How Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for a Revolution Continues to inform the way to Positively affect Democracy
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!
The Public filibuster is a non-violent protest tactic detailed in Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for a Revolution. The idea is to disrupt official meetings such as local governmental council meetings or perhaps prevent a speaker at a college through what is termed pejoratively as ‘the heckler’s veto’.
To discuss the tactic of public filibuster and what I see as some of the elements at work in the current cultural climate that are making it necessary for people to come out and disrupt “politics as usual”, I want to also discuss these happenings in the context of the filibuster used by the United States Senate and the arguments being made for doing away with it. So first, a little context.
Context and History of The Public Filibuster
*This article was originally conceived and written before the recent events of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the now monumental contentious fight underway for the future of the United States. Of course, this has turned out to be the sadly predictable about face total hypocritical showing of the likes of Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and many other GOP members.
Originally, I discussed how it is a matter of contention these days whether the filibuster, the one used in the United States Senate by elected politicians, even has a future.There have been several news articles taking up the case for its abolition, saying it is needless obstruction or something similar. This is an interesting thing to say considering the purpose of the filibuster is to literally continue debate indefinitely and obstruct the senate from coming to a vote. Funny thing is this: there is no constitutional basis for the filibuster.
The filibuster came about in 1805 when Vice President Aaron Burr decided there needn’t be a specific rule for ending discussion of the then only 34 member body. This later evolved into the filibuster and its companion Cloture rule. The filibuster was, in its early life, a spectacular display of half-grandstand and half Hail-Mary long-shot. When featured in the Frank Capra directed American film classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington a press man speaks of the filibuster in tones of wonder:
Half of official Washington is here to see democracy’s finest Joe, a filibuster. The right to talk your head off. The American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form. The least man in that chamber, once he gets and holds that floor by the rules, can hold it, and talk as long as he can stand on his feet. Providing always, first that he does not sit down, second that he does not leave the chamber or stop talking. The galleries are packed. In the diplomatic gallery are the envoys of two dictator powers, they have come here to see what they can’t see at home- Democracy in action.
The filibuster had it so a senator can continue the discussion on a measure indefinitely. But if two-thirds of the Senate voted to end the discussion, then ‘cloture’ was achieved and the Senate moved on. However, in 1970 this rule was amended so that the Senate only needed three-fifths (60 of its 100 members) to achieve cloture.
Less of a consensus thus needed to end the discussion in case members filibustered. This had an unexpected effect. Suddenly the rarely used tool, the wondrous hundred-to-one possibility for changing the outcome of a vote and an extreme measure biding for time or possible string-pulls on hearts and minds, was a much more regularly threatened option. This became true even if it was not actually carried out. The threat of indefinite discussion reared its head from every corner as suddenly the Senate didn’t need as potent a degree of enthusiasm for the bills in order to end the discussion and bring them to a vote. A vote which required only the majority to pass the bill out of the senate, one way or another, and be done with it.
I went on to argue that doing away with the filibuster entirely will have a further unexpected effect: that of streamlining not a better-argued legislature but a steady assembly line of less considered, more meaningless legislation. Anything difficult or requiring actual thought, anything controversial, well you may argue that the political spectrum swings back and forth now every so many years. That one side simply undoes what the other side did when they were in office.
Republicans wreck the economy with giveaways to the rich, and Democrats ‘fix it’ by taxing across the board until what was meant to be a vehicle for ordering lives becomes a jaunty jalopy teetering back and forth. It’s barely held together with string and chicken wire. Wobbly, never to see time in a repair shop but as long as we can get out of it the next election bid, the few miles to our destination, no matter what shape we leave her in once we make our stop.
But it seems likely to make this official mode of operation would be breaking the spine of reasonable debate (if it ever did exist) and destroy the core idea of compromise and balance. It’s like stopping the core of the earth and disrupting the magnetic field that keeps the rational world from spinning off its axis.
(above) Protesters fill a Dallas City Council meeting with calls for justice in the killing of Botham Jean by a police officer who entered his home. Officer Amber Guyger claims she accidentally walked into the wrong apartment. Attention and unrest were highly charged around this incident. Though she was not arrested for several days after the event, she was determined to be guilty of murder and sentenced to ten years in jail.
Public Filibuster is for You to Sit Down, Stand Up and Strike!
Let’s go back to the so-called “public filibuster” that Beautiful Trouble speaks of. I contend that protest and civil disobedience is on some level just as much part of the functioning of a democratic society as anything that happens in a courthouse or governing body. So let’s analyze. Is there any credence to the cries heard today that we are becoming more polarized?
If you believe people protest for no reason and more and more people are out in the streets risking their necks for the heck of it, I commend you, because you have one part of what is needed for empathy, that being IMAGINATION. The other portion involves graciously putting yourself in their position. Combined, these make a human being.
Many people know about the U.S. Senate’s procedural filibusters, in which a dissenting senator holds the floor to keep a vote from happening. The people’s version, the public filibuster, is no different. When activists face hostile government agencies or hearings that exclude the public, this relatively low-risk tactic injects the public’s voice into an otherwise closed-off process. Confrontational but constructive, it has been adapted by a range of citizen groups.
The key principle at work is giving visibility to the invisible. Our opponents use bureaucratic delays and restrictions on public hearings to keep their dealings in the shadows. Such delays and restrictions are boring procedural issues that happen quietly and can easily go unnoticed. The public filibuster puts a spotlight on these practices by creating conflict and drama where there was none before, flushing into the open the undemocratic nature of the current process. Then everyone can see the problem for themselves and make up their own mind.
The US Government is an Old Used Car
Clearly we are seeing in the fight for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement what I feared. That treating a government like a vehicle that is just to get you to your next stop on your side of the road, not caring for the vehicle itself, is how we get into a wobbly back and forth that eventually falls to one side in a heap of smoke and explosions. If that is true, then who then will mend the ship of the State?
People are showing up more and more to protest in city council meetings, on the streets, anywhere and everywhere they feel the need to publicly filibuster. They let the government know that they are being forgotten by the march of the machine and that they refuse to be forgotten. It’s the reminder that we are supposed to have a government for all citizens that is promised. And whether it is a race being brutalized by police or a religion trying to make the state consider their beliefs when making laws, they are willing to fight for a place where their rights are respected just as much as the next person.
Heckler’s Veto and Mob Rule
We desperately need a cultural shift away from escalation in zero-sum terms to Nowheresville. In my view, this means basically doing a total course reversal from where we’re headed now.
I feel most importantly for the looming supreme court fight and its aftermaths that we need separation of church and state. People will continue to have differing opinions on spiritual matters.
Whether it is a woman’s right to choose about her reproductive system versus the state deciding their decreed interpretation of life prevails, these issues and more will be shaped by the bench in the years ahead. Laws based on belief in an interpreted “God’s will” as the arbiter of flesh, definitions of life and when tissue or even artificially programmed life becomes worthy of civil rights?
To an unsympathetic eye, disrupting a meeting can come across as mob rule, especially when poorly done see TACTIC: Creative disruption. The power of the public filibuster depends on carrying out the action in a dignified manner, as well as framing the tactic properly. Calling the action a “public filibuster” helps lend the kind of legitimacy recognized by reporters and the broader public.
I feel our conservatives at the moment have too little foresight, and most are trying to bring back values of a bygone age rather than aiming for the future of our world. They have less interest in living in than securing a ticket for some afterparty away from. The court heading into the third millennium will need to make decisions of humans, grappling with issues of transhumanism and posthumanism, for those who have differing opinions needing to have decisions made to help all be free, and to live together. Sounds crazy? That’s cause it undoubtedly is. But if morality is to survive, it will have to have eyes open and be conscious and smart.
Whether we are able to have a discussion where we respect each other or scream that those who see things differently are demons.
Media is desensitizing us. Hall of mirror screen reflections turn us into battling avatars, caricatures of positions in a spinning game of conflicts, interests, forces we imagine largely outside our control. But individuals change their minds. The power of the media is that of a zombie device sending out signals to push empty vessels around a gameboard. But if you can disconnect an individual from the frequency, so much reality comes into play at once. Chance and possibility. These things don’t go away. We are not in the zombie apocalypse yet, we are still thinking bits in the stream. If you take a Romeo and Juliet from each side of a cold war and offer them the viable choice as a game piece to walk away, a reprieve from the promise of mutually assured destruction with-fully lateral moves in the game theory (which incorporates the enemy’s mindset into your own strategy so you are halfway into friendly conversation anyways!) become feasible! Much control comes from buying into the narrative you hate. You would have to think you have to battle for some side you’re delineated into against an equally conscripted artifactual antagonist, tooth and nail, or your energy in this entropic system has no worth. So much power comes from simply not buying in. From reclaiming the power of your individual signal.
In as many years as I’ve been enmeshed in internet culture, I’ve seen life drained bit by bit of a certain cherishing of the weird and different in popular culture. Of rebellion and punk and grunge and thrash-style relegated to the corners. It’s past time we bring up again the applause for those who take chances and have the mental strength to stand for something, to make a statement and to not be another reactive element in a megatrend on the path to an out of control self-destruction.
Less disingenuousness on the public intellectual scene. Enough anti-intellectual destruction of ideas. Stop following outlets that claim to offer ideas but only give up paid commercials for zombification.
Doing away with the filibuster and culling the voice of the minority because it is inconvenient to a swift ending of debate might be payback. But think now how you wish you might block the budget to shut down the government, or anything else to stop the totally unprincipled supreme court appointment. Consider your moment.
When you will say “here and now, I am reclaiming my right to be a decent person, and not simply perpetuate corruption. I’m making my stand, I’m raising my freak flag. I’m turning this shitbox car around, and we’re going in the right direction!” The car may wobble, hum and nearly bounce off the track if we let the marginalized call the tune. But we must give the mic to those who care, to those who have something to say because they must say it and those who believe in something and the need to share it. There is a Zen to the maintenance of the machine. In caring for it, we must know we are here for the ride and not the destination.
As Vincent Vega says in Pulp Fiction while scoring junk: “Don’t fuck with another man’s vehicle.” It’s just against the rules. I know not everyone will take Pulp Fiction’s screenplay as scripture. But for my opinion, if it came down to solving all the issues of the world in a day but doing so without open debate, I would rather talk it out forever.