THERE IS A MOMENT two-thirds of the way into Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, his novelistic account of the 1967 anti–Vietnam War protest in Washington, DC, when the author, penned into a holding cell with other arrested demonstrators, turns to a debate underway on the cell floor. Walter Teague, a DC area activist, is addressing fellow detainees within view of Mailer’s bunk bed. Next to Mailer lies a young Noam Chomsky, “a slim sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity.”
Teague was now arguing that the entire assembly, rally, March and attempted investiture of the Pentagon had been wrong from beginning to end, too ambitious in its promises, too timid in its execution, too mingled in its forces, too amorphous in its lack of control, too compromised in its collaboration with the government.
It wasn’t that Mailer had settled on a final judgment of his own. Earlier on in the book he describes the protest, one of a number organized across the United States that same weekend in October 1967, with the war at its height, as “an ambiguous event whose essential value or absurdity may not be established for ten or twenty years, or indeed ever.” There had been direct action — the occupation of public spaces, clashes with US marshals — and there had been theater: the spectacle of Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, and The Fugs attempting to “levitate” and exorcize the Pentagon of all evils by encircling it and chanting ancient Aramaic rites. Concrete demands melded with symbolic gesturing, all toward uncertain ends. But Mailer, who writes the book in the third person, took issue with Teague’s simplifications:
Everything Teague said was probably true, and yet the indictment was too easy — it had all the hard firm impact of all the sound-as-brickwork-logic of the next step — [Mailer] had heard Communists and Trotskyists expatiating on social problems and social actions for years with just this same militant, precise, executive command in analyzing the situation, the same compelling sense of structure, same satisfying almost happy dissection and mastication of the bones and tendons of the problem before them.
It was by chance that I’d picked up the book as protests around the climate crisis — Extinction Rebellion, the school strikes — spread in the United Kingdom and Europe, and that same question of logic and purpose came to dominate conversations around it. This was a movement whose initial vanguard had been teenagers and twentysomethings mobilizing around the lone defiance of a 15-year-old Swedish girl. Their method was civil disobedience — the blocking of city thoroughfares, the cuffing of hands to railings — and whose eventual goal was to force resistant parties of all stripes to radically alter their policies and habits around consumption and waste.
But some argued that, like the Occupy movement that came before, it had no clear plan, and that it suffered from the same weakness in structure, lack of centralized control, and vagueness in communicating its strategy that the 1967 March had come under fire for. Others dismissed it outright as the pet project of an adolescent rabble. The London protestors were “incompetent, middle class, self-indulgent people” who used tactics of “fascistic disruption,” a Sky News presenter told a protest leader live on air, before adding: “I just simply do not understand what you think you’re achieving.”
As Mailer wrote it, Walter Teague had grown vexed at how scattered and shapeless the 1967 protest, both its factions and its ideas, had been. Mailer however suspected there to be strategy within the apparent discordancy and thought Teague too quick in his judgment. Mightn’t the lack of a clearly defined leadership around which disparate groups could coalesce be a necessary tactic, given the violent security presence that would seek out and target leaders? And what exactly would a tightly structured protest movement with narrowly defined goals have over a looser coalition of groups and agendas, especially when the desired endpoint of the march was always going to be greater than the initial statement of intent allowed for?
Protests are never single-agenda, even when they purport to be; by attracting disparate interest groups, they diffuse any “sound-as-brickwork” imperative, and in the process, function as vehicles for ignored or sidelined issues — ones that may only be indirectly related to the central focus — to be inserted into a collective decision-making process. They animate politics from outside of the established political system, and they produce outcomes that can materialize in forms quite different to the demands made on the day.
The Armies of the Night, published a year on from the March, is a masterful — and for its time, stylistically unique — commentary on the mood of a war-weary US citizenry, the curious art of protest, and the dance between authority and dissent. But while Mailer may have captured a spectacle in US political history quite unlike any seen before or since — and in doing so produced a defining work of 20th-century journalism — his reading of the events, and in particular its subtext, still resonates. For all his proximity to the protest core, Mailer, like the poet Robert Lowell and other luminaries of the American intellectual world who attended the march, felt themselves to be a generation apart, and emotionally distanced, from the younger demonstrators that had energized it. “A generation of the American young had come along different from five previous generations of the middle class” — a generation who, Mailer wrote with a hint of envy, “had no respect whatsoever for the unassailable logic of the next step.”
That generational divide over the question of how best to “do” political action hasn’t gone away. Critics of agitational politics tend to see it as a plaything of the young — futile and ultimately counterproductive — and the amorphousness of many contemporary movements, not least Occupy and Extinction Rebellion, as symptomatic of an intellectual naïveté among organizers and participants. Its advocates in turn respond that the very methods now attracting skepticism are a direct product of the failures of civil discourse to bring about needed radical change. If no direct line between the concerned and the powerful exists, so it goes, then better to create a disruptive, theatrical spectacle for the media — as today’s young climate protestors, and yesterday’s Hoffmans and Ginsbergs, have done — and then harness the greater attention that brings to generate the popular energy needed to really pressure for legislative change.
I contacted Noam Chomsky soon after finishing The Armies of the Night, curious as to his thoughts on the legacy of the march vis-à-vis contemporary movements, as well as Mailer’s depiction of it, and of Mailer himself. “Despite the reputation for egoism that Mailer deliberately constructed, in reality he could be quite different,” Chomsky wrote back. “[He] doesn’t describe it in his book, but he walked up and stood next to Teague, gently ridiculing what he was calling for.”
Walter Teague came from a position on the left that saw tightly organized militant action as the only viable show in town, and, foreshadowing criticism of popular protests today, berated the young activists in the cell for lacking the clarity and wherewithal to organize themselves into a single-directional force. Chomsky continued:
Of course the goals were nebulous and there was no fixed program. In Boston where I was — a liberal city — it had been almost impossible to organize public protests because they were broken up by violence. And though no one formulated it, the “logic” was clear: bring the horrible crimes to an end. And the effects were powerful. It was a major factor in energizing what finally became a major and highly significant movement against the war, with no central committee but lots of organized and effective activities of many kinds.
The 1967 march had fed off a cultural shift within liberal America toward an acknowledgment that high-visibility acts of defiance were legitimate tools of the disenfranchised when other avenues to power were closed. It operated in the fraught space opened by the Civil Rights movement, whose direct action — occupations, marches, the freedom rides — had become materially and mentally disruptive for the government. So too did it channel energy from, and return it to, the free speech activists on the West Coast, whose warnings of the perils of open debate in a supposedly democratic United States were being given weight by police crackdowns on sit-ins and public discussions. The protestors of 1967 drew their intellectual drive and creativity from what had come before, and sought to embed the fruits of that shift — a more engaged public, a government aware of growing discontent — deeper within the American political system. It wasn’t just about Vietnam, just as prior movements had not been only about free speech or black enfranchisement. Underpinning every show of dissent was a drive to delegitimize, and thereby diminish, the superiority and purposeful detachment that an elite, political or otherwise, exercises over the citizenry.
The climate protests are of course about our climate. But there are other matters stirring in the wings — mass public engagement in a time of deeply cynical politicking; the harnessing of media toward progressive ends; the sensitizing of government; an energized youth — that will evade those who reflexively turn their nose up at political spectacle, or who look only for a direct line between action and result, the “sound-as-brickwork” logic. “[I]f the March did more or less succeed, one knew it would be as a result of episodes one had never anticipated,” Mailer had written, “and the results might lead you in directions altogether unforeseen.”
Banner image: “London November 23 2018 (19) Extinction Rebellion Protest Tower Hill” by David Holt is licensed under CC BY 2.0.