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Bring on the Beautiful Trouble


By davidswanson - Posted on 18 May 2012

Now here's a book that's meant to be used: "Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution" edited by Andrew Boyd and Dave Oswald Mitchell.  The subtitle should be "Try this at home -- but innovate!"  Instead it's "From the people who brought you the Yes Men, Billionaires Against Bush, etc."

Beautiful Trouble is a terrific addition to Gene Sharp's catalog of nonviolent tactics, less comprehensive, more up-to-date, more U.S.-centric, and focused on the artistic and the entertaining. When someone whines about what they can possibly do if it's really true that voting won't fix everything, hand them this book.  When someone proposes violence as the only serious option available, hand them this book.  

Here is a guide to activism that focuses on the serious moral case for fundamental change and on making it fun as hell.  Here is a sophisticated tool for shaping strategies that are both uncompromising and welcoming of newcomers.  

The book is divided into five sections: Tactics, Principles, Theories, Case Studies, and Practitioners.  The section on Tactics is far and away the best, with some of the inspiring tactics further developed in the case studies.  While the book looks like a reference designed to be searched as needed like an encyclopedia (tons of pull quotes and text in cute little boxes, as if laid out for someone with a four-second attention span) it actually reads very well as a book if you focus on the largest font size and just read it straight through.  

Long time activists may find more and more of the material to be familiar as the book progresses, but it is a book that practices what it preaches.  It is open to brand new participants in government of, by, and for the people as well as to those who've been trying to get it right for many years.  For the most part, even the familiar is so well presented and contextualized that people are likely to find new insights in what they thought they already knew.

We always wonder how to welcome war criminals and robber barons to town.  Do we protest?  Do we try to participate in their public events in an approved manner?  Do we hold up posters silently without interrupting?  "Beautiful Trouble" is packed with great approaches to this and other common scenarios.  For example, in 2006, Rainforest Action greeted the CEO of General Motors at the Los Angeles Auto Show by pretending to be emcees, thanking the man for the speech he'd just given about GM's commitment to the environment, and unfurling a giant pledge for him to sign putting his promises in writing.  He then had two bad choices.  He chose to refuse to sign, and the media ran with that story.  

Other great tactics explored include "nonviolent search and seizure," or the theatrical attempt to liberate secret documents to which the public has a right.  Governments are presented with the option of looking secretive and suspicious or exposing what they're up to and revealing themselves as corrupt and destructive.  Successful uses of this tactic are recounted.

Then there's the case of families setting up a childcare center in the office of a public housing official until provided with other means of childcare.  With each such idea, others will appear in the reader's mind.  Why not move a school into the office of a weapons profiteer?  Why not move a library into the office of a war-funding, banker-bailing-out Congress member?  Such variations gain and lose various advantages that this book can help an organizer sort through.

Or there's the case of the teddy bear catapult.  When officials lock themselves inside a fortress (at Camp David, or in Chicago, or anywhere else), a catapult can be a means of sending them a message in which the main message is in fact the medium.  

Other tactics, such as the general strike, are extremely difficult, or -- as with a "debt strike" -- have yet to be successfully pulled off.  

"Beautiful Trouble" is not just a list of colorful actions.  It analyzes the pros and cons, principles involved, potential dangers, and insidious tendencies.  It gives detailed advice on how a tactic should be used most effectively.  It can build your movement more, for example, to not just shout people down but to do so very politely under the banner of a Public Filibuster, insisting on upholding their rights as well as your own.

"Beautiful Trouble" includes an excellent rejection of "diversity of tactics" -- which can become "code for 'anything goes'," as well as an explanation of the power and superior success rate of disciplined strategic nonviolence.

Rather than pretending to list all available types of approaches, the authors (dozens of them, activists all) seek to guide the reader toward a model for inventing and generating new approaches.  Part of theatrical activism, of course, involves tricking the corporate media into covering positions toward which its owners are fundamentally opposed or -- at best -- indifferent.  Even the best of tactics can lose that power simply by having been used before.

The Theories section of the book may be the weakest, as a lot of it amounts to Cliff's Notes versions of well-known intellectuals. And the Practitioners section at the end, which really is just a list of activist groups, leaves much to be desired.  

It's also stunning that an up-to-the-minute book drawing heavily on the Occupy movement and other events of recent years and months contains so many examples of opposing George W. Bush, while Barack Obama gets a single mention -- which comes in an account of the Tar Sands protests in which the wisdom of not polarizing against Obama is explained to us.  Oh, and there's one other mention praising Obama's campaign messaging.

"Beautiful Trouble" discusses the Overton Window and the benefit of pushing for what you really want or even more.  It even offers the example of pushing for single payer if what you want is a "public option."  But groups that did that are missing from the book, while praise goes repeatedly to organizations that blatantly violated that specific advice.  "Beautiful Trouble" even declares the healthcare legislation that failed to include the "public option" a victory. 

An account of "Billionaires for Bush" is followed by an account of misguided (by the book's own advice) healthcare groups "succeeding" in finding some target other than the Democrats in power in Washington to protest, which is followed by another account of random protesters of Bush.  I was a big fan and participant in Billionaires for Bush, but when -- in 2008 -- I asked them why in the world they were shutting down rather than evolving into Oligarchs for Obama they never gave me a straight answer. 

Oddly missing from the book's advice for activist organizing is any warning about the corrupting influence of large, well-funded groups or of partisan politics.

Note that this is a book that dares to go after capitalism and many basic assumptions in our society, a society in which most people already condemn elected officials of both major political parties, so it would be at least a challenge to make a case that criticizing Obama's corruption would have somehow closed the book off to many of its potential readers.

I would also quibble with the happiness of the book's introduction which says:

"The realization is rippling through the ranks that, if deployed thoughtfully, our pranks, stunts, flash mobs and encampments can bring about real shifts in the balance of power."

But the same introduction also says:

"Through the last decade, though we've lost ground on climate, civil liberties, labor rights, and so many other fronts, we've also seen incredible flourishing of creativity and tactical innovation in our movements, both in the streets and online."

That is an extremely odd sentence.  Logically, it could be rewritten:

"Through the last decade, though we've seen incredible flourishing of creativity and tactical innovation in our movements, both in the streets and online, we've also lost ground on climate, civil liberties, labor rights, and so many other fronts."

We are losing.  We are losing badly and we're pretty darn close to Game Over.  And yet we have seen small victories and hints at the possibility of larger ones.  We have learned what tactics work better than others.  In my view, there's not much more useful that anyone could do than to learn from this book, and with independent analysis, as the authors themselves would recommend, go forth and do likewise.