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Americans: Start worrying when the honking stops

I was biking home from work last week when I came across Lyndale Avenue’s busiest intersection, at Loring Park. Everything was typical for a Friday evening at 6:30 — dense traffic, lots of commotion, heat radiating off the concrete — with the addition of a Pro-Tibet protest. Approximately 50 protesters stood on the sidewalks with signs and flags, hoping to alert the multiple lanes of passing traffic. And, as the custom goes, cars driven by supporters let out punctuated honks of agreement in order to encourage the activists.

Wow! I thought. That’s quite a bit of honking! This is exciting! Indeed, the support — I like to measure with honks per minute, or hpm — was much stronger than what you would expect from a rally in Minneapolis. Typically, in the rare event that people do gather to back an idea or cause, the civilized folks try to pass by while turning their cheek, looking straight ahead and avoiding eye contact with the rebellious ones.

You know the drill: If I don’t look at them they will leave me alone. These rallies typically get about 3 hpm. In this case, however, encouragement was strong. I would guess it was in the range of 15-20 hpm. No kidding! It was safe to say that I had goose bumps.

Wait a second. What is wrong with this picture?

If officials counted hpm per issue …

For starters, I’m pretty sure that I was the only person at the rally documenting hpm statistics. If our elected leaders had staff out on the corners counting the number of honks per certain issue, I could imagine that this beeping and tooting would be an effective method of pressing an agenda with our government.

Unfortunately, there are no people on the corners. Just people passing by.

Civic dissent used to be a tool in which citizens would gather in large numbers to send a message through their presence alone. In the eras of the Great Depression, civil-rights movement and Vietnam War, protests were a crucial element in applying pressure on our government. Public places nationwide were the sites of gatherings whose size would boggle the minds of us accustomed to present-day crowds.

What happened? I can think of a few things.

One of the problems lies in the basic way our society is built. Over the past century America has converted itself from a public to a private nation. Too many of us wake up in the morning, get in our car, drive to work, park under our office building, take the elevator up to our office, work for a few hours, take the skyway to the building across the street for lunch, return via skyway to work for a few more hours, take the elevator back down to the car, drive home, park in the garage, eat dinner, watch some television, and go to sleep to wake up the next morning and do the same thing over again.

We’ve chosen private space over public
We have systematically eliminated public space and replaced it with more comfortable, private options. We’ve taken people off the street and out of public plazas and put them in skyways and shopping malls. We have spread out our population in three rings of suburbs so that each of us can have our right to privacy. The fact is, unless a block party forces our neighbors out of the house, the State Fair tempts us with 18-inch corn dogs, or Blues Traveler plays a free show on Nicollet Avenue, you are going to have to twist our arms to sit around outside with a bunch of strangers. We’re just not built for it. If we happen to drive past, we’ll give a honk from the comfort of our car.

We also have very busy, stressful lives. It’s common knowledge that Americans are some of the world’s most-booked-up people. We have no siestas. We have no summer holiday. We’re tired. We are constantly going from point A to point B, and it is pretty hard to change our plans on impulse. We have to get to work, or pick up the kids, or get home in time for dinner. Even though I ideologically supported the Tibet rally, I was hungry and needed to get back to my apartment so I could eat in time to meet some friends later in the evening. So, alas, I was just passing by.

I’m not saying that protest doesn’t happen. It certainly does — just not in the public eye. With each passing day our world is increasingly dominated by the Internet, and that is where I see most of the dissent or political commentary happening. Blogs, posts, comments, message boards, what have you: There is still a lot of complaining going on. It is no substitute, however, for the real thing. It is anonymous, unreliable, and hardly democratic. Not everyone has a computer, let alone Internet access. Most important, a blog post with 2,000 comments does not have the same impact as 2,000 people gathered in a public square. This is because real-life physical crowds are composed of citizens who are at the mercy of the public eye and do not possess a screen name to hide behind.

Trapped in a ‘boss culture’
Unfortunately, protests and public rallies also hold negative connotations in today’s America, and this pushes people away. Our country is trapped in a “boss culture.”

This concept was discussed recently in the June edition of Harper’s Magazine by Mark Slouka in his article “Democracy and Deference.” He argues that “we’ve been effectively bred for docility.” I agree. Americans are reluctant to challenge authority, and instead display an unwillingness to be disobedient. We do what the boss says, because if we don’t we get fired.

This workplace mindset has spilled over into our culture, to the point where public expression of opinion is considered to be breaking some sort of rule. This is why we judge those in the minority who do challenge authority. In response to the anti-Iraq-war protests I’ve seen in Minneapolis, a common reaction is to shake your head and mutter some combination of liberal-hippie-radical-neocommie slander. This sort of feedback does not make me want to pursue civic expression any time soon.

That’s why I was so surprised by the honking. In my mind the Tibet rally I witnessed was successful. Even though I could not find anyone to talk to — because everyone was facing the street — I felt it was a success, if not a little awkward. And the fact that people were honking refutes my greatest fear: that Americans don’t care. When the honking stops, we should all be worried.

I don’t know if our lack of public protest is altogether bad or good. I suppose it can be argued either way. All I know is that our silence is a little depressing and a bit lethargic. The bottom line is that Americans, despite all of our problems, are still at ease. Maybe if we get really uncomfortable at some point — if fuel and food prices push enough of us into poverty or we continue to lose our homes — we might get off our couches and out of our cars to seek change. For now though, we will just keep honking.

Tom Hilde lives in Minneapolis. He is a freelance designer.

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