In today's consumer-driven world, it seems that no ideal, no matter how profound, can escape the sales racks. From Che Guevera t-shirts to environmentally friendly products to
"Livestrong" rubber wristbands, protest is currently being mass-marketed at a rate faster than Nike sneakers.
Are we a society of puny protest or have we become accidental activists who stumble into a cause by chance? Are we prompted by the suggestions of pop culture? In the 80s, did a young urban generation know they had to “Fight the Power” before hip hop group Public Enemy told them to do so in their 1989 rap anthem? Youth may have had lingering thoughts about the injustices in the inner city, but what gave them the impetus to act on it? U.S. Civil Rights was a growing movement in 1955 when a fed up Rosa Parks decided not to give up her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus. Did she know she’d stir up some trouble? Probably. Did she know that act would come to define her as the ‘Mother’ of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement? Who’s to say? Morning talk show host Kathie Lee Gifford claims she didn’t realize her line of affordable clothing for Wal-Mart was being produced in child-staffed sweatshops in Honduras until a human rights group brought national criticism to her. She later became a crusader for child labor laws.
What prompts us to act on our own feelings of protest and activism? What incites feelings of protest and activism? Do they have to be validated or even sparked by the mainstream or pop culture? Society was quite lax in their response to the onset of AIDS. There was little systemic reaction about the disease that was killings hundreds of homosexual men until American actor Rock Hudson announced that he had been living with the disease for years. The fight for AIDS treatment now garners millions of dollars annually, largely due to celebrity support.
Even though authentic Kabala, the study of Jewish mysticism, requires preparation through years of in-depth Torah and Talmud study, and Jewish scholars have repeatedly made it clear that trinkets like the red string have no real connection to Kabala, the celebrity interest has made it the ‘it’ trend to follow. Leading the pack, Madonna brought Kabala into mainstream awareness. Following some high profile visits by Madonna to the Holy Land, hotel capacity at Israel’s most popular destinations, including Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Eilat, the Dead Sea and Haifa had been booked at nearly one hundred percent occupancy for several months running. Many celebrities have followed in tow. Britney Spears wore the red string and had Hebrew letters tattooed on her back. Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Paris Hilton, David Beckham and his wife former Spice Girl, Victoria wear the bracelet, and Mick Jagger and his ex-wife Jerry Hall have done fundraisers for the The Kabala Centre. Tom Cruise has everyone buzzing about silent births through Scientology and Angelina Jolie is on a mission to adopt most of the globe’s unwanted babies. Sometimes celebrities themselves get caught up in the whirlwind of trendy activism. Naomi Campbell became a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) spokesperson, and a year later it didn’t dawn on her that working a fashion show draped in fur would rub them the wrong way. Some events in which the charity hopes to benefit its service population significantly may not be able to do so because of the overhead for celebrity demands. Even though celebrity endorsement can overwhelm a cause, it can be a real challenge today to be an organization with an honorable mission without that little push. Inevitably, most organizations are grateful for the celebrity voice that speaks to its ‘constituents’ on forgotten or ignored causes.
Full out marching-in-the-street protest is not for everyone. For the less incited protester, it’s just easier to support a cause by wearing a Malcolm X hat, a ribbon, a rubber bracelet, or the most ubiquitous fashion item of our time, the t-shirt. When one considers contemporary fashion, which has come to be defined by an ever-changing and often confusing social condition, wearing our heart or the protest of the moment on our sleeve is easy. The t-shirt has become (and most cases remains) a fashion trend of such immense proportions that clothing companies have begun producing t-shirts with intentionally dated, awkward and absurd subject matter and verbiage, and protest holds no exception. Not only do celebrities pique our interest about various causes, but easy-to-wear items that don our support are raking in big bucks as well. In addition to the red Kabala string, at a retail price of U.S. $26 for a set of three, Nike officials estimate over 50 million yellow LIVESTRONG rubber bracelets have been sold raising over $50 million for seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong’s foundation for people affected by cancer. In 1960, Cuban photographer Alberto Korda took a photo of the controversial Eduardo ‘Che’ Guevara. He was an Argentine doctor, journalist, revolutionary, banker, industrialist, ideologist, military commandant, and a guerrilla fighter. In 1968, an Irish artist named Jim Fitzpatrick created the now famous black and white silhouette of it and encouraged everyone to use it (to support the cause, of course). Exclusive rights of the haunting silhouette of Guevara's face were purchased by David McWilliams, corporate executive officer of Fashion Victim. A substantial portion of Fashion Victim's $4 million to $5 million in sales for 2005 came from Che merchandise. You can now get Che on a whisky flask, a belt buckle, a Trucker Babe wallet, a key chain, a German Iron Cross lighter, and other items. Lance Armstrong’s trek across hilly landscapes were emblazoned with endorsements on his sports gear. Few can find fault with his crusade to overcome his own cancer and help others with their battle. Che Guevara is a different kind of icon: a controversial man who would have scoffed at commercialism. Many may argue that more than 30 years after his death, the control of Che's image is being degraded and controlled with no thought to what serious progressive change this may be causing his legacy. Many see Che’s image, the man with the starred beret, hippie hair and revolutionary beard spread across the chest of youth who don’t know him, as having been sold out, yet another victim of commercialism. The College Humor website that sells tees with clever puns and cartoons takes an honest approach to its commercialism, selling a tee with a picture of Che Guevara that says, "I have no idea who this is."
What happened to this generation’s action to match the bracelets, hats, and tees adorned with activism? Perhaps we’ve found other avenues of protest that are less traditional. Malcolm X offered the advice of affecting change “by any means necessary.” Does that include prayer in solitude, internet blogging, email blasts, or a letter-writing campaign? Less raucous and visual, debatably just as effective, if not more comfortable.
International reporters weighed in on massive student protests in France in the spring of 2006 and were unimpressed with pleas to protect workers' rights. The proposed law would have allowed many French employers more “flexibility” to hire and fire young workers without cause. CBS reporter Sheila MacVicar was blunt, declaring on the CBS Evening News (3/29/06) that “these students are not revolutionaries demanding change, but reactionaries insisting on the status quo.”
In Berlin, the RAF (Red Army Faction) emerged in West Germany in the late 1960s as the militant wing of the student-led protest movement. The protesters took aim at their parents' generation, whom had participated in World War II. The student radicals charged that their elders had failed to take to heart the lessons of the past, and that the West German state preserved many of Nazi Germany's structures. The campaign of militant violence by the RAF – and West Germany's heavy-handed response – shocked and polarized the post-war generation. But 25 years later, in retrospect of the era, Germany, a unified, confidently democratic nation was healing from those wounds. The RAF has inspired movies, documentaries, novels, and pop culture. Alongside the books and films, T-shirts with RAF iconography, like their hallmark red star and machine gun, can be found in trendy clothing stores. "There was something pure, almost religious about the RAF," says artist Martina Siebert. "These people weren't prepared to go through the cumbersome processes of social interaction to achieve their goals. This is very attractive to young people who don't want to spend their lives trying to change things." Siebert says the fashion items don't amount to an endorsement of the RAF, but rather express an amorphous rebellious attitude.
Today we live in a consumer-driven world where material comfort is advertised and celebrated. What could be more attractive to rebellious youth than a young revolutionary leader, like Che, who is a symbol of social revolt? Perhaps the story of a young, adventurous doctor - who threw caution to the wind to pursue a life-long crusade that lead to tremendous worldwide consequences - attracts and satisfies the nomadic desires of youth today?
There is a real presence of older adults showing up to physically protest the war in Iraq. They believe in the power of social movements because they initiated the Civil Rights, Black Panther and anti-Vietnam War movements and saw first-hand what their actions could do. The world is a different place now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Many of the problems remain the same but are now in some translucent and manageable form. There isn’t the feeling of imminent personal threat; lynching has made way to somewhat less threatening police vehicular confrontations (with video cameras). There is, as of now, no draft to frighten us into action. And even though there is evidence and pressure of an unstable and uncertain economy, that has only caused many to be self-focused and motivated on creating a solid economic future for themselves rather than concern themselves with utopian pies in the sky. The problems in very far away lands are brought to us in much more vivid images, but we can still choose to tune them out or turn them off. There’s been more of a spotlight on how business ventures and corruption have infiltrated government, creating a big insurmountable two-headed monster. Perhaps the reason for a diminished political culture is that this generation does not believe in its ability to alter, or even slightly disrupt, the status quo. Young people do, in fact, care, as community service and volunteering continues to grow; but does this generational shift from activism to volunteerism reflect our lack of faith in our ability to affect broader social change?
1st August 2006