Once upon a time, when to protest meant something...

A Citizen headline the day the U.S. president arrived said "Demonstrators organized quickly for Bush visit." Yeah, I bet. Demonstrations are now mass-produced. They think they're raging against the machine, but they're actually part of it. Call it McProtest. The model here is not Woodstock, but Levitton, the first modern American suburb: standardized, interchangeable components made elsewhere for assembly on site quickly, cheaply and without much labour. At first glance it looks like a community, but it's not really very attractive and it doesn't hold up well. As Charles Gordon said in yesterday's Citizen, Ottawa's "demonstrations were half-hearted and formulaic."

Aye, there's the rub. They have a distinctly suburban tendency toward stifling conformity. Some 1960s protesters sought a truly different path. Drop out, join communes, grow organic vegetables. Or tour America with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, staging happenings the machine couldn't process. Maclean's reports a similar impulse in Britain today: "mobile clubbers check the website to find out when and where the next event will be ... show up and dance wildly to their iPods or Walkmans -- creating a spontaneous club atmosphere amid thousands of confused commuters."

Not Ottawa's grim, hard-core anti-Bush protesters. David Warren rightly noted the "faces contorted with rage" and "the void within." But a Citizen editorial Wednesday made an even more important point about "the smattering of thugs whose only real goal was to get on CNN" who, by charging a police line near the Chateau Laurier, "forced the riot squad to come out. That's when the TV networks broke in with live coverage."

Look, mom, I'm on TV. How bourgeois. Worse, as early as 1971, director Frank Capra complained that "Militants ... riot, demonstrate, burn, only when TV cameras are on them." Time-and-motion pioneer Frederick W. Taylor would approve. Why waste energy? Time is money.

It's understandable in McWorld. At one time, protests were genuine outpourings of public outrage and thus important public events. And in an era of the scientific study of human behaviour, what could be more natural than working at organizing them better and packaging the message for the mass media? But like orchestrated letter-writing campaigns or politicians' sound-bites, in the end the medium becomes the message.

Mass society has even turned No Logo into a logo. And, says the latest Maclean's, " 'Apathy is so last spring' reads the website of U.S. designers Politipunk, purveyors of hip, novelty T-shirts.... (In) high fashion, this fall was all about gem tones, herringbone tweeds and style-savvy democratic engagement" including one designer "offering free Kerry yo-yos with every purchase." But now it's been there, done that; "in the world of fashion, political convictions --just like hemlines -- are seasonal." Could an ad for a new, improved detergent be less authentic?

The problem of alienation in mass society will not be solved by mistaking freedom for dictatorship. As Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's The Rebel Sell warned in Sunday's Citizen, "the theory of society on which the countercultural ideal rests is false. We do not live in the Matrix, nor do we live in the spectacle ... The culture cannot be jammed because there is no such thing as 'the culture' or 'the system.' " So thoughtful protesters should ponder why mass-produced suburban housing and anti-capitalist modernist architecture both sacrificed the human element to the dictates of the assembly line.

The central problem, as usual, is an idea: Pervasive modern faith in social science. Socialist planners are at least as guilty as capitalist efficiency experts of seeing society as a vast machine for processing inputs of resources and human units scientifically and extruding vast uniform slabs of quantifiable human happiness at the other end. Scientific management of human behaviour does work, up to a point. But it tends to improve things bit by bit until they are totally ruined, a ghastly parody, like a mass-produced house or meal. Or protest.

Trying to get rid of all the problems of modern life with two days of cheap shots at George Bush is the political equivalent of junk food: quick and convenient, but bad for you in the long run. As the president's mother once said, "What happens in your house is more important than what happens in the White House."

Forget McProtest. We need to take our civilization back, one home-made soup at a time.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson