On Thursday, the devil – to some – descended upon Montreal. George W. Bush graced us with his presence at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel for $400 per head for a thousand guests. No members of the press were formally invited.
Outside, protesters had gathered waving signs that read “Fuck (my) Bush,” “George Bush=War Criminal,” and “Don’t Duck.” Riot police arrested five people.
I was offered a free ticket. Here was my opportunity to see the man who symbolized everything my political education had taught me to despise. I can hear it all – the lies, the proselytizing, the mispronunciations – from the horse’s mouth.
Yet the question remained in the back of my mind: was I in some way corroborating his legacy by sitting calmly in his presence?
Some would argue yes. There was no yelling or shoe-throwing. Most people laughed at his jokes. There was no uproar when he shat all over democratic accountability: “I didn’t care about the polls; they didn’t matter a damn bit.” If there was adversity in the room, he was only made to feel it minimally. And now, he is laughing all the way to the bank.
Outside, crowds were cheering as his effigy burned. The protestors could not be accused on any level of “participating.”
This divide in action is emblematic of a larger debate that our generation is grappling with: what is the best route for effecting political action? Mobilizing in the street might seem like the most obvious answer – it is visible, it is democratic, and it doesn’t compromise those involved.
Nevertheless, people our age are largely disenchanted with grassroots politics. The protest era faded along with our parents’ ideological aspirations into the rampant materialism of the eighties. The formative years of our understandings of global politics were dominated by the paradigms of the Bush administration – which overtly lied to its own people, capitalized on fear-mongering, and steamrolled the demands of the millions worldwide who protested the Iraq invasion. We are identified as apathetic and careerist; and frankly, given the precedents, these tendencies are understandable, if not acceptable.
Was I rationalizing self-promotion in the name of intellectual interest while indulging in some kind of morbid curiosity?
All of this was on my mind during the speech. By the end of Bush’s presentation, though most of the information wasn’t new, my appreciation for the man’s significance was.
People go on about how Bush was a bobble-head mouthpiece for the powerful hawks in his cabinet. Perhaps, but in the space of those few hours I understood that he is not stupid. He is well-spoken, if familiar, and funny, fielding awkward questions with certainty. Those of us who disagree with him have tended to underestimate him in order to avoid facing the uncomfortable realization that Bush is a daunting opponent. His success was not pure fluke (though the Supreme Court helped). I can appreciate now how he managed to polarize American society. If I had forgotten for a moment what he represented and the discrepancies between what he was saying and the facts, I could almost have liked the guy. This explains how he captured the vote of the vast number of Americans who do not devote much time to politics and so choose based on personal rapport with the candidate. Bush is personable, charismatic, and magnetic. This realization was frightening and, I hope, useful, an insight that I could only have gained by accepting to be on the “inside” for a time.
I’m still unsure how to distinguish “gaining knowledge” from “participating.” What I do know is that the two approaches, protesting and working from the inside out, need to stop being perceived as antithetical. It fractures those who are working toward common ends by different means. Sellout, conspirator, hippy, daydreamer: these words all have their application, yet the lines we draw too often lack nuance.
We need both approaches to work effectively and cooperatively. I resent the assertion in the ad hoc George W. Bush Welcoming Committee’s press release that the only people in attendance at the event would be “other crooks.” This is not a mechanism for mobilizing people effectively; it creates an entity of “others” that is easy to use as leverage but is ultimately too simplistic. Never assume you can encapsulate everyone’s motives in a catchphrase. Should there have been a protest? Absolutely. But that doesn’t negate the contribution that dissenters who choose to get an inside look can also provide.
The constructs of our globalized society are monolithic. As the experience of the Bush administration clearly demonstrates, we will need every means possible if we wish to have an impact.
Adrienne Klasa is a U3 Honours student in political science and philosophy, as well as the editor of the McGill Foreign Affairs Review. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.