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February 3, 2006

Revival of the anti-war movement?

Many in the mainstream media have started to describe Cindy Sheehan's arrest at the State of the Union a revival of the anti-war movement. Having martyred herself with such visibility, Is she a "charismatic" leader for the anti-war movement? (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory?id=1563258)

Touraine and Historicity

Buechler makes reference to French sociologist Alain Touraine's theory of historicity: "the symbolic capacity of social actors to construct a system of knowledge and the technical tools that allow them to intervene in their own functioning, act upon themselves, and thereby produce society" (6). In Social Movements, Old and New: A Post-modernist Critique, Rajendra Singh deals extensively with Touraine's work on social movements. At this point, my sense is that Touraine's conceptual framework may prove productive as we struggle to answer the questions guiding our examination of social movements: most notably, how to theorize social movements and the conditions of possibility for social change given the ascendancy of diffusion? (Sorry, Kirt, if I butchered this).

I am planning to read some of Touraine's work in the upcoming weeks, focusing my attention on The Self-Production of Society where he theorizes the concept of historicity. If anyone else is interested in working through this material, I could make copies of particular selections; we could discuss the readings via the blog. Also, if anyone would like to take a look at Singh's work, let me know, and I will lend you my copy (it's very expensive). The book offers a slightly different narrative of social movement theory that the ones we've encountered thus far.

February 2, 2006

Social Movement Cohesion

One of the striking featurs of the Stewart text is the extent to which it mirrors the status of the American Left. Much in the way the Left exists on such an enormous continuum as to dilute more stable positions, the Stewart text covers so many movements by way of brief example as to render some of their conclusions rather bland. For instance, in their discussion of social movement strategies and tactics to achieve movement goals, Stewart et al. offer the relatively banal conclusion that "nearly all movements have 'radical' and 'moderate' factions and the differences are often more pronounced in tactics than in ideologies" (59). Fair enough. Stewart et al document this claim noting that the Southern Female Rights Union, the Sierra club, and various elements of the civil rights movement differed in their assessment of the viability of certain tactics. Again, fair enough.

Although I have begun with criticisms in concert with both Amy and Jessica's recent posts, I would like to attempt to begin some application of the Stewart text in order to demonstrate that the book should be judged both by the manner in which its arguments effectively correspond to actual social movements as well as by the extent to which their ideas serve a useful function for critics analyzing social movements. In fact, although some of the book is rather bland indeed, I am more than receptive to discussions of social movements or other broad rhetorical phenomena that paint in broad brush strokes and thus sacrifice thick descriptions of particular movements.

I'd like to pick up with my initial comment about the Left. Many scholars and pundits have made that claim that America has experienced so much of a rightward tilt in the last 30 years that the Left has become increasingly fragmented. The common claim is that the Left is divided over so many different issues as to compromise efforts at a singular voice. Cartoons featuring caricatures of Hillary, Bill, John, Al, Teddy, and others each shouting separate diatribes are standard features in the wake of the NSA probes and the Alito confirmation. John Stewart recently showed footage from a presumably Leftist protest that featured signs demanding abortion rights, whale protection legislation, an end to the war, and several other social and economic demands. Such pictures prompt spoofs like, "What do we want? An end to pro-life legislation, fair trade legislation, progressive taxation, a Middle East pullback, an end to nuclear testing, debt relief in Africa! When do we want it? Pretty darn soon!" Even the November 2, 2005 "walk out" at the U that was explicitly a protest against the war featured signs calling for an end to Coca-Cola's anti-revolutionary activities in Columbia, an end to global capitalism, etc. I think there was something about sea turtles in there but I can't be too sure because I got caught up in guessing how many of the event speakers could benefit from an 1101 public speaking class. How arrogant of me.

But this picture could describe the early stages of any movement. If one were to look back at the early conservative movement, various lines of fragmentation were clear. Even Barry Goldwater's campaign manager decided, a bit ironically, not to have William F. Buckley involved in the campaign because he was too far on the fringes of the Right. However, the Right's ability to coalesce in well-funded organizations, popularize through alternative media, and mobilize around a coherent vision has all but quashed once-substantial debates between Christian conservatives, neoconservatives, paleo-conservatives, libertarians, Southern Democrats. What was once a term wrought with fissures, "conservative" now presents a much more stable ideology.

Although there are multiple access points in the Stewart text to help explain this process of solidification, Stewart's discussion of devil creation was particularly insightful. For Stewart, such devils are "nebulous forces" that manifest themselves in people and in things. Nonetheless, here are some ideas that crystallize one of the Right's central cohesive efforts are, "Some social movements perceive their devils to be conspriring together in secret agreements to commit 'crimes' against the movement and therefore against 'the people.' The conspiracy may be real or merely imagined, but the process is the same; a chain of apparantly unrelated events or actions is linked to reveal concerted actions and intentions to cause all sorts of social, economic, political , religious, or moral problems." Outside of the language of conspiracy, Stewart has struck an interesting chord. I would submit that one of the most effective tools in the right's solidification has been the coalescence of its various segments around the enemy of big government. Big government at once can mean aggressive taxation and the oppression of religious expression. In other words, the nebulous enemy around which the right could mobilize, as Bush likes to say, "connects the dots" between seeminlgy unrelated actions. Furthermore, this enemy has been utilized by various conservative politicians toward different ends. Reagan's powerful statement against big government in his first inaugural does not share the same tenor of religiosity and aggressive nationalism that George Wallace's gubernatorial address did. Nonetheless, both invoked a powerful enemy in big government. As a result of their efforts at connecting the dots, even Clinton would have to declare the era of big government over in a statement he would later regret.

What is the link between Coca-cola in Columbia, abortion rights, Iraq, and saving the whales, you ask? Beats me. Nonetheless, part of the process of enemy creation is a process of issue selection. Whether or not this presents a forced choice between social and economic issues remains to be seen. However, Stewart and company have provided a useful idea in noting that enemy creation is related to connecting the dots between issues which is a central part of mobilizing successful and cohesive coalitional forces.

Questioning Methods of Studying Social Movements

Admittedly, the Stewart book has been more of a challenge to conquer than I initially thought because I am frustrated over the “method� of Stewart et al’s approach to social movements. It is telling that the title of the book is Persuasion and social movements, and the method does indicate that this book is not a study of social movements for their own sake, but seemingly a study of persuasion where social movement rhetoric just happens to be (conveniently perhaps) the object of study. Let me explain my argument and the limitations that I see apparent in this view of social movements, but before I begin let me acknowledge that I am generalizing the book as a whole and recognize some of my critique might be slightly unfair and obviously there are exceptions to everything that I am saying. That said, there are some highlights in the book and there are things that can be learned and should be retained for the study of our own movements, however, I do want to show that their approach has some important limitations that we should not leave unquestioned.

1. In looking at the bibliography (and assumingly the “sources� from which they use their inductive reasoning skills to create categories for their various chapter topics (does this seem like a social science qualitative study to anyone else?), it is clear that they pulled nearly all communication articles that remotely looked at “social movements.� Their “sample� then is mostly rhetorical criticism (analyzing texts/public addresses, etc.) which is looking at persuasion, arguments, interaction of members solely. This is problematic since what this book is really based upon is what social movements do with their rhetoric through what communication scholars perceive them doing through their analysis of the texts (kinda like basing a theory off of mostly secondary sources instead of primary texts?). This is not to say that the discourse and rhetoric of social movements is not worthy of study (and you can tell spots in the book where the authors are referencing their own work where they did look at the primary texts), but that it does limit us to what we can know of social movements when their discourse is treated the same as any other public address text. Yes, it is important for us to understand, for example, why obscenity can be effective and have impact (or limit a movement), but perhaps only in so far as we consider other contextual elements to that discourse or individual speech act. Arguably, the rhetoric and conditions that Stokely Carmichael was speaking in is not the same as a President of the United States.

2. Continuing from the first point, not every communication/rhetorical concept can be or perhaps should be applied to social movement texts. Again, perhaps this is my read, but the book itself (in places) does not come across as an organic version of what actually happens in social movements, but rather a specific movement example becomes a convenient place to evoke McGee’s ideograph or return for the 100th time to Gregg’s concept of ego-function. Surely, what is happening for the Gray Panthers is not the same as the Black Panthers just because we see some similarities in their songs or texts AND it happens to make a nice fit to give homage to some other communication theory. Not only are we missing the nuances of McGee, Gregg, etc. when they are casually mentioned in the text, but again, it limits our “movements� to only being validated when we can attach a communication scholar to their work.

3. This approach is unsatisfying for me (if this is not apparent) because I think that social movements are more than the sum of their discourse (esp. if “discourse� is limited to the texts, songs, talk, and actions). Although we do get a hint that social movements might be more complex than an argument in some chapters (Chp. 14 with Resisting Social Movements for example), a majority of the book remains in categorizing the arguments and text. It does not indicate relations of power, the individuals themselves (their rhetorical choices are probably a function of life experiences just as much as “strategy�), or the outcome the movement might actually intend with their action. Again, the categories of Stewart et al assume that all social movement rhetoric should be for some progressive goal of the group, that it can function either for protesters’ ego, for legitimacy of the movement, to ask for action or to vilify or frame their opposition—and conveniently songs, obscenity, and arguments all can do this. In trying to maintain and privilege the type of discourse, we lose a lot of who gets to speak, why they are speaking in this way, and what situational factors have conspired to bring this about. For example, can we understand the songs of slaves only as “requesting action� when the reasons for song to be the chosen method was for 1) safety, 2) norm for the community to sing while working anyway, and 3) a means to communicate when most were not literate (and songs would be easy to remember than verbal directions anyway?). Surely we can make more generalization with the appropriations of such songs in the present (with a free, literate, physically unthreatened protest group), but how can Stewart et al casually lump the songs of slaves and the IWW (who were also working against a working force of immigrants which didn’t all speak the same language), with the educated and financially more secure Gray Panthers?

As a means to sum up: I think that the method of Stewart et al is problematic because it tries to simplify and make generalizations of social movements using studies based (mostly) in the rhetorical criticism of some social movement texts. Social movements, for me, should be considered more individually since they are more complex and each movement does work within the constraints of its own actors, issues, and the social institutions they are working against. Although movements should be and can be compared to one another (esp. if there is appropriation of tactics or recognition that members of one movement overlap or start other movements), we should not assume that all movements can, should, or do use the same strategies for the same reasons (which is somewhat implied in this book). We lose some of this complexity with Stewart et al’s assessment and method.

What should be retained for me, however, is that we do need to look at the arguments made, the songs and other non-argument discourse that makes up the movement (yes, the movement as a whole should be seen as a communicative and persuasive act), and should recognize the movement for its structure, leadership, and its various members and discourses. We should not be misled or satisfied, however, to allow social movements to be simplified into categories. In “learning� from this book, I think it is valuable to be asking all the questions of things left unsaid when our only means of understanding a social movement is through analysis of one text, song, or argument.

February 1, 2006

Social Movement Leadership

How is it we are defining leadership in social movments? Stewart, Smith and Denton provide characteristics that leaders must posses (contagious curiosity, irreverence, imagination, a sense of humor, and an organized personality (108)). For me, these characteristics narow the scope of who can be considered a leader to an unfortunate level. If we accept the characteristics outlined by the authors of our text, we seem to negate the role of those individuals who do not serve as figure-heads within a movement.

In addition to those who deliver addresses, lead protests, and become a point around which others rally, there are those who work in the shadows of these individuals to shape both the message and actions of the movement. To focus solely on those figures who publicly deliver the message of the movement because their training, natural ability, social position, etc. makes them a better candidate for the position than others, removes an entire area focus from social movement scholarship. For example, while particular names are escaping me at the moment, within scholarship on the women's rights movement there is suggestion that individuals, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did not write the entirety of their addresses, that in fact others (such as Susan B. Antony) sometimes crafted Stanton's message. In this example, Susan B. Antony is an acknowledged figure in her own right, but what of movements where this is not the case.

I am most concerned with Stewart, Smith, and Denton's claim that a leader must possess an organized personality. In practice it seems as though the organization of a movement does not rely solely on the recognized leader, but occurs instead outside of the public view and often at the hands of an individual whose face is not a symbol of the message.

I recognize that studying individuals who lead from behind the scenes presents an intereting challenge to those who are interested in the subject. Does this seem like an important area of study or an area that should at least be acknowledge in scoail movement scholarship? Or does a narrow defintion of leader as presented in our text serve the purpose of those interested in these kind of studies? If this is an area scholars should acknowledge, how would one go about studying the role of "behind-the-scene" leaders?

The Death of Coretta Scott King

The news media are buzzing with stories about the passing of Coretta Scott King. In 2003, Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan and John Warner, Republican from Virginia, introduced legislation to award the congressional medal of honor to Ms. King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Levin's press release for the event contained the following description. . . .

Mrs. Correta Scott King [sic] joined her husband in his lifework and has continued his legacy to this day. Like Dr. King, Mrs. King was a leader in our country's civil rights movement, striving through nonviolent means to promote social change and attain full civil rights for African-Americans and other discriminated people. Mrs. King worked to preserve Dr. King's memory and ideals by, among other things, developing and building the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, establishing the "Freedom Concerts" organization to increase awareness of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and leading a campaign to recognize Dr. King's birthday as a national holiday. Mrs. King's continuing contributions to our nation also merit her receipt of this award.

I can't help but wonder how being the steward of "Dr. King's memory and ideals" created both opportunities and problems for Ms. Coretta Scott King. I don't doubt that for those who knew her and were changed by her direct advocacy for civil rights, she had an identity distinct from her husband. (We must at least assume that they knew how to spell her first name). But what about the rest of the nation? Can we imagine Coreta Scott King without the "Mrs." in front of her name? Should the answer to that question bother us?

I also wonder if her public struggles with King's memory and advocacy don't shed light on the struggles of the post-King Civil Rights Movement, generally. The details of her advocacy since 1968 might tell us a great deal about how the modern black civil rights movement is both constrained and empowered by the haunting specter of Dr. King.