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July 30, 2009

The Great Unwashed

By Spear's

On the whole, protesters are a grotty, disagreeable and uptight lot. But a world without protesters would be worse, says Vanessa Neumann


ure,’ I said. ‘Sounds like fun. It’s been a while since I’ve marched on City Hall.’ It had indeed. The last time I seized a microphone to rouse an angry crowd of protesters I was a fresher at university. Since then I’ve been involved in rather more genteel Unicef fundraising drives.

But there would be nothing genteel about the G20 demonstrations, as 30 minutes in we saw a man beaten to bleeding by the police only ten feet away from us, just before the police were overwhelmed by two converging angry human waves that made them flee for their safety up the steps of the Royal Exchange.

Although most of the protesters were middle-class, Guardian-reader types, the most vociferous ones were groups with whom I have little in common: those who scribbled ‘Feed the poor; eat the rich…. Mmm…Yum!’ on the walls of the Bank of England, Queers Against Capitalism, or the man dressed as a chef who claimed banks were led by cannibalistic reptilian aliens.

I became genuinely angry with the more violent fringe element when we were kettled, becoming squashed between the violent rioters and the three-deep cordon of police. I led an impassioned chant of ‘Let us out! Let us out!’ as we began to fear for our lives. That’s the problem with protesters of all sorts: you like the fact that they’re there and defend their right to protest, but you don’t actually want to be around them.

They are annoying: Greenpeace, with its pirate antics to save the whales, often crosses the activist line into the violent and obnoxious. Amnesty International, for whom I used to host letter-writing campaigns while at university, has long annoyed me with many of its naïve blanket complaints, and I wouldn’t really want many of their activists over for dinner, granola-munching, smelly Marxists that they often are.

Human Rights Watch is a constant bee in my bonnet. While I still support many of its causes and attend many of its meetings, I sometimes differ with its damning reports on South America as I find them misguided: too hard on the wrong people and often missing the point. Some of its reports are unrealistic and make me want to shout: ‘Why don’t you try living there and then see what you think, you naïve New Yorker utopianist!’

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To further complicate matters, these NGOs often have their own abstruse agenda. Some Colombians have told me they think the head of Human Rights Watch has a personal enmity for President Uribe and therefore it will never give him his due credit for bringing peace to a country that was teetering on the verge of failure and trapped in a near-civil war when he took office; instead HRW bombards him with accusations of human-rights abuses, while Colombians themselves are overwhelmingly grateful to Uribe.


ndeed, the agendas can be so complex as to constitute a social landmine. Greenpeace wants nuclear disarmament; Amnesty International an end to capital punishment. I remember one winter attending a private fundraising dinner for the Rainforest Alliance at the building right next to mine in New York and the gasps of horror that greeted me when I entered in my fur coat.

The Rainforest Alliance woman actually took me aside to explain that they were opposed to fur. ‘I thought we were here to save the rainforest, not the sable,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t realise you were the new Peta.’ I don’t think anyone spoke to me after that.

Nevertheless, dissent makes life better for all of us. It is thanks to Greenpeace’s antics that the French no longer detonate atomic bombs in the South Pacific, leaving the beautiful atolls to be tourist destinations — all in all a better result, though Queers Against Capitalism probably disagree. But then I’m sure Queers Against Capitalism are good for us too, somehow. And why not? After all, ‘dissentire’ means ‘to differ in sentiment’ in Latin, and all these groups force us to consider our world from a different perspective. 

The rub is that these activist groups place their standards unreasonably high, and that annoys us partly because it constantly highlights our shortcomings, the compromises we have made along the way that we once swore we would never make. 

In our age of financial crisis and the war on terror, we have become so frightened that we are inured to a little sacrifice of ideals. Even the most advanced democracies are willing to give up some due process, a few civil rights in the name of safety and security. And down the slippery slope we go.

What these fringe protesters offer us is a paradigm. The Greek word ‘paradeiknunai’ means to show side by side. They are the original measuring sticks, measuring where we are versus where we want to go, what we have versus what we want. Plato’s Republic is the ultimate tractatus on the political use of paradigms: the Forms are Truth, which we need to come to know through our philosopher king, and we should not be distracted by the Shadows of our daily experience. In reaching for the paradigmatic Forms, we strive for utopia.

But utopia, by definition and etymology, cannot exist; the word itself means ‘nowhere.’ That’s exactly why we need the dissenters, those of different sentiment: if we are on a road to nowhere, a little debate from all sides may not be a bad thing.

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