Political action and real vs. virtual worlds

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Discarnate is my fave among the many terms slung by Marshall McLuhan, who'd have turned 100 yesterday. It means, Philip Marchand wrote here, "almost literally bodiless." It originated long ago in occult circles: seances, messages from the dead. McLuhan himself passed on when the Internet was very young, but he sensed what was coming: virtual lives, lived mainly online. Today discarnate pretty much equals virtual.

Did this sense gnaw at Jonathan May-Bowles, a.k.a. Jonnie Marbles, sitting metres from Rupert Murdoch in Tuesday's parliamentary hearing, tweeting, "It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before #splat." Something happens when you're in the physical presence of the hitherto virtual. "I can't believe that's really Rob Ford," said a kid who saw our mayor marching in the Easter Passion parade on College St. "He's like a god!" By which he meant a flesh and blood person you could touch, if you dared. It's so tempting.

Virtual activity can empower: you connect and are known to vast numbers of people. But it also disempowers; you're not present in that fleshy, Rob or Rupert sense. Only a virtual you is known. Did Mr. Marbles want to break through to nonvirtual reality as he rose and smote real Rupert with a real pie? Was there personal redemption: I exist as concretely as you! In that case, not getting through and being smacked in the forehead by Rupert's wife, Wendi, may have been just as satisfying. He said later that he did it for all those who couldn't be present, but that sounds too noble and after the fact. Did "far better" (or "far far better" as Sidney Carton actually said in A Tale of Two Cities on his way to the guillotine) really mean far less virtual?

Take Tahrir Square in Cairo, to which pro-democracy protesters who successfully ousted the tyrant, Hosni Mubarak, last March, recently returned, demanding swifter progress. Reporter Anthony Shadid described its, ahem, "reincarnation": "Nour Ramadan painted Egyptian flags on tired faces. . . Musicians like Cairo Kee took the stage, giving way. . . to impromptu poetry, oud recitals, children's a cappella and Arabic rap that denounced American and Israeli policies in the same riff with calls for speedier trials. . ." It worked. After a long slowdown, they got fast action. Social media brought them out but their carnate presence had the impact.

Actual bodies, in large numbers, have often been politically effective: The Roman mob ("The will, the will, we will hear Caesar's will!"); le peuple storming the Bastille; the Arab "street." They're frequently treated with the contempt implied in terms like mob and street. Sidney Carton did his far far better thing to save an aristocrat from Parisian mob injustice. Yet those huge gatherings can be impressively well-behaved and courteous. People insist on others being heard or worry about the language used. It's in virtual settings that you more often find violent, vile outbursts. Why is that?

The relative or total anonymity, I suppose. You can rant online and savage others without anyone saying, There are kids present. Or, Show some respect. There may also be a point of diminishing returns in virtual activity. The response is virtual too, even if virulent; and you might have to keep upping the level of rage, sanctimony, etc., just to maintain your degree of satisfaction. It's what I picture Jonnie Marbles seeking relief from in his real, though symbolic, act. Whew. One wishes McLuhan were still around to uncomplicate some of this.

It's true virtual or indirect acts can be politically potent. Eric Reguly in the Globe mentioned "A group of European banks that own the battered debt of Greece" who put their demands "in a paper presented Monday to finance ministers of the euro zone." It would be nice if a group of unemployed Spaniards or underfed children could also present a paper to the ministers. They might as well put it in a bottle or leave it on a park bench. Inside the Greek parliament, they passed that brutal, pointless austerity package; but you know it wouldn't have had a chance if it had been sent to a vote in the packed square outside.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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