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Podcast #241: Protest? Polite Pass

New York Times columnist Pamela Paul tells Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay why standing around yelling slogans isn’t her preferred way of changing the world.

· 17 min read
Podcast #241: Protest? Polite Pass

Jonathan Kay: This week’s guest is one of my favourite newspaper columnists, Pamela Paul of The New York Times. She writes lots of great columns, but the one that really caught my eye was a somewhat tongue-in-cheek June 20 article titled, No, I Don’t Want to Protest, which for me summed up my own feelings about standing around in the sun or rain and shouting simplistic slogans at people about Donald Trump or Joe Biden or Gaza or whatnot.

Now, the obvious backdrop to this are the anti-Israel protest encampments scattered around North American university campuses. But, as Pamela makes clear, her antipathy to protest extends beyond putting on a keffiyeh and bleating “From the River to the Sea.” The protesting experience can be tedious and sometimes even dangerous, regardless of the topic, and you spend a lot of time wondering when you’re going to be able to wander off and go to the bathroom.

Anyway, without further ado, I give you Pamela Paul.

Jon: Pamela, thanks so much for being on the Quillette podcast. Big fan.

Pamela Paul: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

Jon: Okay, so this felt like the kind of column that maybe you’d wanted to write for a long time and then you finally wrote it.

Pamela: So, actually, I very often will write columns ahead of time, and in fact, I had filed my column for that week, and I was driving in my car and just had this sudden idea of writing about protests from this very different angle, which is to say, first person, pretty ironic… a satirical piece, and certainly not a straight-laced column.

And with something like that, you don’t really know if it’s going to work until you sit down and write it. So I called my editor from the car and said, “Look, I’m just going to try to write this thing. I’ll let you know when I’m done, if it works.” And it just came right out.

Jon: When you say you were in your car, was it like you were in your car and then all of a sudden you were surrounded by protesters, and you couldn’t move for three hours?

Pamela: No, it wasn’t that there was a blockade. I do believe that in our internet age, where we all have a computer in our phone, the best thoughts tend to come to us when we don’t have the phone, which is to say when you’re in the shower or the bath—unless you’re psychotic and you use your phone in the bath—or when you go on a phoneless walk or when you’re driving the car. That’s when ideas tend to come to you because you’re not getting all the [digital] input.

So that’s when I tend to have my ideas—when I’m free from the incoming sounds of constant outside information so that I can process things. So when you asked if it’s [protests] something that I’d been thinking about for a long time, I definitely have been thinking about it.

I wrote about the protests that were going on at Stanford University within the first week of the October 7 [Hamas terrorist] attacks. I was also working on an investigative piece about the School of Social Work at Columbia University that had nothing [directly] to do with the [Hamas] attacks—except that some of the things that were going on within the school really manifested themselves quite blatantly once the Hamas attack took place.

And what’s interesting about that is that it points to a fact about these recent protests, which is that it’s not like this [radicalism] suddenly exploded out of nowhere.

This came out of these really long term changes that have been going on within academia. And so there’s a real through line that runs between what students are learning in college, what they’re reading, what their younger professors particularly are telling them, and even what the older boomer profs are saying. So I’ve had protests on my mind like everyone else, and of course, you see them still constantly.

In fact, I was just watching a video online of protesters outside CNN anchor Jake Tapper’s home…

Jon: Protesting at people’s houses is super creepy to me.

Pamela: It absolutely crosses the line and they were directly addressing his children…

Jon: His children started singing at them or something like that…


'Stop repeating Israeli lies' protestors gather outside CNN anchor's home 'Stop repeating Israeli propaganda and call what Israel is doing in Gaza a genocide', a crowd of protestors gathered outside the home of CNN anchor Jake Tapper. #Gaza #Israel #CNN

♬ original sound - Middle East Monitor

Pamela: They waved [a flag] and they played The Star-Spangled Banner. I watched the video. And what a lot of people have said about [these kinds of protesters], from the viewpoint of other people on campus, is that they’re just a small minority. Most of the kids at Harvard or Brown or Yale or wherever, they’re just going about their business, studying for tests and trying to get through their day. And I know that is true, but we aren’t hearing about them. And I started to think about that and my own reasons for not going to a protest—which being a journalist at The New York Times, I’m not allowed to do [as a protest participant], and I’m grateful for that [rule] because I would not want to do them.

And why is that? I started to contemplate, why is it that I’m so averse to protests? I remember when the Women’s March was happening in 2016. And many people I knew were going or wanted to go or were upset that they couldn’t go. And I just thought the last thing I want to be is caught in a crowd with people wearing “pussy hats.”

Jon: Can you remind people what those were?

Pamela: Yeah, something I don’t really want to remember, but it was these hand-knit, hot-pink hats that women put on their heads to look like women’s vaginas.

The impetus presumably was Trump’s comment, “grab them by the pussy,” which he said, shamefully, in that Access Hollywood tape that leaked shortly before the election, which is frankly the moment that I emotionally detached myself from his presidency.

Jon: It was super-narish, but the hats were a weird way to react to it.

Pamela: I felt like once he made that comment, I thought this man cannot become president. Not that I ever thought he could before because I’m from New York. That said, despite those being my feelings, I would never put on a pussy hat. I don’t want to be next to someone in a pussy hat. My feeling with crowds is I don’t ever want anyone to [look at me and] think that I’m a part of this, whatever “this” is. There are some people who really like to be in a group of other people where everyone is vibing together. I get suspicious when I’m in a crowd like that. I have a temperamental fear of guilt by association.

My feeling with crowds is that I don’t ever want anyone to look at me in that group and think that I’m a part of this—whatever ‘this’ is. I have a temperamental fear of guilt by association.

Jon: The conceit of the protests is that, hey, we’re this super-free thinking group of dissidents. But as soon as you get more than four people together, they start setting rules. There was a weird thing, I think it was actually here in Canada, where there was a pro-Palestinian encampment. There was a rule that went out saying no one’s allowed to have sex. Because when you have sex, it compromises the political energy we’re supposed to be using to fight fascism and stuff.

I have no particular position on whether people in encampments should be having sex. To me, it’s gross, because everyone’s all sweaty and it smells terrible, but be that as it may, it’s the same impulse as fascism and communism, where you’re trying to control people’s lives, and you’re not allowed to tweet certain things, and you have to keep a mask on, and satire and humor are absolutely not permitted.

There is a fixation on control. Like, this can become its own totalitarian vibe, right?

Pamela: Oh, absolutely. And then the second part, which is tied to that, is the simplicity of the message, by which I mean over-simplicity, because if you’re going to do a call and response, then it has to be super simple.

It’s the reduction of everything to slogans. I remember when I went up to, when I first saw the Columbia protests, which was on the first day of the encampment this [past] spring, I saw people with signs that said, and they were all chanting, “NYPD, KKK.” So NYPD is New York Police Department, and KKK, obviously, is Ku Klux Klan.

And I’m looking at these police officers and they are, many of them, black or Hispanic or otherwise non-white—probably some of them were Jewish, I don’t know, but this is a multicultural city, and to call those police officers “KKK” is so disrespectful. It’s so oversimplistic and these guys are just doing their jobs.

This is the same reason that I got off Twitter, too. I just don’t feel like having complicated situations reduced to easily yelled slogans.

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Jon: When people are in this kind of protest situation, they change. They become another kind of person. Nellie Bowles, who used to work at The New York Times, and we had her on the podcast a couple weeks ago… she’s written a new book, and she reported being next to someone at a protest [in L.A.] who was screaming at a police officer whose name was Brad: “Why don’t you kill yourself, Brad? I’m going to follow you around until you kill yourself…” just the most demented crazy stuff.

Pamela: Yeah, I know Nellie and we were on Bill Maher recently together, and I’ve read her book and it’s absolutely true: I often see the madness of crowds. And I think it does bring out the worst in people in the same way that social media brings out the worst in people because while we are social creatures, many of us are very tribal creatures, too. And again, it’s really easy for a lot of people to get swept up in it.

I don’t really get into that. I’m more into, like, skiing down an empty mountain slope kind of thing.

Jon: That’s the opposite of a protest.

Pamela: There are all kinds of journalists. But a lot of writers, generally speaking, can tend to be introspective. We’re people who like to sit in front of a keyboard and type all alone. And even if you’re in the newsroom, it’s a solitary activity and we’re the observers, right? We’re the ones who are watching and then writing down what we watch. It’s not to say there aren’t very good journalists who probably would love to yell in crowds, but it’s not me.

Jon: You acknowledge that protest has in the past had all kinds of good effects. Civil rights, obviously. And women’s suffrage. So is one critique of what you’ve written here, is it that somebody has to [protest] it, in the sense that somebody has to push the arrow of history forward. And if it weren’t for protest, South Africa would still be ruled by a white supremacist government and we wouldn’t have the Civil Rights Act in the United States and women wouldn’t be allowed to vote, or Stonewall…

Pamela: First of all, Selma this was not. When I watch footage of Civil Rights era protests, I’m moved to tears. But you have to remember that there are all kinds of ways to effect change. So one of the responses I got was that I have the privilege of being able to write, right?

And not all of us have that privilege. And it’s a very privileged position. [Others say] “We can’t write about things. So the only way we can do it is by yelling in the streets or occupying part of a highway or a campus.” But those are not the only two ways to effect change. Some people have lots of money and they effect change that way. That’s not me. But there are also quiet ways to effect change on a grassroots level that don’t involve protesting. And while it is definitely true that protests did in many ways help effect change with apartheid in South Africa, for example, there were lots of other people involved in making those changes that weren’t necessarily the loudest voices that you saw, the ones out on the streets.

Again, I’m not entirely condemning protests in my column. I’m just saying it’s not for me. So part of what I wanted to do with that particular column, and one of the reasons I chose to make it satirical is that satire is a way of pointing out some of the ridiculous or extreme or questionable aspects of something.

There were tons of people, as I said earlier, on those campuses who were not occupying anything or protesting. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. Doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily indifferent, but maybe they’re helping out someone in need. They’re doing something good in the world. Just a different thing.

Jon: Yeah, although I guess there is this unfortunate ethos these days that if you didn’t take a selfie doing it, it didn’t happen, right?

Pamela: That’s another aspect of these protests, which I think really differentiates them from protesters in the past who could get arrested, who could go to jail…These protesters seem to want a lot of attention paid to the fact they were protesting, but also a good many of them were masked and covered up so that they could not be held responsible for their actions.

There are lots of people who don’t protest because they are working a full-time minimum wage hourly job and they don’t have the time to go out there and protest. Whereas many of these protesters are very privileged college students and they are able to take time out of their day and they’re being excused from their classes or whatever, so they know that it’s okay to protest.

It’s not going to have bad repercussions on them, maybe because their professors have encouraged them to protest. So there’s all different kinds of privilege there, too.

Jon: There was at least one university in Atlantic Canada where the professors, they had this whole formal system whereby they allowed their students time off to protest. And at the graduation ceremony, their invited speaker—this is, I think, Dalhousie University in Halifax—the speaker who was a professor of anti colonialism or whatever, he exhorted everyone to go down to the anti-Israel protest after they’d taken pictures with their parents and thrown their mortarboards in the air.

Pamela: Yeah, there was a professor at one of the UC schools in California, the public universities there, who cancelled a class so that they could all go protest.

Again, I consider that to be professionally irresponsible because there are kids there who might be working their way through college on scholarship or going there with financial hardship. They really want to take that class and they paid for it and you’re abdicating responsibility as a professor to not hold that class.

Jon: One of the weird things, and you’ve alluded to it, is this idea that civil disobedience should come with a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Pamela: It’s like you want all the credit and none of the responsibility.

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Jon: I wrote a long article about this meltdown that happened at Haverford College, this elite college in Pennsylvania. The students, this is during the heyday of BLM, the students turn the campus upside down and one of their demands, which the president of the college was more than happy to give in on, is they wanted the library of the college to set up this permanent display celebrating the stunningness and braveness of the protesters—which the college did!

If you go to the main library at Haverford College, you will now find, apparently, an exhibit talking about how wonderful the protestors were and how grateful the university was that they had essentially created chaos on campus for weeks.

Pamela: The people who are really upset about the death of civilian women and children and the elderly in Gaza could also have used that time and energy to do blood drives, to do fundraising, to volunteer for organisations that are providing direct aid. So there’s lots of different ways if you are animated by an issue to take action.

I’m sure there were all different kinds of protests, and some of them might have been really lovely and focused on peace, but the ones that I saw personally, that’s not how I would describe them. I would have described them as really quite angry.

Jon: Can I ask you a question about that? Because I was in your backyard a couple weeks ago. I was in New York City. So the stuff at Columbia was horrible. At one point, they broke into the administration’s office and they had to be removed by police. But then I was strolling around southern Manhattan, and I was near NYU. The protest I saw at NYU, they called it a “Shabbat for Gaza” because it was led by highly progressive Jewish students. They were giving out free food at what they referred to as a Shabbat dinner.

They did it in Washington Square. They weren’t blocking people from accessing campus buildings. Do you have any explanation for why at some major universities in the United States, there’s been no protests, and at other universities, there’s been moderate, peaceful protests, and then at others it gets really radical and violent.

Pamela: The NYU protests that you described sound really nice. There were more militant protests at NYU as well, so I don’t know that you can fully exonerate that. There was a group, and I can’t remember now where it appeared, that analysed which schools had protests and which ones didn’t. And they found that the more elite schools were more likely to have more protests. There’s all kinds of reasons why that might be, it would really be theorising.

Also, the historically black colleges and universities, the HBCUs, did not have a lot of protesting. Also, they don’t have a lot of Jews on campus. Maybe there’s less of a sense of “the enemy is present,” or they don’t have the [high numbers of Zionists]…

Jon: To be fair, at least here in Canada, these protests have at least a handful of Naomi Klein-type Jews who are only too happy to [appear] front and centre.

Pamela: Jews are divided on the issue. But I was surprised that there were not more pro-Palestinian protests that chose Hamas as the target, because Hamas has been occupying Gaza since 2005 [when Israel withdrew]. Hamas has been the one that has been often using places where civilians live and go to school, and hospitals, putting their own citizens in danger. So I guess I’m surprised that, at least from what I saw, I did not see any messaging to that effect.

[00:23:12] Jon: [In terms of right-wing protests] you talk about people on the 4th of July, shouting “USA!” at the National Mall—like it’s a soccer tournament or something.

Pamela: When I was writing about that incident, I had just moved back from living in Thailand and travelling a lot around Asia while I was living there. And it just seems so strange to me to be yelling in favour of your country like that. I just couldn’t imagine what it meant.

It felt like such a weird version of patriotism because yes, the implication is that there’s another team. And I also just felt like, I don’t know, like you can love your country, maybe be proud of your country, but you also have to acknowledge that we’re not the only country out there with cool things and good ideas.

Jon: You mentioned that, I think, you say the last time you were at a protest was when you signed up to a pro-choice protest at college, and you say you signed up to escort patients at a local abortion clinic.

So, one of the reasons I called you to do this podcast is that’s exactly my experience. The last time I was participating in a protest was, I’m dating myself here, the late 1990s. I was at law school and some women I knew, they took me to a pro-choice protest at a local abortion clinic because there’s all these socially conservative Christians protesting the place.

And I went there and I was like, “Oh, this is great. I’m pro choice and I’m part of the solution!” But in reality, it was this thing where these women [getting abortions] would come, and we would say, “Hey, do you want us to protect you as you go through the protesters?” And they were like, “No, get lost.” They were just going through this terrible time and they were getting an abortion. And the last thing they wanted is for other people to co-star in this drama that was going on in their life, and the whole thing felt stupid. On top of the fact that all these fellow law school protesters I was with were getting into these yelling matches with these pro-life people… little old ladies church ladies who had these signs with pictures of foetuses and stuff. And I tried to get into it with the pro-life people, but almost immediately, I was like “What am I even doing? How does this help?” I felt like the [law school] people were there for themselves.

Pamela: Yeah, you have to ask yourself, Who am I really helping here? And is it just about making myself feel good?

Jon: Although, you know what? I did continue trying to do good in the world. The woman who had enlisted me, what I ended up doing for her, which I think was more consistent with my personality, was I dressed up in this giant snowman suit as part of her anti-rape self-defence class. The women would practise hitting me and stuff because you need to have somebody wearing a safety suit who they practice their self-defence on. And that felt like a useful thing to do. As I was writhing around on the ground, I was like, “Okay, this works. I can do this.”

So, before I let you go, you have this intriguing reference. I haven’t seen the movie. It says in your column that “in 2020, when people were posting black squares on Instagram to show their anti-racist cred, I insisted that we watch To Live for family movie night. Zhang Yimou’s depiction of the Cultural Revolution provides a terrifying warning to those who think offering children a bullhorn is a good idea.” I don’t know that movie, but could you tell our listeners about that?

Pamela: Oh, God, you want to get me on a whole Zhang Yimou thing? He’s an amazing director. The movie is about a poor family under adverse circumstances whose lives are catastrophically disrupted by the Cultural Revolution. And I don’t want to give away what is really the most tragic scene in the movie, but suffice to say that if you replace all of the adults with children, and adult things need to be done, you don’t always end up with the best results.

There’s a really tragic scene involving a hospital where the doctors have all been marched off to struggle sessions and reeducation camps and publicly humiliated. And the med students take charge of the hospital without having completed their medical education. You can imagine what happens.

Jon: Wow. I was excited about Minions 4, but your movie sounds good, too.

Pamela: I know. I’m sorry. It’s not going to be as fun as Minions 4.

Jon: Pamela Paul is a columnist for the op ed page of The New York Times. Her June 20, 2024 column was entitled, No, I Don’t Want to Protest.

Pamela, thanks so much for being on the Quillette podcast.

Pamela: Thank you for having me.

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