Last night I watched the movie Bidder 70 a film about Tim DeChristopher an American environmentalist who essentially placed fake bids during an auction of public lands to both bring attention to the auction and to prevent oil companies from owning and destroying the land. (I wont go into the details of his actions or case, the movie and the Wikipedia link I just gave does that fine) While the arrest and incarceration of DeChristopher was certainly unjust I kept getting distracted by the actions of other environmental activists in the movie, namely the ones suffering from Leftist Martyrdom Syndrome.
The movie paints a portrait of a young man who is so dedicated to the environmentalist movement he is willing to go to jail for it (which he ultimately does). Countless references are made to Martin Luther King Jr, Ghandi, and in general their and other non-violent protest movements that have happened in America and world wide. What is so heart breaking about the DeChristopher case, and the cases of other environmentalist and animal rights activists (see the SHAC 7 for another specific example) is that the US government will consistently make an example of individuals as to discourage others from committing similar actions…despite what public opinion is on the subject. So while DeChristopher was sent to jail for 2 years (he was possibly going for 10) the movie shows dozens of of his supporters and associates protesting and ultimately getting arrested.
I want to talk about these other arrested individuals, because the movie seemingly equates what DeChristopher did (and he alludes to this directly as well) with those of the protesters who got arrested for blocking traffic after his hearing. Of course what we all know is that they are not equal. Progressive issues of the past that lead to arrests of protesters were political, people of color were arrested for being a place they were not allowed and Vietnam protesters were arrested for burning their draft cards. The point of getting arrested for a protest is to point out that the very fact you are getting arrested for what you did is wrong.
When you are getting arrested for blocking traffic you are not helping, you’re suffering from Leftist Martyrdom Syndrome. Leftist Martyrdom Syndrome is what happens when a leftist (usually young and white) participates in a protest, or does something within a protest, with the explicit purpose of getting arrested. All leftists know this behavior, and while we may not all wish to admit it, we’ve all been overcome with it at least at one point in our lives (whether we followed through or not does not matter). Ingrained in our cultural memory is the idea that being arrested for protesting somehow equates to the ultimate good that a leftist can achieve. This however is not the reality we live in, as I stated above, being arrested as a result of your protest only has meaning when an outside viewpoint can look at your protest and agree you were in the right. One of the countless famous examples of this is Rosa Parks, a black woman who was arrested for sitting at the front of a bus and not giving up her seat to a white person. Parks’ actions have had such a historical resonance because the fact that she got arrested for her actions strikes us as a horrible injustice that is beyond the ridiculous (imagine if a white person asked a black person to move to the back of a bus today!).
Yet, when you have a group of environmentalist protesters take to the streets and sit down in front of automobile and streetcar traffic and refusing to move (as there is in one scene of Bidder 70) there is no possible conclusion to that action other than them being removed and probably arrested by police. Making signs and taking to the streets is certainly vital to most political and social movements in global history, but doing so with the explicit end goal of being arrested does not actually accomplish anything. The reason why the DeChristopher case is so compelling not because he got arrested, but because he did something awesome and righteous (and then got arrested for it). Until the Left understands that being arrested purely for doing something that will inevitably lead to arrest that has no other direct consequence we’re going to continue floundering, especially on issues of environmentalism and climate change.
[NOTE: The term and concept of “Lefist Martyrdom Syndrome” does not actually originate with me but rather a friend of mine, Albert Gaudio. I have used the term and expanded on it here without speaking to him first. I have used the term before (primarily describing the actions of many young protesters during the student movement in Quebec of 2012 which I participated in) and have tried to always not take credit for such a disturbingly apt term and description of a problem many of us on the Left suffer from more often than we ought to.]