Arts & Literature

Art in Paradise: The Tao of Tea

Northampton's Frances Crowe talks about the art of protest and plans for the anniversary of the bombing of Afghanistan.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Just when you think the art of protest has really lost its punch—not even the largest protest in history slowed the march to war in Iraq—along comes Frances Crowe. Crowe is Northampton's bastion of leftward protest, a war tax resister and an opponent of war who's witnessed every American conflict from World War II up to the current Gordian knots of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is a season of protest already, a period of relative calm following the march of inflamed Tea Party anger. Their sign-waving seems to have had little effect on the nation's take on health care reform, if current polling is to be believed. It did, however, crystallize a very particular brand of rightward angst, simultaneously revealing that many on the right are quite awkward in addressing unfamiliar feelings like angst.

The passion of the Tea Partiers, hopped up as they were on existential fears for the imminent passing of their comfortably un-communist way of life, opened a can of misguided drama. "Don't kill our grandmas," they demanded of a man who, not long ago, lost his beloved grandmother. No amount of fact-checking could answer their concerns. The protesters came to resemble the cast of some vast Ionesco play, the absurdity of their actions only eclipsed by the demonstrable falsehoods that fuelled them.

All that delirious melodrama got me thinking about the differences between protests of the left and right. Is it fair to say there's a different tenor to the protests of lefties? Are the conservatives holding signs like "We came unarmed—this time" unique to their end of the spectrum? Maybe not, an astute blog commenter recently pointed out to me: radicals on the left, after all, threatened violence 40 years ago with movements like the Weather Underground. So what about right now?

There is indeed a central difference between the Tea Partiers and the likes of Frances Crowe. The Tea Partiers sally forth in righteous indignation, clutching "Don't Tread on Me" flags because they believe they are victims. (And if Democrats, as they always seem to do, contort themselves into ridiculous positions to soothe the fevered misapprehensions of Glenn Beck's acolytes, it only confirms and calcifies the wrongheadedness, proliferating the right's sense of victimhood.)

But Frances Crowe? Protesters like her—old-school believers in the fundamental wrongness and ineffectiveness of armed conflict—are, by definition, up to something different. They march not to protest their own victimhood, but to point out the victimhood of others, to remedy a basic flaw in much of American drum-banging: the empathy gap. They march in the fond hope that their countrymen can finally understand the plight of victims of war, that innocent victims matter even when they don't speak English or when they profess a different religion, and that endorsing conflict diminishes us all.

Their street protests can seem quixotic in a world gone high-tech. But when Frances Crowe and friends take to the streets to protest the eighth anniversary of America's war inAfghanistan, Crowe's sheer decades-long persistence and ideological consistency matters. The war seemed, even to many on the left, necessary when it began. The poor handling of that war, fought primarily from the air and ineffective in capturing Osama bin Laden or doing more than inconveniencing the Taliban, has come home to roost. Support the war or not, America is merely the latest in a long list of invaders who have gotten bogged down in the mountainous desolation and ethnic patchwork of Afghanistan.

I recently spoke to Crowe about the upcoming actions around that war's anniversary, and she had some ideas about what's fuelling the angry brand of protest. "Don't you think that a lot of people are feeling anger that the rug is being pulled out from under them?—We can't still have the lifestyle we've had," she said. "Unless they're organizing to live more sustainably, they have no place to put their anger."

She does think the nature and effectiveness of protest has changed: "Recently, I thought I'd try to do something I used to do—I set up a table in front of Broadside [Bookshop in Northampton]. I was there for a couple of hours at noon—people just went by, and didn't look at my sign. I had to stand in front of them to hand them something before they noticed. People are so plugged into their cell phone or iPod they're kind of numb. Used to be that you could stand behind the table and people would come up and ask you about the issues," she said. "I think the dominant media has gotten total control of people's heads—all they think about is their own happiness, entertainment, shopping. Everybody wants to be comfortable and stylish."

And in the timeworn fashion of the left, Crowe seems intent on afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. She and fellow protesters from the Northampton Committee to Stop the War do that in part with actions like the "march of the dead": "We wear black and white masks and walk single file in silence followed by a drumbeat, a dirge, with just one sign: 'Mourn the dead—organize to stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.' Then we stand in front of the courthouse in silent vigil. We went to [Rep.] John Olver's house and did it. It was effective."

Crowe is clear about why we should oppose the war in Afghanistan. "I think it's all about access to oil and control of that part of the world. The talk about how we have to stop al Qaeda and the Taliban—I think our government wants bases to control that part of the world. The history of that country is that outside people cannot control that region. There are mountains, there are many different people[s], and a great deal of poverty."

You can join Frances Crowe and others in marking the anniversary of the conflict in Afghanistan this weekend. On Oct. 2, the Northampton Committee to Stop the War in Iraq hosts its Friday Night Film series at the Media Education Foundation in Northampton. On Oct. 4 at 1:30 p.m., Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, offers a talk entitled "How to Get Out of Iraq and Afghanistan" at Smith College's Neilson Library. The next day, protesters from Northampton will head to Washington D.C. for marching and civil disobedience. For more info: www.northamptoncommittee.org."

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