I was irritated because it distracted people from the discussion at hand, but also because it pointed up how difficult it is to interrupt the dominant conversation.
I was also irritated because you can get three, maybe four people in a helicopter, and there were generally at least ten of us in the meeting. The helicopter idea is that a few people with a grand gesture can make change, the modern version of Deus ex Machina, the ancient Greek method of quickly wrapping up a play by having the gods come in and fix everything. What we needed was not the helicopter ex machina, but the Movement ex machina, and that’s even harder to accomplish. If we could have gotten everyone on Market Street to form a helicopter with their bodies, that might have been something worth doing.
About fifteen years ago, the helicopter moment morphed into the hacker moment. Brainstorm long enough, and someone will say, “We should change their [the Corporation, the FBI, the Army, …] website so it says …” Or we dream of changing those electronic signs that run across the screen in BART stations (oh, how thrilled I am that I’ll be seeing those signs again, now that the BART strike is temporarily over) so the people looking up to see when their train is coming see “Support the Guantanamo Hunger Strikers” or whatever.
I still roll my eyes when those conversations start because one, we don’t know any hackers. The conversation will go on and on about what we’re going to do with their websites, and ultimately we are going to have to come back to the discussion of what we can really do and it’s not going to look as glamorous.
And two, if we did know hackers, we would go to them and say, “We want you to do this,” and then what? It wouldn’t be our action, it would be theirs. We would be replacing the joy of collective power with the smugness of being in the know. The goal would obviously not be to get the people who saw the message to join us – how could they? but simply to admire our (or actually our hacker friends’) skill and boldness. It’s the ultimate transformation of political action into a spectator sport.
That’s why Anonymous, which started out hacking BART’s website to protest a killing by BART police a few years ago, started calling demonstrations. And in fact, the demonstrations – which were not attended by that many people, actually – had a much bigger impact than the hacks. BART overreacted by shutting down train service and – gasp – even shut down cell phone access during the protests, which sparked more international outrage than the killing did.
We’re currently in a prolonged national hacker moment. It started with Wikileaks and Bradley Manning, now it’s Edward Snowden. These are brave and smart guys, and for sure, they have provoked discussion about issues like secrecy, surveillance and the legitimacy of whistleblowing, maybe even about targeting civilians and mistreatment of prisoners, though I haven’t heard nearly as much of that. Manning has certainly inspired activism here – the Bradley Manning contingent in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade was the biggest queer antimilitarist action we’ve had in decades. Julian Assange has rallied support in Europe, and no doubt Snowden will too wherever he lands.
The problem is not these guys and what they’ve done but the mythic stature being accorded to people who are in a very rarified position. The fascination with Edward Snowden’s mad dash across the world is understandable, but ultimately feeds the idea that only a few people with inside information have the ability to change anything, and the role of the rest of us is to cheer for them and wait for their next revelations. Young men like Snowden and Manning, whose quest for heroism led them to join the military and the security apparatus in the first place, now find heroism in bold acts of martyrdom. They become celebrities in a society already obsessed with celebrities.
I have been re-reading Emma Goldman's autobiography, Living My Life. After spending a year in prison for “inciting to riot,” in 1893-94, Goldman found on her release that she had become a celebrity. She writes, “I knew of the American craze for celebrities, especially the American woman’s hunt for anyone in the limelight, be it prize-fighter, baseball-player, matinee idol, wife-killer, or decrepit European aristocrat….Every day brought stacks of invitations to luncheons and dinners.”
Movements have always used celebrities, but they are not built by celebrities. What these young people, sadly, are missing is the experience of the movement AS THE CELEBRITY, of seeing that we, who have no unique skills or information, can make a splash simply by combining all of our ordinary talents and information. Look at the Egyptian people, out in the streets again. Most of us don't know one of their names, but we sure know the name Tahrir Square.
Snowden himself said, “the Obama administration is not afraid of whistleblowers like me, Bradley Manning or Thomas Drake. We are stateless, imprisoned, or powerless. No, the Obama administration is afraid of you. It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be.”
That’s a lovely sentiment, and it’s probably more or less true. Yet it casually combines two words that do not, in our era, go together. An “informed” public is not necessarily an “angry” public. Today, in fact, the more “informed” people are the more resigned they become. I've heard outrage in the press over the revelation about "PRISM" and the NSA's commandeering of phone records, but I haven't seen any expressions of public anger. In the wake of Snowden’s revelations, the pundits pun, the bloggers blog, but where are the activists?
Waiting for the next installment of “Where in the world is Edward Snowden”?