Editorial: Walking the Walk and Talking the Talk on a Spring Day

By Becky O'Malley
Friday March 21, 2008

It’s the vernal equinox again, sometimes called the first day of spring, and it’s the new year for those whose ancestors lived in places which were part of ancient Persia. That’s always seemed to me to be a better time to celebrate the new year than January, often cold and nasty, even better than the lunar new year as observed by many Asians, when the weather can also be dicey. By March 21 or so, no matter where you live in the northern hemisphere, some birds will be courting and some flowers will be blooming. (Of course in New England, where I lived for two miserable years, it has been known to snow again in May, but never mind.)  

Professor Muscatine in my undergraduate days at Cal delighted in reading the beginning of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to us in sonorous Middle English:  


“Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote 

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote... 

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”  


He’d modestly mock himself for doing this: “Here comes old ‘whan that Aprill’, they’re probably saying!” But he enjoyed it, and we enjoyed it with him. 

April’s not quite here yet, but what with climate change the weather has been Aprillish for a while now, the drought of March already pierced to the root a week early. California’s always odd—narcissi sometimes pop as early as Christmas, and the hummingbirds have been displaying their hormonal fitness since February at least. But the urge to get on the road for humans still starts round about the time of the equinox, to peak in April. Round about now people start making vacation plans, if they’re lucky enough to anticipate getting a vacation.  

And those folks around here who belong to the various sects of the modern religion of peace with justice still long to go on pilgrimages, as some of them did on Wednesday. Five years ago when we were gearing up for the insane enterprise of trying to provide a newspaper for Berkeley and environs we took time out to join the big pilgrimage up Market Street in San Francisco with hundreds of thousands of like-minded protestants around the world.  

It had roughly no effect. To this day well-meaning pols like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, not to mention less truthful colleagues, claim that they never knew, and how could they have known, no one told them that the whole enterprise was a fraud. We told you and we told you and we told you, folks, but you didn’t listen.  

The number of true believers in the pilgrimage method of opinion change has shrunk, and the mass movement has dissipated. Demonstrations this week were conducted by splinter groups, each with its own script, costumes and agenda. Without a printed program, it’s harder and harder to remember which group is accused of neo-Communism, which one is branded with anti-Zionism (often confused with anti-Semitism), which one is castigated for bourgeois idealism, and who wears pink, orange or red.  

All current pilgrims do seem to shun that blue-state blue as being too, too mainstream. The television networks have enacted a miraculous transformation of public color imagery. In the olden days, 40 years back and more, the leftists were “the Reds,” even “the Red menace” to some. This must confuse young people watching old news footage, because now the Red States are Republican and the Blue States are not. But for old times’ sake contemporary left activists still seem to favor reddish hues.  

Marches, whether mass or boutique in scale, are still a great way to get exercise and fresh air, much better for your health than pecking away on a keyboard at home to forward internet links to the unchurched. But effective? No.  

One reason marches have gotten old is that they were formerly used to get the attention of The Media, and now many committed activists are discovering that it’s much easier just to be the media yourself. Five years ago the Chronicle fired a technology columnist for joining a demonstration. This year if you wanted to know what happened at the demonstrations on Wednesday there were many participants with cameras who just posted themselves on the Internet without benefit of mediation by the shrunken Chronicle or any other medium. Many more with opinions to share are skipping demonstrations altogether and just doing the YouTube thing.  

Barack Obama’s transcendent speech on race this week was arguably the best speech on any topic by an American delivered in the last hundred years, and certainly the best since Franklin Roosevelt’s heyday. The most remarkable thing about it is that Obama seems to have written it himself, something Jack Kennedy never did. Even Roosevelt had a bevy of named speechwriters. And it is being disseminated largely without the press as intermediaries.  

On Thurday Renee Montagne told us on National Public Radio that, “The most popular video on YouTube has no lip-synching Chinese teenagers, no babies falling over, no drunk cats: It’s Barack Obama’s speech on race. So far, the Obama speech has been clicked on 1.6 million times.” 

The official commentators are doing their best to spin his speech, as are the bloggers, but the opportunity for citizens to know exactly was said by watching the event itself is unprecedented. Even in the early days of television, when networks were naive enough to let viewers see conventions in full without a barrage of commercials or talking heads, that wasn’t often possible.  

And thanks to modern communication technology, anyone who’s curious can just pick up a telephone to find out what’s going on anywhere. Yesterday I was wondering what was happening with the Democratic primary in Michigan, where I used to live, and was frustrated by how little I could learn even from the stories tracked on Google News. From a Google search I learned that the daughter of old friends who were the backbone of the Ann Arbor NAACP in the ’60s was now in the Michigan legislature, and that her top aide was someone with whom I’d walked many a picket line. I called the aide (quite a surprise after 40 years), and learned that the legislature was still haggling as of Wednesday, but that they would need a two-thirds vote to put a primary on the ballot, and the votes just didn’t seem to be there, nor the money.  

Of course big-buck backers from out of state might offer to pay for a Michigan primary for reasons of their own, but the legislature would still have to OK it. As of Thursday, the legislators were in the process of adjourning, not to come back into session until too late to schedule a primary. Eventually I’ll read about the outcome somewhere, but I got instant gratification for the price of a phone call. 

Modern technology also makes it possible for small-time operators like the Berkeley Daily Planet to exist in an odd limbo between old and new media, another improvement over the old days. It enables us to choose to let dissident members of the citizenry express themselves at considerable length without mediation, so they don’t necessarily have to stage parades to get attention.  

On lovely spring days like the one we had on Wednesday the idea of going on a march somewhere still appeals, but I’m pretty sure that I’m accomplishing more by staying at my keyboard these days. Nonetheless, talking on the phone to my old Ann Arbor compañera made me mighty nostalgic for that summer’s worth of fragrant Monday evenings when we pushed our babies in strollers and pulled our kids in wagons on a picket line around the Ann Arbor city hall in support of the local fair housing ordinance which, if memory serves, the city council eventually passed.  

Blogging and chatrooms are fine in their place, but not really as satisfying as walking outdoors with friends and talking about the important things in life as you do it. Maybe if peace ever returns we could celebrate by holding a triumphal peace march on a spring day, just for old times’ sake.