Category Archives: Shorter Works

On Protesters

Decrying the civil disobedience of others is the mistake of a hypocrite. We always reserve the right to ourselves in case something disturbs us enough to move off the sofa, but we demand order if we feel our worldview threatened, let alone our property.

We rain disdain on the strikes by autoworkers in the first half of the last century. And we forget completely the anger that led to the Wisconsin dairy strike of 1933. We measure all protests against the civil rights movement as if anything less than segregation and slavery is beneath humanity’s notice. We draw parallels between the Boston Tea Party and the modern Tea Party demonstrations as if they are matching bookends to American history.  Lest we forget, Henry David Thoreau, American heartthrob for all political stripes, captured an important part of the national character when naming his treatise “Civil Disobedience.”

In short, when we decry the people in the streets, we insist on ignoring how much public protest is in our country’s DNA.

Let’s think about this logically

No matter how you interpret the Constitution, change was integral to the government outlined. Written at a time when power was granted for life and passed on to children, the Founding Fathers made sure our government passed through periodic upheaval. No matter what, our government changes every two years. You can never step in the same Congress twice. In practical terms, it is organized chaos (or chaos with bureaucracy, if you will).

We all love the U.S. Constitution, whether you’re a strict originalist or a living documenter. The text matters. The difference of opinion is how much can be read into it. Sure, both sides twist interpretations to suit their own ends, but let’s start where we all claim to start. The First Amendment reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”

Whether you or I feel it’s appropriate to march outside and wave signs about a particular issue does not enter into the discussion. My lack of interest or sheer laziness does not count for squat. In fact, we’d all be a bit better off if the worst thing we did was look up and say something like, “Hey, look, those people have assembled and are protesting. I can’t read their sign… Oh, all right. I guess that’s a thing. I agree/disagree. Yay for our Constitution.”

Surely, not all protests are peaceable

If we are not there, then we can hardly say just how peaceful the event was. The harm done by the Boston police strike of 1919 was still being argued over a decade later with some claiming chaos ruled while others pointing out that it had hardly seemed necessary to call out the state guard.

It would be naive to suggest that people do not get hurt or property damaged when large groups gather, but that reservation only leads to a debate about what makes a moral protest (which is no more insane than arguing about the moral justification of war, so have at it).

Also, politicians complaining about protesters from outside their district seems somewhat disingenuous if the politician in question accepts donations from beyond those boundaries. If campaign donations are protected as free speech (see Citizens United), then certainly speech is.

Protests occur at the confluence of outrage, planning, and publicity

If you take away the outrage by addressing peoples’ concerns, then you nip the protest in the bud. Eliminate the means to communicate the outrage and you destroy the community necessary for the protest.  Remove the planners and you have a riot.

The surest means for addressing the outrage is considered thought and openness about decisions. Think back on any protest. Un-redressed wrongs inspire outrage. Whether or not you or I perceive the same wrongs, the injured parties feel as though those in authority have ignored their concerns. Protests are never the first choice of the outraged. An acceptable resolution is always preferable. That’s where true politicians, the masters of compromise, should enter the negotiations. (We cannot claim that negotiations have not begun. They started the moment that the powers that be took action on an issue, if not before even then.)

Even flash mobs do not materialize out of nowhere- it only feels that way. Planning is essential to a protest. When someone says, “Didn’t anyone plan this?” what they really mean is “This should have been planned better.” Organization is the distinction between a riot and a protest march. Once again, organization is in the eye of the beholder. Gathering around a bonfire can appear beautiful or terrifying depending on the details.

What if they gave a protest and nobody ever heard about it? If you protest something and the people causing the harm don’t know, then… is that more an outdoor party? Arguably, this is the part where we all get our shorts in a bind. News reaches us that “those people” are complaining about “that thing” and behaving like asses. This is corollary to any message getting out there. We often forget that every protest has two sides: the protesters and the establishment. By definition, if you are protesting, then you feel disenfranchised. The establishment spin-doctors enter the fray and try to manage the negotiation for public consumption, portraying the disenfranchised in a negative way.

Do protests accomplish anything?

If the protest organizers succeed at defining their movement with a concise slogan, then they stand a much better chance of accomplishing their ends. Give [fill in the blank] the vote! Occupy Wall Street! Discrete goals can be accomplished.

Moreover, prepare for the long haul, whether you’re a participant or an observer. Demonstrable long-term support as part of an overall strategy defines a movement and places a single protest within the spectrum of necessary actions. Think of the civil rights movement.

Perhaps this raises the specter of revolution. In practice, modern protests in democratic nations look more like anti-revolutions. Members of our societies have generally bought into the potential for good from their form of government. They demand notice and change in policy, not in structure.

If you’re still not clear on the need for public protests with which you might disagree, you need to watch this documentary about the Hillsborough tragedy. Note the part where the government for years portrayed the victims as hooligans responsible for their own deaths. After watching it, tell me that you don’t want to go out and get in someone’s face. Remind me that you will never have reason to protest because you and yours are completely invulnerable.

Are there any interesting examples to consider from abroad?

If only we could find another place where Europeans appeared and went through the process of forming their own government based on models that they learned about back home. An interesting exception might be if the country in question had laws on the book to prohibit the freedom to assemble. Spin the wheel and it comes up: Australia in 1891! Think of every other historic workers’ union action that you have ever heard about and this pretty much fits with those. Sometimes, the authorities used private militia (like the Pinkertons), but those in power called out the army to end the 1891 Australian shearers’ strike. They arrested the leaders of the strike under an old law that prohibited group assembly, essentially quashing the movement by putting its leaders in jail for years.

Full disclosure- this led to the 1894 Australian shearers’ strike, a more violent affair. After all, the reality is a superficial solution that moves the real issue to a later time for addressing. We endorse suppression because it grants a temporary solution. This is not to suggest that truth, flowers and peace can replace difficult negotiation.  Violence creates the appearance of resolution just as shouting at your opponent creates the appearance of winning an argument. Overreaction is present emotion overcoming rational thought, including reasonable weighing of alternatives to determine what is in everyone’s best interest.

You’re overreacting

Overreacting is where we get counter-protests, the right of those arriving late to the party. Once we have two sides in the streets then we have the necessary publicity cycle to generate topics we can debate around the nation’s water coolers. That’s a negotiation, of sorts.

Perhaps, counter-protests result in nothing more than offering clarity to the other side. Consider that the shutdown of Westboro Baptist demonstrations appears to be done with a weird sort of esprit de corps on both sides.  Suddenly, we have something newsworthy with more people to interview. (Lest we forget, reporters interview participants until they receive something quotable. You don’t get broadcast time or column inches because your interviewee sounded reasonable.)

What is your breaking point?

When have you had enough? Do you need to be one of the Guildford Four or the Maguire Seven? We have the lines that we would like to think we would hold and then there are the real lines. We will never agree or act on the same affronts.

The armchair quarterback response to any protest is that “those people” are overreacting. “They” don’t understand the way the world works. If they did, then they would know: 1) they aren’t going to succeed at changing anything; 2) they are doing their cause more harm than good; and 3) they are simply wrong in their opinion. Reports of violence associated with the protests justify any condemnation that we can make from the comfort of our own homes.

Ultimately, if we are right about either of the first two, then so what? They fail in their efforts. We should allow their ideas to flop on the shoals of progress. On the third point, then we can go ahead and disagree. We can argue their points from a basis in fact, either invest effort or remain passive.

We condemn the protests for not living up to the mythical standards of the movements led by Martin Luther King and Mahatmas Gandhi. Any effort at making the world a better place should be condemned for not matching the legends of the past.

We carry visions of progress through peace- flawless men who never said a false word or hurt a feeling as they changed the world for the better. We must condemn anyone who creates a spectacle.  But there we are wrong. We must not condemn their methods because then we are supporting silence, the ultimate goal of tyrants. We may disagree vehemently, but must argue stridently for the right to argue both sides with facts.

Here is the heart of the problem

Protest is subjective and we want it to be objective.  Our founding fathers recognized that democracy was the struggle of subjective viewpoints to arrive at a common objective purpose. They never foresaw all the various ways that those subjective perceptions could be manipulated, but they hoped that human nature would grow and improve with time. That’s not to claim they expected us to resolve all problems without dispute and argument, merely that our collective wisdom would move us closer and closer to paradise.

What we are really afraid of is that protests will accomplish change for the worse. Then we are going to have to get off our asses and go protest the change. It’s a never-ending cycle. How do we break the cycle? We don’t. The world constantly changes, creating new issues and demanding new solutions. People are going to get angry as we fumble our way forward.

Which leads to another thing- protests are the kettle whistle of democracy. They let people blow off steam instead of boiling over.

Here’s where you should be scared

Let’s look at a different part of the Bill of Rights. The Second Amendment ensures the individual right to keep and bear arms.  A popular trope in defense of this right has been a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.” Unfortunately, Jefferson never wrote or said that. Even so, it provides a nice summary of this lengthier conservative article.

So, let’s parse this concept in a direction that we might not like. We need guns in order to resist the tyranny of our government. So, tyranny? One person thinks it’s when the government is trying to take the guns and another thinks it’s when the government is trying to dictate whom they can marry.  One thinks it’s when the government seizes property for a new airport and another thinks it’s when the government stops them from building a hotel because of a butterfly.

Let’s just say the government has behaved in some provocative ways. Do we go straight for our guns? Are there some intermediary steps before we grab the old S&W? Perhaps the court system? What if the court tosses the case out for lack of standing? Is it time yet to go for the guns?

I’m thinking that we want people to protest without the guns first. I don’t like the idea of taking away intermediary steps. That’s how you end up with tragedies and complicated messages. Violence subsumes the cause even as it creates the illusion of progress.

But people will escalate

We must not fall into the trap of assuming the protesters have reached a state of last resort. If we back people into a corner, then we must remember there are more of them than we think. If we convince people that their best recourse is violence, then they will resort to it, no matter how much they have decried violence in the past.

Escalation, of course, carries the fear of reprisal by those in power. For those worried about potential retaliation against protesters as they foresee the horrors possible if totalitarian restrictions are imposed on the right to assemble, the path to redressing those wrongs has remained unchanged for decades. The horrible truth is that we have never stopped fighting to maintain our rights in the face of those who would take them from us.

We cannot fear a vile response to a behavior as the reason to avoid the behavior. That’s blaming the victim of oppression for provoking the oppression. Those who feel their rights have been impinged seek their day in court. We proudly tell patriotic stories how our courts have fixed the wrongs forced on minorities by the tyranny of the majority. No doubt we engage in fantasy after the fact as to the ease with which such victories were obtained.


We try to dis-empower protests by attacking legitimate complaints as arising purely from emotion. Our modern society is adept at emotional manipulation through PR tactics, much more so than substantive solutions. Those who claim the role of problem solvers must provide solutions that address root causes and not emotional appeals to political subgroups.

“The important thing is to stand on the side of those who are sad, because they’ve lost something – and even if they have lost nothing. I believe you and I are doing the same thing in this regard. We stand with them and that should be enough for us now, as a sign of our shared attempts to figure things out. Love, Krzysztof. We stand with them. You and I stand with the sad ones.”
-Krzysztof Kieslowski writing to Hanna Krall

In the Eighties When Preston Got Sick and Sophie Died

Preston looked like he’d been up half the night coughing with yellowed eyes and drooping skin. “I want to write something.” He filled the kitchen doorway with the comforter clutched around his body. He dragged half the blanket along behind him and settled into one of our godawful chairs. I don’t know how it supported him and the blanket without racing away from beneath him.

I was a little hurt. “What do you want to write about?”

“I need to write about Sophie…”

“You’re the talker. I’m the writer. You talk and I’ll write it down.” He had been sick for almost a week. “You look like shit. And you smell like it too. Maybe you could take a shower today?”

Preston smiled. “Yea, I ran into Derek in the hallway and he turned kind of pale when I passed him.”

Derek was pissed that I had let Preston crash in my room for so long. Four of us had taken the house last fall and now there were seven of us living in it. Derek was the only one not sharing a bedroom. I don’t know what Stacy or Frank did with their guests, but Preston sure as hell hadn’t offered anything toward my rent. He still had his apartment over in Somerville anyway. He’d just been crashing with me since he’d gotten sick at Sophie’s potluck memorial dinner.

“You heard from anybody else?” Preston asked the same question every morning. He wasn’t the only one sick after the potluck and some of them were lingering too.

I shrugged in response as I had every morning. I was fine, so I knew it was just bad luck. “You want some hot tea or something?”

Preston nodded. “You know I really loved Sophie.”

Honestly, I always felt a little weird about how much Preston loved Sophie. She was my dog after all. But she seemed to like him better. Sophie was how we met. Preston had family near that house in Arlington and I ran into him a couple times while walking Sophie. I liked this little cemetery in the center of town. It dated back to Revolutionary times, like just about everything else around Boston, but it was right there in my neighborhood. So, I liked taking Sophie there and Preston apparently dug spending time with the long dead when he needed a break from his family.

We got to talking and ending up hanging out some. He was even more into the Celtics than me, though McHale was his guy, while I knew the world revolved around Bird. We must have watched every game together that season, weeping together at the end- fucking Lakers.

The absolute worst thing about that loss was it happened on the same day of Sophie’s vet appointment- fucking vets. She had a tumor and they could operate, but it wasn’t going to change much other than break my bank account. My heart was going to break anyway.

The thing about dogs and cancer is that it happens fast. Or maybe we only find out when it’s so late anyway that it just seems to happen fast. Really, I just know that it happened fast with Sophie. She stopped eating a month later and a couple days later she stopped moving from her spot in the kitchen. Derek was the only one of my roommates to give me shit about it, but Preston had a word with him. By that time, Preston was stopping by every day for a few hours. In the end, he was sitting on that tiled floor with me and Sophie for a few hours every evening. She’d dig her tan and gray snout into my belly, turning my shirt dark with snot and mist. I missed enough work that I was worried about making rent, especially when I caught a cold. We tried to get Sophie to share our beer in case it would help, but she wouldn’t eat or drink anything anymore. We sat there, with Sophie wheezing and me sneezing.

That last night, Preston had gone home and I had fallen asleep beside Sophie on the floor. She was big enough to be a good pillow for me, but I was afraid to put any weight on her. I woke to her shuddering. That was it- three shakes and she was gone.

I called Preston and he had to catch a cab because his car was a piece of shit, but I hadn’t the willpower to do anything anymore. Preston cast a long shadow in the kitchen when he arrived. “What are you going to do now?”

“I don’t know,” and that was that. I started crying and making noises that I didn’t know I could make.

After I ran down a bit, Preston went to the sink, soaked a towel in cold water, and handed it to me. “Wipe your face. You know, we ought to bury her.” He crouched down beside Sophie and me. “Don’t you think?” He had this way of talking where he tilted his head back and you looked right up his nostrils. I wondered if I looked hard enough whether I might see his thoughts forming.

I nodded my agreement without fully thinking through the implications. The house didn’t have much of a yard, so I had no idea what Preston might be planning. Moreover, Preston thought we ought to have a wake. He got on the phone making calls. I couldn’t get myself off the floor or even move Sophie’s fore paws off my thigh.

“Are you ready?” Preston was back in my face, dragging a cardboard box from somewhere.

I wiped my face with the back of my hand while Preston slid Sophie off me. She weighed less than I expected. He carried the box. I don’t think that I could have taken those first steps with that burden. The setting sun blinded us as we headed west toward the cemetery. I demanded the box from Preston. Bordered by main streets, we had to cross five lanes of traffic to get to the stone wall that marked the edges of the old burial ground. I kept expecting a police car to screech to a halt beside us and demand an explanation as well as a look inside the box. The authorities did not approve of our kind hanging out anywhere back then.

The wall was irregular stone and collapsed in places. The crypts were in no better condition, some askew enough to be open. Preston had always talked about exploring one of them and he led me straight for the corner, out of sight of the street. I could see the dark maw ahead and I dragged my feet though I didn’t slow down. As we got closer, I imagined heaving the box through the hole and running back to the house in a fit of hysteria.

Except Preston stopped about eight feet away from the opening, which was too far for me to throw Sophie. “This one still has steps.” I knew what he meant, but only managed a vision of us stumbling down the stairs in a tangle of limbs and embarrassment. “We can try to close the door after we leave her.” Preston stood between me and the crypt, haloed by the setting sun, reaching out for poor, dead Sophie. I will never forget Sophie on that kitchen floor or Preston in that last glow of an unbidden day. Maybe that’s not how they want to be remembered.

I think we helped each other down the steps. As we went deeper, it smelled more and more of wet and of green. We crouched and moved slowly in the darkness. I don’t really know what touched us along the walls, as close as they were, but it was definitely old death. Even in the coolness, sweat broke out all over me.

“Are you frightened?” Asked Preston. “Don’t you see that this is a good place down here? Sophie will be all right here.” He began lowering the box and I went down with him onto that soft, moist blackness. “Goodbye, Sophie. You were a good dog.”

I had not even felt the tears start, but they came in a torrent. “Best dog ever,” I screeched from somewhere deep inside that I had not wanted touched. The mud seeped into my knees.

I followed Preston to the surface and we tried to close the crypt door, but only managed to move it an inch before we had embedded it even deeper in the ground. Preston began walking away, but I couldn’t get back on my feet. I tore handfuls of blooming dandelions from the ground cover and began tossing them into the darkness of the hole until I felt a hand on my shoulder. Preston had come back for me.

My runny nose seemed to worsen as we stumbled back to the house, but I still made the chili for the potluck. I didn’t know half the people that Preston had invited, but they came. I spent most of the night watching him from the easy chair where I was planted. People took turns comforting me until only Preston was left. He slept on the sofa beside the easy chair and woke up with that damned cough the next morning. And for six more mornings.

“So, what do you want to write about Sophie?”

“I don’t know. You write it.”

I looked at him wondering what this was about. He stared out the kitchen window, so I bent over the pad of paper.

Before I could scratch the first letter, he grabbed my hand. “Just make sure they know she had some good days and some bad days. She was a good dog.”

“Best dog ever,” I said.


Woof, Woof, Woof, Meow, Meow, Meow

Where, oh, where did people get the idea that animals can sing?  We’re not talking about birdsong here or even the mournful yodel of the coyote.  This is not about the sounds of nature with all their bizarre effluvia, from whale song to chittering grasshoppers.  If it floats your boat to buy from those soundscape kiosks that always seem to be waiting innocently enough until some poor unsuspecting passer-by triggers their sensor, then please pursue your need.  And, let me point out for the unenlightened, Alvin and his fellow chipmunks were not really chipmunks.  We can leave it to your imagination how the vocal effect was achieved, but castrati were not employed according to an official Capitol representative.  I’m talking the Singing Dogs, the Jingle Cats, and whatever other heinous animals feel moved to semi-melodious vocalizing.

The original Singing Dogs (Caesar, King, Pearl, and Dolly- Pussy rounded out the group on later recordings) started in Copenhagen in 1955 when Danish sound engineer Carl Weismann spliced together tapes which had been ruined by nearby dogs barking.  Eureka!  I have created… Jingle Bells!  Bwa-ha-ha-ha!  The recording was a huge hit for RCA/Victor, managing to resurface periodically and sell again to the next generation of entranced listeners.  As if people will listen to any heavily altered animal sounds, the Singing Dogs have had to face many attempts to knock them from their pedestal.

The Jingle Cats have lately ruled the den, selling a disturbing two million copies worldwide. Mike Spalla, musician and owner of nineteen cats, decided to record his freeloaders.  Binky is the lead.  We have their success (and our own dollars) to thank for the emergence of the Jingle Dogs, spawned from their cameos on Jingle Cats recordings.  Their newest album, King of the Woof, will be out in 2006.  May Santa’s reindeer leave something special on your roof next Christmas if you buy it.

December, 2005