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Jewish World Review April 19, 2000 / 14 Nissan, 5760

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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Consumer Reports



Imitation Activism -- THE WEATHER in Washington was dismal on Monday, raw and chilly with a driving rain under skies that never brightened beyond slate. Ah, it did my heart good. Thinking, in the comfort of my office, of how miserable--how wet, how cold, how thoroughly, splendidly wretched--must be the tens of thousands of magenta-haired nose-ringers who, in their great crusade to stop the world's finance ministers from doing lunch, had taken a hard-pressed police department away from its long, losing battle to protect the city's poor from the city's predators, I felt toasty and happy and at one with a just world.

Children--you over there dropping your Gap trousers in front of the Gap store to protest Gap labor policies, and you, protest organizer Mary Bull with the plastic foam tree on your head--may I mention a few things? (1) Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery; it is the sincerest form of imitation. (2) That whole thing your parents did back then--you know, the revolution in the streets, the trashing of the dean's office, the purposely shocking sartorial and tonsorial styles, the stoned grooving to bad pretentious music, the nakedness and the love-ins--well, it was pretty stupid the first time around. An awful lot of it was just about getting wasted and getting together with young women with perfect noses and ironed blond hair; the rest was about getting even with daddy and mommy, for his crime of making money and her sin of keeping house. (3) Your dad at least had a compelling reason for, like, trashing The System, man; he was trying to do his bit to stop the war in Vietnam before his second college deferment ran out and the government, like, hauled him out of Yale and sent him off to Vietnam to get himself all shot up, as if he were the son of a plumber or something. In terms of antagonizing large policemen with clubs, this, boys and girls, was a cause on an order of magnitude different from saving sea turtles.

Actually, kids, not to be rude about it, but it must by now have occurred to the swifter among you that you don't possess anything that can coherently be called a cause. I quote from an admirably restrained Associated Press dispatch concerning the arrest on Monday of some 500 to 600 demonstrators "by police obliging their wish to be taken into custody."

"The demonstrators blame the global lenders for problems from environmental damage to sweatshop labor. But they came for causes ranging far beyond those complaints: for animal rights, against nuclear weapons, for District of Columbia statehood, against sending Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba, for more AIDS research. . . . What they wanted seemed to depend on who was chanting loudest.

" 'What do we want?' a young woman called. 'Justice,' the crowd replied. A few minutes later, the street crowd was singing the anthem of the civil rights movement, 'We Shall Overcome.' Then a debt forgiveness chant."

"Then a debt forgiveness chant." On Aug. 28, 1963, when I was 6 years old, I stood with my mother and my sister Kate on the sidewalk in front of my parents' house at 404 Constitution Ave. on Capitol Hill, and we watched a quarter of a million people walk by, on their way to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his oddly soft roar, speak the words that would break Jim Crow. It was a boiling day, and the marchers, who were formally dressed, the men in suits and often hats and the women in dresses and, often, gloves, suffered. Our mother had made great amounts of lemonade, and we stood on the sidewalk and ladled out cups of the stuff from a big metal pot in which floated a big block of ice, to the men and women who walked solemnly and magnificently by, singing "We Shall Overcome," which they did not follow with a chant on debt forgiveness.

As an adolescent during the Vietnam War years, I came to admiringly see myself as passionately anti-war (although I couldn't have told you what the war was about). But even as I demonstrated, and tried to get myself a little bit tear-gassed and mildly arrested, I vaguely knew there was something awful in the presumption of we young white privileged things, who filled the Mall in the years after King's marchers had gone, that we occupied anything like the same moral plane.

How much more awful is this, now, a generational imitation of a generational imitation of a form of politics that was once reserved for matters of life and death--and is now reserved for that space between spring break and summer vacation, and between the last body-piercing and the first IPO.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


04/12/00: Why they hate Bubba
04/05/00: Census and nonesense
03/29/00: The Stiffs and Their Statuettes
03/15/00: Anarchy in Kosovo
03/08/00: Reform joke
03/01/00:The Pinhead Factor
03/01/00: The Christian Right: Past Its Prime . . .
02/24/00: McCain's Majority
02/16/00: Sharpton's Supplicants
02/09/00: The GOP Pilgrims' Sad Tale
02/02/00: Fodder For the GOP
01/26/00: Million-Dollar Mediocrity
01/19/00: Campaign Reform: Let's Pretend
01/12/00: Never Again? Oh, Never Mind
01/05/00: Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In
12/22/99: Gore's TV Gambit
12/15/99: Campaigns Do Clarify
12/08/99: Kosovo's Killers
12/01/99: Not Ready for Prime Time?
11/24/99: The Company He Keeps
11/17/99: Republican Illusion
11/10/99: The Know-Nothing Media
11/03/99: Necessary Partisanship
10/27/99: Buchanan's Gift to George W. Bush
10/21/99: Who are the real friends of the poor?
10/14/99: Gore's 'courage'!?
10/08/99: Republican Stunts
09/23/99: Buchanan's folly
09/16/99: Beatty and Buchanan: That's Entertainment!
09/09/99: Puerto Rico Surprise (Cont'd)
09/02/99: Puerto Rico Surprise
08/12/99:The Age of No Class
08/05/99: Assessing Welfare Reform
07/29/99: On the Wrong Side
07/21/99: Mass Sentimentality
07/15/99: Blame Hillary
07/08/99: Guide to the Arts: For Your Summer Reading . . .
06/30/99: A Perfectly Clintonian Doctrine
06/25/99:Smorgasbord by the Sea
06/16/99: A National Calamity
06/09/99: Stumbling Forward
06/02/99: Commencement '90s-Style
05/26/99: Will we ever learn? Clintochio is a lying ...
05/19/99: Comforting Milosevic
05/13/99: Short-Order Strategists
05/06/99: Four Revolting Spectacles

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