Keywords for the Age of Austerity 18.5: “Peaceful Protest”

An addendum to “protests descending into violence.” 

Last week on CNN, well-known failed Jeopardy contestant and professional journalist impersonator Wolf Blitzer imported activist Deray McKesson to stick to the script on respectable activism: “I just want to hear you say,” he nervously insisted, “that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests, in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

As Mychal Denzel Smith writes at The Nation, this idyll of a “peaceful” King is ahistorical, not only for reducing the entirety of civil-rights history to one of its leaders but in its misapprehension of King’s tactics. He writes, “the civil-rights movement was not successful because the quiet dignity of nonviolent protests appealed to the morality of the white public.” Rather, Smith argues, nonviolent protest tactics provoked white violence, embarrassing political elites at home and the country at large abroad, in a Cold War context where the United States purported to lead the “free world.” Given how much these historical circumstances have changed, Smith rightly asks whether tactics should not evolve as well.

Beyond this important point, the common terminology is also wrong: given the frequency with which “peaceful protest” is invoked as a phrase, you would think it had a long history in civil rights activism and in King’s own vocabulary. But a quick search of The King Center archives turns up only one result for the phrase: the “Albany Movement Statement,” a document that laid out the position of the 1962 Albany, GA campaign, in which King lent support to local NAACP and SNCC leaders. One of the movement’s demands was “the establishment of the right of peaceful protest under the First Amendment.” (“Peaceful protest” also appears once in Taylor Branch’s well-known history of the Civil Rights movement, Parting the Waters, also in reference to the Albany campaign.)

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The Albany Movement Statement, 7/1/62, via http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/albany-movement-statement#

On one of the rare occasions when King himself uses the phrase “peaceful protest,” as in his 1962 speech to the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union District 65 in Monticello, NY–also in reference to Albany–he invokes it almost ironically, to show the depths of reaction there in Georgia: the segregationists are so vicious they wouldn’t even allow that. “More than a thousand people have gone to jail,” he said of the Albany campaign, “merely because they want to be free, and engage in peaceful protest, in order to make that freedom possible.” In his own writings, King was much more likely to use the phrase “nonviolent direct action,” which was an expression of a tactic–nonviolence exercised provocatively–rather than a character trait or moral state, like “peaceful.” Indeed, “nonviolent demonstrations” were not at all peaceful, as he wrote in the introduction to 1963’s Why We Can’t Wait. On the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, writes King,

freedom had a dull ring, a mocking emptiness when, in their time–in the short life spans of this boy and girl–buses had stopped rolling in Montgomery; sit-inners were jailed and beaten; freedom riders were brutalized and murdered; dogs’ fangs were bared in Birmingham; and in Brooklyn, New York, there were certain kinds of construction jobs for whites only.

“Peace” is a much more ambiguous word than “nonviolent,” whose grammar lays out its ground rules and limited sphere fairly clearly. “Peace” can mean the absence of war, but when the Wolf Blitzers of the world say “peaceful” they are using it the way that parents, police and other authority figures use it: “peace and quiet,” for example, or “disturbing the peace.” To the degree that talking heads think about it at all, they are thinking of “peace” as the status quo that must not be upset.

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Keywords for the Age of Austerity 15.5: “Wellness” and the Anti-Vaxxers

In my post on “wellness,” I wrote about the concept’s origins in the countercultural currents of post-war California. Like the “maker” culture that caught on around the same time, and the Arts and Crafts movement even further back, “wellness” offered a broad social critique—in the case of US-based wellness, of the for-profit health care system—ungrounded in a broad social and economic movement. Therefore, it was easily co-opted by shady hucksters and insurance companies who could market its libertarian spirit. 

News reports of the measles outbreaks in Arizona and California reveal some overlap between the claims of wellness entrepreneurs and the arguments (such as they are) against vaccination. Two quotes from this New York Times article on the anti-vax response to the measles outbreak reflect the same fuzzy combination of a skeptical individualism and a resolute fixation on the self. The Times‘ reporters, Jack Healy and Michael Paulson, interviewed anti-vaccination parents in Lagunitas, CA, a town in the wealthy Marin County heartland of “wellness” ideology: 

Kelly McMenimen, a Lagunitas parent, said she “meditated on it a lot” before deciding not to vaccinate her son Tobias, 8, against even “deadly or deforming diseases.” She said she did not want “so many toxins” entering the slender body of a bright-eyed boy who loves math and geography.

Tobias has endured chickenpox and whooping cough, though Ms. McMenimen said the latter seemed more like a common cold. She considered a tetanus shot after he cut himself on a wire fence but decided against it: “He has such a strong immune system.”

As Ciel Lorenzen, a massage therapist, picked up her children, Rio, 10, and Athena, 7, at Lagunitas Elementary, she defended her choice to not vaccinate either of them, even as health and school officials urged a different course.

“It’s good to explore alternatives rather than go with the panic of everyone around you,” she said. “Vaccines don’t feel right for me and my family.”

Like wellness entrepreneurs, anti-vaccination believers like the parents above treat health as a purely individual matter (it’s not right “for me and my family,” says Ciel Lorenzen). They are fixated on the self as a private fortress to be secured from “toxins” and other interference (unless the “toxin” in question is, say, polio, in which case: let’s roll the dice). 

Relatedly, the language of “choice in anti-vaccination discourse reflects an insidiously entrepreneurial approach to health at odds with the public health argument for—and New Deal origins of—childhood vaccines: to give all children the freedom to live lives free of crippling diseases. California treats it that way, too, offering what it calls a “personal beliefs exemption” to parents who don’t want to participate in the public campaign against disease. Parents like Lorenzen seem to view the decision not to immunize as belonging to the same order as painting their house a loud color—something that might, at worst, offend the local homeowners’ association but is otherwise a private matter. 

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Finally, anti-vaccination inherits from wellness its mixture of skepticism (of health bureaucracies and credentialed experts, mostly) and credulousness (of self-proclaimed experts, mostly). I don’t know if one can call anti-vaxxers “anti-science,” since they are committed to “science” in theory and in their forms of argument. Nor would I just dismiss the parents above as simply stupid (although they may well be stupid). Anti-vaccination reflects a deeper political problem—the individualization of our obligations to one another and the commercialization of what should be our right to live free from preventable disease.