You won’t be reading this in the mainstream media but there are social movements challenging the status quo from Canada to Mexico–the North American Free Trade Association is kicking back. In Mexico, the media are directly the target of the movement. In Canada, you’ll get a completely different story depending on whether you’re Francophone or Anglophone. And in the US, silence reigns.
On the way back into my building last night after the solidarity march, I met a neighbor who asked me why I was all dressed in red. So I explained and she was genuinely surprised: a New York Times-reading, PBS-watching liberal with literally no idea this had happened. This morning I checked the online media and there was no mention of events in Quebec in either the Times or the London Guardian, which I tend to think of as more progressive. There was a video deep down on Le Monde‘s website.
So is this a classic case of what Noam Chomsky called “manufacturing consent”? There’s a good deal of that certainly. At the same time, media professionals are consciously following their own sense of what makes news. Underneath these familiar, if frustrating, patterns, something else can be glimpsed–the possibility that this is in fact turning into an exception to the “business as usual” relation between media, elites, and people.
Clearly, media outlets want to cover things as “news,” what’s exceptional from the everyday. Once things become “normal,” even if they are protests at what is taken to be normal, they drop back into the blur of the everyday. So even if journalists believe themselves to be doing a good job of representing the “news,” social movements are going to find it difficult to feature without “victories.”
It’s intriguing that the newest student-led social movement in Mexico is directed precisely against media bias, in the anxiety that media collusion is helping the chances of the PRI to return to power, over a decade after the long-term single party was voted out. Even the Wall Street Journal has noticed:
“The protest movement has already achieved the impossible: forcing Televisa to cover an insurrection by young people,” political analyst Sergio Aguayo wrote on Mexico’s Animal Politico website.
Students drove the PRI candidate out of a university, leading to allegations that they were not really students. 131 students posted their identities to Facebook and as a result the Twitter hashtag is #yosoy132, “I am 132.” The movement’s goal is free elections and equality of information, which would be a social revolution. 50,000 marched in Mexico City this past weekend. Can social media lead a challenge to entrenched broadcast media and political power in the Americas, as well as in North Africa?
Montreal raises the bar still higher. Anglophone media have treated Loi 78 as normal legislation, or at best a Special Law, meaning that the protests against it are not significant. The Francophone media has quite correctly called it a “loi d’exception,” a law of exception. Such a law is, as many emphasized during the second Bush administration, a law that suspends the normal operations of law in order to defend the force of law. That is, those in power see the existing legislation as insufficient to enforce consent and pass a law giving them exceptional powers. The paradox here is that the law of exception reveals the force at work in the “normal” law at the point when people cease to consent to obey it.
The particular force of the Montreal law is that it undercuts the one space of exception left to the dominated. Standard law does not expect or provide for the repeated defiance of a particular piece of legislation. Thus New York public-private spaces were open 24-7 as a hedge against the private owner closing the space for their own purposes. It had not been considered that a group of private citizens might choose to occupy the space 24-7. It was, after a duration of time, intolerable to city authorities, who realized that their ability to enforce consent was being challenged. The evictions were done as sheer force with the flimsiest of justifications.
In Montreal, the repetition has been of the right to strike and the right to march. As the strike continued towards 100 days and the nightly marches reached into the 20s, a form of panic seems to have set in among state government. After the initial outcry, they fell back on the strategy of claiming that the law was in fact “normal” because other cities like New York and London had similar laws. Despite their penchant for violence, the Montreal police do not so far seem inclined to use their new powers. Talk of negotiations has surfaced at once.
It matters a good deal how this ends. If the students agree to some deal that leaves the law of exception in place, the state will have gained notable, if formal, new powers. It will also set a precedent that other cities like New York might look at with interest. That is, it will be said that the law brought about an end to the crisis. Canadian conservatives are claiming that this is now a movement “about nothing” and the law is perfectly reasonable in the main. A media narrative of the power of the exception is in the making.
On the other hand, the Montreal movement currently has dual power. Unlike, exceptionally, many other such movements globally, it has not yet chosen to exercise that power except in calling for an end to the neo-liberal policies of the Quebec administration. Should they take exception at the way their self-evident mandate is received, that might change. Normally, in North American societies, that doesn’t happen. Whatever this is, it isn’t normal.