Catching More Flies With Honey

Right now The Usual Wingnuts are having a fit because President Obama shook hands with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. In other words, the President is behaving like a grownup, and we can’t have that!

What the wingnuts won’t tell you: “Obama drives Chavez out of limelight

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was greeted like a rock star by onlookers when he arrived at a 34-nation summit — but only because Barack Obama had slipped through a back door.

A short while later, a roomful of dignitaries from every nation in the Americas except Cuba met the U.S. president with thundering applause and a few whoops. Some stood up to clap.

No one else got as warm a reception, and Obama was repeatedly interrupted by applause as he promised an “equal partnership” with the region, including a bid to mend relations with Cuba.

Chavez didn’t speak at the opening ceremony and had to be content sitting quietly with the other leaders. It was a big change from the last Summit of the Americas in 2004, when he led the pack in defeating a hemispheric trade accord spearheaded by his nemesis, former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Though Chavez remains hugely popular among Latin American leftists, he has been considerably weakened by Bush’s departure and Obama’s arrival. He’s also less powerful because his oil-rich nation can’t simply buy as much good will now that oil prices have plunged.

“In the end, Chavez is a product of Bush,” said Marta Lagos, director of the Chile-based Latinobarometro polling firm. “Chavez would have never existed if Bush hadn’t opposed him the way he had.”

Can we just say that the wingnuts lack an appreciation of the power of good public relations, as opposed to throwing temper tantrums or behaving like your neighbor’s teenage brat who was never taught manners?

Along these same lines, I wanted to say one more thing about the tea parties — there is a debate on the Left about how seriously we should be taking the tea party “movement.” I do think it should be taken seriously as a potential cause of violence, but as a force that will turn the nation against President Obama — I don’t think so.

Awhile back, while we were debating the effectiveness or lack thereof of the antiwar protests, I took a look at mass demonstrations in history, noting which ones were effective and which ones weren’t, and formulated the “Bigger Asshole” rule: Effective demonstrations are those that make them look like bigger assholes than us.

It’s important to be clear how mass demonstrations “work.” Demonstrations should be viewed as a form of public relations. The point of them is to win public sympathy to your cause. They can also be tools for organizing, among other things. But demonstrations are a dangerous tool, because they can just as easily work against you as for you.

The really great mass protest movements — the prototypes are Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement — “worked” because the public at large sympathized with the protesters. The protesters behaved in a way that demonstrated they were worthy of respect, and the Powers Than Be they were protesting — whether redneck southern sheriffs or the British Empire — behaved like assholes.

On the other hand, a kid in a “Buck Fush” T-shirt screaming “No blood for oil!” over a megaphone for an hour and a half is just obnoxious. And don’t even get me started on the endless scatological references to “Dick” and “Bush,” the silly costumes, giant puppets, and often juvenile street theater that are standard features of leftie demonstrations and which broadcast the message “We are not serious; we are clowns in Clearasil.”

(Although I did like “Billionaires for Bush.” Humor is a good PR tool, when it’s really humorous.)

The true measure of “success” for the recent tea parties is not the number of people who turned up for them. (The final total may have been 300,000 nationwide, which does not impress me given the way Fox News pushed the parties. If there were a genuine groundswell of support for the “cause” I would have expected many more people than that.) The real measure is whether the tea parties gained public sympathy for the partiers. And from here I can’t see that they did.

If leftie demonstrators tend to come across as immature and unserious, I’d say the rightie demonstrators come across as frightening. They are dumb but sinister, like a beast defending its territory. I can’t imagine that someone who is not already inclined to think the way they think would have felt sympathy for them.

Update: See also Comments From Left Field.

Protesting 102

(Please note I’ve turned comment moderation on; the spam is back.)

Sara Robinson at Orcinus has written a lovely commentary on my old Protesting 101 post from 2005.

Unfortunately, several of Sara’s commenters don’t get it. I think they’re still caught up in the romance of being Outcasts and Rebels, and Speaking Truth to Power, and are not serious about taking and using power to effect change. A couple of random observations:

The point of a protest is not to change the minds of politicians but to gain public sympathy for a cause. It’s a change in public sympathy that eventually brings about changes in politics and policy. With this in mind, I cannot emphasize the Bigger Asshole rule enough. Protests are effective when the protesters make the people they are protesting look like bigger assholes than they are. Gandhi, for example, made the whole British Empire look like assholes. But when the protesters come across in public as a pack of assholes, the public will just write them off as, well, assholes, and usually will sympathize with the Powers That Be. This is not the effect protesters want to achieve.

There’s nothing magical about getting arrested as a form of protest. It’s fine to be willing to be arrested, but getting arrested in and of itself doesn’t mean anything. If you don’t have much in the way of public sympathy before you were arrested, then the arrest will have no significance. People will just think “good; they jailed the son of a bitch.”