January 2003
volume 1, issue 2


Part Two: Absurd Responses vs. Earnest Politics; [ ] (continued 1, 2)

Limits of Play
The question was exactly how far we should go with our silliness. The feeling that many in the current administration were thinking with their little heads instead of their big ones inspired the ironic calls for “Dickheads for War!” A friend had just held a party in which he handed out a bunch of dildos he’d recently liberated from a garbage dumpster outside of a sex shop in San Francisco. The idea was for activists to show up in Washington dressed in corporate drag, a suit and tie, with a plastic dildo on their head. Like the US military does with its missiles, prominently painted on the side would be the words such as “USA” or “Fuck You Saddam”. For those not familiar with the tradition of the clown and its buffoon-like confrontations with social and economic oppression (Ornstein, 1998, P. 3) the message was confusing and even off-putting. For others, the phallus has been a source of oppression; understandably not something that is fun.
For us the point was to offend the banal. Kate Crane, a local media activist, drafted our first press release. It concluded: “Also on hand will be the Dickheads, a posse of gender-bending miscreants best known for parading about with dildos for head-gear. “What’s this war if it’s not about the size of the Bush-family dick? When will this country stop fucking the rest of the world and learn that size doesn’t matter?” cried P. Neil Emplante, a Dickhead member.

Theatrical protest has many detractors who see its goal as not political, but as artistic. Abbie Hoffman was accused of developing a fan base as opposed to a coherent political stance and structure. Yet ACT UP helped us learn that with good media work, research, and a coherent organized message, guerilla theatre can play an effective role in promoting a political message. Scenes are staged so as to be media friendly; characters learn their sound bites around particular policies in question, and audiences gravitate to good performances. People want to write about and interview the cast members,
regardless of whether they are stars or not. Everyone has his or her lines.
The group spent the final days before the action pulling together slogans, making signs, and working on language for the press release. The issue over the possible offense nature of the Dick Heads forced us to struggle with a conflict between a lowest common denominator activism that was supposed to appeal to a mythic “people” vs. targeted protests that would generate strong emotions either for or against us. Crane’s second press release was a little less silly:

The Bush Administration is drawing the U.S. and the world ever closer to a state of permanent war. Dubya’s doctrine of preemption and expanding empire, outlined in the recently released "National Security Strategy of the United States," does away with strategies of deterrence and cooperation with other nations—not to mention the notion that war is a last resort. These strategies have formed the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s. As the U.S. courts war without end, citizens are conveniently distracted from the tanking economy and the continuing exposés of corporate scandal.
Leading Saturday’s procession will be the Bombshells in Beehives, a group of 1950s housewives who continue to cling to the bouffant and floral housedress even in 2002. Together, their bouffant's will spell out "PERMA-WAR."
"It’ll take weeks to get the glue and felt out of my hair," Myrtle Nejedlik, a 67-year-old housewife from Dayton said ruefully. "But what the hell! It’s ‘Perms for Perma-War!’ The idiot boy king is out for blood (and oil), and we’ve all got to give what we’ve got to throw a wrench in the works. Me, I’ve got great hair.

By the third release Myrtle had been edited from the release. After three meetings in just over as many weeks, we were ready to converge on DC. In the end, only a few actually wore the dildos as props. However a whole other contingent calling themselves the “Missledicks,” seen waving their deadly phalluses around to cheers throughout the day, gravitated to the Absurd Response convergence.

Play vs. Political Rhetoric
We arrived late, donned our Perma-War wigs, and some worshiped at the phallus, the Washington Monument. We bowed down, a few even put on the dickhead gear. As we marched and chanted we passed out our palm cards to explain the point of theater: “Are you ready for Perma-War?” it began. “Iraq is only the beginning. The Bush Administration is drawing the United States and the world ever closer to a state of permanent military engagement, So what do we do?” the front of the card asked.
The back explained: “Throw a party!!! Activism doesn’t have to mean droning speeches, dull chants, and tired slogans. To sustain the growing movement over the long haul, we need humor, theater, music, flamboyance, irony, and fun.” The card helped bring a little order to the confused day.

Joined by Reverent Billy and Church of Stop Bombing Choir and calling ourselves the Spirit of 1976 Gone Wrong, our rag tag group of anarchist clowns jugglers, fire-eaters, strippers, puppeteers, drag queens, kings, and missile dicks marched from the Washington Monument to the Vietnam Memorial to feed into the larger march of disgruntled citizens. We were armed with our message, another great product to sell, like the pump hair spray we used for our perms.

Two clowns dressed in red white and blue cheered and danced spastically to the call for war, screaming tee hee, bouncing to and from, calling for the crowd to join them.
When confronted with counter protestors, the clowns joined the other side where they started yelling at us. Joining the other side is a particularly effective ploy for disarming counter protests and the media coverage of them (we’d first used this tactic as SUDs at the Bush coronation). In this case however the counter protests of pro-war Iraqis actually charged us. It incited not a playful theatrical scene but an agitated screaming and shoving match which could have turned violent. Having had our fun, we marched backward and onward toward another joke. The scene was more reminiscent of the old Monty Python, “RUN AWAY” schtick. There were other protestors out there who would appreciate the message.

Amidst hoards of earnest protestors, with their “How Many Iraqi Children Will Die Signs,” we chanted: “We love bush, we love dick, all you peaceniks make us sick.” To the drums introducing our Perma-War kick line we cried “All war, all the time, Perma-War is peace,” and sang the old anthems, “We Shall Overbomb” and “All we are saying is give War a Chance.” There were chants of “Start the Bombing Now” on the verge of offending the sensibilities of the larger crowd of 100,000. The day was full of rhetorical shuffles with groups like the dour sectarian International Socialist Organization with their reified chants of “Hey George Bush, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” To these we replied, "We need oil, we need gas, watch out world we'll kick your ass!" We directly lampooned the old lefty slogan “the people united will never be defeated” with “The people who chant this will never be creative. The people, bad slogans, will always be defeated” and “Power to power”

Throughout the day more and more people sang along and applauded to, “We shall over bomb,” joining us for the chorus, “Deep in our hearts, we do believe, we shall live in war forever.” The “W” stands for WIMP” chant calling for the war to begin ASAP proved to be a crowd pleaser. “War is good for children, it builds strong bones,” followed “Bomb Iraq, start the war, we don't need no peace no more.” With the crowd swelling, we were joined by a group of George Washington Students and members of Reclaim the Streets Washington who led the crowd in a rendition of Perma-War hokey pokey. “You put the money in, you put the money out, you put the sanctions in and you shake it all about” and everyone danced. “What do we want – Perm-War! Why do we want it – for higher ratings!” and with the drums and the improvisation there ensued thousands of variations, we had become jazz inspired.

After three hours of this our nonsensical tone was only becoming more so as we literally deconstructed the old chants to their bare bones. The George Washington University crowd lampooned the age old, “hey, hey, ho, ho" proclaiming, “Hey, ho, ho, ‘hey, hey, ho, ho’ has got to go!” Later this was modified to “Hey, hey, ho, ho, he, heeee” with a quiet squeal. At some point we stopped adding new variations, we riffed, “3 word chant! 3 word chant! 4 words are better! 4 words are better!” and “March, march, chant, chant, rhetoric, rhetoric, rant, rant!!!” Finally the simple words, “da, da, da, da, da, da, da.”

In the End
In the end, we got a 10 to 30 second news reports on most of the networks, a predictably sarcastic story in the NY Times and a cover story in the Washington Post. It declared “100,000 Rally, March Against War in Iraq.” In addition, we got our picture on the cover of the Post. Is it a good thing if this ironic theatrical protest is the only representation of the movement that the public sees? Certainly the message was confused. At one point, a person came up to me and asked if we were right-wing drag performers. Yet from the voices of the crowd, the embrace of our signs & slogans, and the media coverage, we had to assume that three of the six publics needed for a protest to be deemed a success, were achieved. We won over our fellow travelers, recruits, and the media. The word “OBEY” and “Perma-War” made it onto the front pages of the Washington Post, and will perhaps become part of the larger cultural consciousness. Andrew Boyd (2002) describes the process of planting such infectious messages as meme warfare. It remains to be seen whether the crowd who celebrated along with our spectacle by speaking out against the injustices of the right and banality of the left will continue to destroy the stage directions received from protest’s past

In the weeks after the protest more positive coverage of the anti-war movement followed. The New York Times changed their tune and followed the Post’s line that the October event was perhaps the largest anti-war protest since the Vietnam Era. “Rally in Washington Is Said to Invigorate the Anti-War Movement,” read the times headline of October 30, 2002. Later in the week, I worked with ACT UP to bring the message to a visiting dignitary from the Bush Administration. "Money for AIDS, not for War " we chanted as we disrupted the speech of Tommy Thompson's under secretary. The room of poverty beurocrats stood up to applaud. That same evening, we took the Perma-War message to the West Village Halloween Parade where the anti-war humor drew wide spread cheer.

Humor may be our greatest response to this strange convergence of events. We put up a small website calling for new recruits, highlighting our antics, and calling for new members to join our weekly anti-war events list (http://www.mobilize-ny.com/ and http://www.absurdresponse.com/). For now, the crowd has been invited to continue to challenge the elite’s engineered hysteria (Ornstein, 1998, p. 3).
Whether we shift dynamics within the grand mystification is another question. But for today, we brought a bit of lightheartedness back to a theater of protest. They say imitation is the best form of flattery. In the weeks after Absurd Response started we signed up hundreds to join our anti-war direct action list. Members of ACT UP Philly, the nation’s strongest ACT UP chapter, even started their own Absurd Response group for anti-war rallies. They came up with their own chants:

This is what aristocracy looks like. Surrender Now.
Support Our Elites.
Shut Up Already.
In MY Name Baby.
Aint' no power like the people in power cause the people in power don't stop
No Justice, No Peace, No Shit.
Give Up.
Peace is Very Scary.
Free, Free the Military.
Whose Fucking Cops? Our Fucking Cops!

Throughout the country, the anti-war message is taking off. As for Absurd Response, the group continues to shift the ways that energy is brought to the intersecting global justice and anti-war movements. Perhaps the core message is that fun and freedom are essential tools for activists working to create a better world. Back in 1965, in the face of threats of violence from the Hells Angels during a rally, Allen Ginsberg wrote a pre-action call on how to handle a potentially disruptive situation: Demonstration or Spectacle As Example, As Communication or How to Make a March Spectacle. In his surprisingly still contemporary call he offered a mind-body view of keeping cool and creating a theater of protest. His little essay, which suggests putting the Beatles’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand on the loudspeakers if you are being attacked, serves as an outline for the transformative potential that protest offers when we are critical of ourselves and joyful at the same time. “If imaginative, pragmatic, fun, gay, happy, secure propaganda is issued to mass media in advance…” the essay begins, “the parade can be made into an exemplary of spectacle on how to handle situations of anxiety and fear/threat to manifest by concrete example, namely the parade itself, how to change war psychology and surpass, go over, the habit image reaction of fear/ violence... This is, the parade can embody an example of peaceable health which is the reverse of fighting back blindly.” Perhaps that’s just it, the parade can be an example of another way of being right with others and ourselves. Attacks from the Hells Angels need not bring out the worst in us..

Bakhtin, M. 1965. Rabelais and his world. Bloomington: Indiana Press.

Boyd, Andrew. 2002. IRONY, MEME WARFARE, AND THE EXTREME COSTUME BALL, ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest And Community-Building in the Era of Globalization, Eds. Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk. Verso Press: New York.

Ginsberg, Allen. 1965. Demonstration or Spectacle As Example, As Communication or How to Make a March Spectacle, Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-95, Ed. Edward Sanders. Perennial/HarperCollins: New York.

Goffman, Erving.1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books: New York.

Goldstein, Manny. 2002. THE MYSTERIOUS RAMSEY CLARK: STALINIST DUPE OR RULING-CLASS SPOOK? The Shadow. http://shadow.autono.net/sin001/clark.htm
(Accessed November 22, 2002).

Herbst, Marc. 2002. The Masquerade Project. Journal of Aesthetics and Protest. July.

McAdam, Doug. 1996. The framing function of movement tactics: Strategic dramaturgy in the American civil rights movement. Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements.
Eds. Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald. Cambridge University

Ornstein, Claudia. 1998. Festive Revolutions. University of Mississippi Press.

Pilger, John. 2002. The New Rulers of the World. New York: Verso.

Sachs, Jeffrey. 2002. Weapons of mass salvation. The Economist (24 October).

Benjamin Shepard is an active member of the Absurd Response and Reclaim the Streets New York. He is co-editor of From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (Verso, 2002). He’d like to thank Kate Crane, Steve Duncombe, and most of all Mark and Robert Herbst for their insightful comments on this essay.

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