Protesting: Not just Tailgating for Hippies?
For all the technological progress made during the last century, protesting today still involves doing exactly what people did a hundred years ago: marching, chanting, and waving (mainly) handmade signs. Some take the solidarity with their forefathers even further by also sleeping in tents and showering infrequently.
For many people, their first encounter with protests is in university. There demonstrations are predominately the domain of hippies and radicals, for whom protesting is what tailgating and parties are for more sports-minded and social students.
Most students are already too busy with the work-social balance to spend time demonstrating. If something does upset them, they first turn to the multiple channels available to seek redress, such as through student officials. Protests are for the rare occasion when those other avenues fail. Radicals, on the other hand, look for any excuse to hoist the banners first.
The same is true in the adult world. Most people are already too overburdened with work (or trying to find work), their families, and their social lives (if they're lucky). In democracies there are multiple ways to make your voice heard, whether through petitions, letters to the editor, blogging, or the ballot box, and this is where most who feel marginalized turn first.
Of course holding a rally when those avenues fail, and helping to push otherwise inattentive or unresponsive politicians in the right direction, is important and is a practice as old as America itself. Protests across states, for example, helped ensure that the Bill of Rights was passed, and in the last 50 years protest movements helped facilitate important social changes, like civil rights.
Today's "Occupy Wall Street" isn't in that league. Not least because it's difficult to know what they stand for (or rather don't stand for) – protesters seem to be against everything from corporations to wars to global warming. And they certainly haven't exhausted the political system.
The movement has tried to link itself to the recent protests across the Arab world (the so-called Arab Spring). But that's a faulty comparison. People there demonstrated (or more accurately: revolted) because they had no other way of removing their oppressive regimes. In fact they risked their lives (and many were lost) for the freedoms that the Occupy Wall Street protesters already enjoy.
Those on the Arab streets demanded free and fair elections. In the U.S. it's almost always election season, and there is real choice – the already vitriolic nature of the presidential contest shows the real, differing choices on offer. And if the establishment candidate always won, Republicans would be attacking Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama.
Rare is the protest movement that doesn't show some hypocrisy. Among the rightwing Tea Party demonstrators were some old-timers defending their entitlements while decrying socialism, and at leftwing union rallies decrying fat cat CEOs you can spot union bosses earning six figure salaries. It's similarly amusing to see Occupy Wall Street protesters tweeting on their IPhones while denouncing big corporations (Apple isn't a small fruit company).