Commentary — August 26, 2008, 11:42 am

Clowns

A drama from Fox News. The scene: the Pepsi Center, site of the Democratic National Convention, last Sunday afternoon.

Fox News Reporter Griff Jenkins: (Wading into crowd of protestors) What’s your message? What are you upset about?

Masked Protestor 1: I’m upset about everything.

Masked Protestor 2: Fuck corporate media!

Griff Jenkins: (Aside) Well, I guess they don’t believe in freedom of speech. Let’s just work this crowd and see who we can talk to.

Griff Jenkins: (Reading sign) Defend Denver. Explain that to me. What does that mean?

Man in Sunglasses: I’m not going to talk to you.

Griff Jenkins: What’s that?

Man in Sunglasses: I said I’m not going to talk to you.

Griff Jenkins: Do you believe in freedom of speech?

Junior Melendez: End the war!

Griff Jenkins: What’s your name? Come here! What’s your name?

Junior Melendez: My name is Junior Melendez and fuck war!

Griff Jenkins: Come on, that isn’t necessary! If you have a message . . .

Voice Offstage: Fuck you!

Griff Jenkins: (Continuing) If you have a message . . . Do you have an actual message without cursing? What’s your message?

Man with Goatee: Stop the torture. Stop the war.

Griff Jenkins: Stop the torture. Stop the war. Do you not believe in freedom? Do you not believe . . .

All, Except Jenkins: Fuck Fox News! Fuck Fox News! Fuck Fox News!

(Curtain)

These sorts of dramas happen all the time, of course. The Griff Jenkinses put on their make-up and taunt the candidates or the protestors or the guys-just-like-you into some kind of broadcast-quality entertainment and that’s the business.

This particular moment is worth noting, though, because the protestors, organized by a group called Recreate 1968, seem to have decided that playing along with the clown act is not conducive to their own clearly stated goals. (“Stop the torture. Stop the war.”)

They don’t offer the majestic dignity of other clown-show resistors, say from the era of civil rights resistance. But they do bring a rare contempt into play, which is its own form of dignity, one that must perhaps precede the calmer varieties.

The Recreate 68 organizers note on their web site that they do not aim to recreate the police riot that took place at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. What they aim to recreate, rather, is a time when Americans forced their leaders, by way of protest and grassroots organization, to live up to their democratic rhetoric: “That in 2008 the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for president are an African American man and a woman—something unimaginable at the start of the sixties—is a direct result of the changes brought about in that decade.” Which seems indisputable, no matter how much the sixties themselves are portrayed now as a clown show.

The first step toward that kind of participation, in fact, is to stop pretending politics is a clown show. That is a media conceit, after all, and one that is fairly easy to undermine.

In 1967, for instance, a proto-Griff named Alan Burke invited the activist/prankster Peter Berg on to his talk show to explain his message to the folks at home. Instead, Berg decided to bring the viewers themselves into the drama. He had a plant in the audience, armed with a clownish pie, and when another audience member got up to ask “what young people stood for these days,” he creamed that questioning innocent square in the face.

Having broken one version of the fourth wall, Berg then tried to break another. He began a lecture about the unreal nature of television itself, about the need for direct engagement. (This was nearly a decade before Network had come out.) “This is how you get out of the box,” he said. “You stand up—and you at home can join me in this—stand up, and start walking to get out of the box. Now here I go now. Just keep the camera on me and I’ll keep walking.” He walked to the studio exit, opened the door, and looked into the camera. Then he said, “Now turn off your television sets and go to bed,” and walked out the door.

This may have been pretentious. In fact it was pretentious. But most attempts at dignity are pretentious, until they succeed.

An editorial note: The story about Peter Berg is from Todd Gitlin’s definitive history, The Sixties. And for the next week, Todd, who knows much about dignified protest and other topics as well, will be writing occasional dispatches from Denver for Harpers.org, for which we thank him.

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