Part Two: Absurd
Responses vs. Earnest Politics; [ ] (continued
1, 2) by Ben Shepard
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.
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:
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:
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
Ornstein, Claudia. 1998. Festive Revolutions. University of
Pilger, John. 2002. The New Rulers of the World. New York: Verso.
Sachs, Jeffrey. 2002. Weapons of mass salvation. The Economist
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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