I was intrigued by a recent article analyzing the diminishing preponderance of street protests in the United States, despite so-called “populist rage” at the current economic situation. The author, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, argues that for a variety of reasons – technological change, suburban sprawl and above all, personal debt – social protest isn’t as easy or as desirable as it was even 15 years ago. The net result, he claims, is a sort of street-level version of Robert Putnam’s famous “bowling alone” argument: yet one more indicator of the decline of civic engagement in American life.
I live in London where anti-capitalist riots in anticipation of the G-20 Summit resulted in one death and some 80 arrests yesterday. Images like this one have been all over the news here.
It’s true that the ring leader of this current wave of protests is a very charismatic 60 year-old, Chris Knight, (suggesting you’re never too old to burn someone in effigy.) But just eye-balling the coverage of these protests, most of the protesters look to be quite young.
Which makes sense. When you’re young, you have the time, the energy, the large social circles and – it must be said – the anger to get out there and march when a public policy annoys you or your favorite local coffee shop shuts down. I’ve participated in the odd march and rally in my life, but it was mostly when I was in my early 20’s and had a lot of time on my hands and was largely free of the assorted job/family/parenting responsibilities I have today. So maybe the reason people aren’t protesting so much anymore (the G-20 riots notwithstanding) isn’t so much the “anger fatigue” brought on by an endless stream of wars, layoffs and public policy nightmares – as Venkatesh suggests – so much as anger fatigue brought on by…life itself. (It would be interesting to know how an aging population – both in the U.S. and globally – fits into this analysis.)
What do you think? Do you still take to the streets to protest anything? And if not, why not?
Speaking of protest: Further to my earlier post on breast cancer screening, a group of doctors and patients has written a letter to the Times of London decrying the alleged over-estimation of screening benefits and under-estimation of perverse health effects that can derive from early mammograms. The letter has prompted National Health Service officials in Britain to re-word their pamphlets on said topic. Stay tuned on this one…we all have a stake in figuring this out.
Image: Women Protesting for Equal Wages at the Ministry of Social Affairs (Netherlands) via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.