As a piece of political theatre, the recent “feast” organized by OCAP (OntarioCoalition Against Poverty) in Toronto’s Yorkville seemed to offer anintriguing prospect. Handing out free meals to the poor and homeless smackin the middle of a bastion of bourgeois tastefulness was an obvious way todramatize the growing social divide in this city.
The event itself was relatively low-key by OCAP standards. A few hundredpeople gathered in a parkette, donated food was dishedout while a long list of speakers expounded on a rainbow of causes (thehomeless, immigrants, Natives, Palestinians, psychiatric patients), and thenit all wound up with a short, orderly march.
If the purpose was to make the well-heeled squirm, it wasn’t much of asuccess, from what I could gather. Of the Yorkville denizens who bothered topay attention, most seemed mildly amused, as if they were watching aspectacle arranged for their entertainment.
Mind you, I did pass by a couple of middle-aged men who were gesticulatingangrily at the crowd with their gelati spoons. “They’re like Mussolini, thatbunch.” Ironically, the protesters they were denouncing happened to besurrounded by a large phalanx of riot police, all dressed in black, whoreally did bear a striking resemblance to Mussolini’s blackshirts, bothvisually and in their menacing attitude. My gelati-eaters were only seeingwhat they wanted to see, a common side effect of having a lot of money.
But it was the OCAP side of the barricades I was really interested in, andthere, alas, you ran into a different sort of myopia. It’s in the speechesthat the problem is most evident. They’re always the weakest part of suchevents, as anyone who’s been to demonstrations like the recent ones againstthe war in Iraq can attest to.
Typically, you are treated to either a hectoring shrillness or a stupefyingdrone. There is little comic relief, the “artistic” touches (poems, music)are usually pretty dreadful, and overall the atmosphere is one of stridentearnestness. No one speaks to an audience, everyone speaks at it.
And predictably, the audience responds by not listening. In Yorkville, muchof the crowd seemed more interested in the food than the speeches. And ofthe millions of people who marched against the war, does anyone out therestill remember a single word of what they heard from the podium?
It’s hardly a mystery what the problem is. Every speech is an exercise inpreaching to the converted, which is why they are so boring. Theaudience already knows what’s going to be said even before the speaker begins.
Of course, in politics it is often necessary to repeat yourself, to broadcasta political message as widely as possible. But what is disturbing about suchrallies is the absence of any new insight or analysis, of anything thatchallenges what people already know before they show up to demonstrate.
About the only thing I learned from the seemingly endless parade of speakersat the OCAP “feast” was that the Tories are bad, the poor are gettingpoorer, the rich are getting richer, and that this is very unfair. But youwould have to be politically brain-dead not to know this already.
It was not always thus. The Left actually has a tradition of great,impassioned oratory. Names like Debs and Trotsky come to mind, but they wereonly the best known of a whole tribe of socialist firebrands who could holda crowd of thousands spellbound for hours. This was true even of the moremainstream, Christian socialist tradition, exemplified in Canada by J. S.Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas.
This wasn’t just a matter of some technical skill in speechifying. Crowdspaid rapt attention because they were hearing, not what they already knew,but what they needed to know — which is often a world of difference. Andthere are many accounts of the profound effect this had, how the wholecourse of people’s lives were changed by attending a socialist meeting orrally. That this rarely happens today is one measure of the political crisisof the contemporary Left.
We live in an age in which we are constantly being inundated withinformation, but where the gap between the superficial knowing of facts andgenuine political insight has never been wider. In other words, we know toomuch and understand too little.
This is a gap that should be central to the political discourse of the Left,but instead what you find is the Left largely suffering from the same culturalmalaise: hence, the preaching to the converted, which assumes that everybodyalready knows what the issues are. But if you strip that “knowing” away,what you find are layers of incoherence.
Sometimes this can be quite funny, unintentionally so, of course. At the OCAPrally, a woman from a Native youth movement finished her speech by declaringthat everyone who wasn’t Native was an occupier of Native land. Now, OCAPhas built its reputation largely on the fight against homelessness.
Presumably, then, the more it succeeds in finding people a home, the more itcontributes to the occupation of Native land. No one ponders such problemsbecause everyone “knows” that Native rights and homelessness are politicallyprogressive issues.
A more basic example is the demand to kick out the Tories, the marqueeslogan at the OCAP rally. For the Left of course, this is axiomatic:everyone “knows” this is right. And this is a wish that might well come truein the upcoming election. But what then?
Surely the radical activists who have rallied to movements like OCAP can’tseriously believe that either the Liberals or the NDP are going to make afundamental difference to eradicating social plagues like homelessness. So“Kick the Tories out” is not much more than a militant slogan masking anincoherent policy.
And to state the obvious, you cannot bring about radical change on the basisof incoherence, no matter how many people you have out marching. If it wereotherwise, then Iraq would never have been invaded.
The first step to genuine knowledge is figuring out what you don’t know. TheLeft is badly in need of a few “feasts” for the mind instead of the belly.