Crowds and politics and blogs
In a 2000 article in Representations, historian John Plotz gets to the heart of a matter that ought to hold the attention of the contemporary activist. Yesterday just saw another anti-war protest in Washington.
So are bodies in the street convincing? And whom do they convince of what?
British historians have long understood that crowd demonstrations in Britain met with extremely disparate political responses: occasionally effective, often splintered, often alienating public opinion altogether. And British historians have been trying to figure out why a protest can be so effective in one context, and just the opposite in another.
In 1839, the British Chartists were petitioning for universal suffrage, which would not become a political reality in England until the twentieth century. They published pamphlets, wrote petitions, and marched in the streets of Birmingham. According to the Chartists themselves, the turnout on the streets clearly indicated that the masses of England believed that deserved the vote.
What is visible in the streets, by this account, is only a representative tranche of what lies beyond: the threat is not so many thousand massed bodies, but so many millions of potential voters here signified corporeally.
That claim, however, was no more easily accepted by the mainstream Victorian press than by the middle and upper classes. The bodily presence of the crowd behind its peacable speech might seem -- depending on one's political perspective -- like the paternal rod sitting untouched in the corner when a child is asked politely to obey, or like the club brandished by a brigand asking for a handout on a deserted byway.
-- John Plotz, "Crowd Power: Chartism, Carlyle, and the Victorian Public Sphere," Representations 70, Spring 2000, p 87 ff.
For Plotz, as for Geoff Eley, the historian whose ideas he elaborates here, the nineteenth century saw the creation of vying kinds of speech-acts in public. In short, here the activist, there the expert, there the intellectual, there the aristocrat, each perceived as speaking with a specific kind of authority, to a specific kind of audience..
Activists need to think about how they present themselves, and to whom. We know that performance is disciplined by society: what American activists often forget is that actors can open up particular audiences to their meaning by working within a discipline.
I worry that in blogs, on the web in general, more so than the general media, progressive activists write for and read and cross-post one another. It is good to have our opinions in a public venue where they're accessible. But we risk losing our battle for the next hundred years, even like the Chartists of nineteenth-century Britain, if we don't pay attention to how our public acts are received.
Link: Canadian blogger Jeff Wells thinks that the Washington crowds are alienating their own majorities.
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