Enough with the Drum Circles
Published on October 26, 2011 by Sara Foss

I visited New York City back in September, in the early days of Occupy Wall Street. My friend Susanna and I wandered by Zuccotti Park multiple times, and were intrigued by the motley band of folks gathered there. But we weren't impressed by the park's drum circle, because we are both anti-drum circle. This prejudice dates back to college, when warm weather brought the barefoot, drum-playing hippies into the quad. My friends and I generally gave these drum circles a wide berthe.

The drum circle at Zuccotti Park has inspired some interesting op-eds. Even sympathetic writers have expressed impatience with the drum circle; recently, The Nation's Katha Pollit wrote a fairly complimentary piece about OWS, but opened her piece with some anti-drum circle commentary:

"What a difference a few short weeks can make. The early word on Occupy Wall Street was that it was a motley collection of flakes and fools. 'Purpose in 140 or less,' tweeted CNN financial correspondent Alison Kosik, 'bang on the bongos, smoke weed!' (She’s since deleted that tweet.) New York Times financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin, author of Too Big to Fail, asked on CNBC’s Squawk Box, 'Do we think that the whole Wall Street protest is overdone, real, not real? Were there really a lot of people down there? Were there a lot? I could never tell.' In a Times human interest column the archetypal OWS protester was 'a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka.' Arch condescension was definitely the dominant tone of mainstream coverage, and maybe a bit of it was even deserved: if you’re going to protest the policies of the Federal Reserve, you should probably know what it is, and speaking just for myself, the sooner the Zuccotti Park encampment loses the drum circle, the better. Men thumping away for hours on end, girls in tank tops vaguely dancing about—it’s just not the look you want for a movement that claims to be about getting rid of hierarchy."

That last sentence does a pretty good job of capturing some of my feelings about drum circles, for what it's worth.

Earlier this week, Slate reported that OWS organizers fear drum circles could doom the movement. Will Oremus writes:

"Someday the Occupy Wall Street protests will end, and the only question is whether they will go out with a bang or a whimper—or a lot of loud banging followed by whimpers.

At least one organizer fears it’s the latter. An anonymous activist wrote a letter to the literary magazine N+1 on Monday warning that drum circles are causing such an outcry that it could derail the whole movement. Really.

It seems a core group of beat-niks in New York’s Zuccotti Park has been holding marathon jam sessions from mid-morning until late at night every day, punishing the eardrums of their fellow protesters and the surrounding neighborhood. Teachers at a school across the street have complained they can’t teach. And the local neighborhood community board is holding a meeting Tuesday night in which it could revoke its support of the protests if it’s not satisfied that the noise will subside.

The drummers’ refusal to be silenced has opened cracks in the leaderless movement. The general assembly that has formed to oversee the protests proposed to limit the drumming to two hours per day, but the drummers fought back. One 18-year-old drummer told New York Magazine, 'They are becoming the government we’re trying to protest. They didn’t even give the drummers a say ... Drumming is the heartbeat of this movement. Look around: This is dead, you need a pulse to keep something alive.' The circles have continued."

The above quote from the 18-year-old drummer simply reinforces my anti-drum circle prejudice. It reminds me of the time I went to an Old Crow Medicine Show concert and encountered a bunch of angry hippies, who yelled at and berated everyone who wasn't dancing. If there's one thing I hate, it's the insistence that everyone share the same cultural values, couched in vague rhetoric about peace, love and fighting the man. "If you don't love my drum as much as I love my drum, then you're part of the system ... All I want to do is make people happy, and keep this movement going." To which I say: Shut up, angry hippie.

Over at Dissent magazine, Danny Goldberg defends the drum circles, in a piece titled, "In Defense of Hippies." He writes:

"Progressives and mainstream Democratic pundits disagree with each other about many issues at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street protests, but with few exceptions they are joined in their contempt for drum circles, free hugs, and other behavior in Zuccotti Park that smacks of hippie culture.

In a post for the Daily Beast Michelle Goldberg lamented, 'Drum circles and clusters of earnest incense-burning meditators ensure that stereotypes about the hippie left remain alive.' At Esquire, Charles Pierce worried that few could 'see past all the dreadlocks and hear…over the drum circles.' Michael Smerconish asked on the MSNBC show Hardball if middle Americans 'in their Barcalounger' could relate to drum circles. The New Republic’s Alex Klein chimed in, 'In the course of my Friday afternoon occupation, I saw two drum circles, four dogs, two saxophones, three babies....Wall Street survived.' And the host of MSNBC’s Up, Chris Hayes (editor at large of the Nation), recently reassured his guests Naomi Klein and Van Jones that although he supported the political agenda of the protest he wasn’t going to 'beat the drum' or 'give you a free hug,' to knowing laughter.

Yet it is precisely the mystical utopian energy that most professional progressives so smugly dismiss that has aroused a salient, mass political consciousness on economic issues—something that had eluded even the most lucid progressives in the Obama era.

Since the mythology of the 1960s hangs over so much of the analysis of the Wall Street protests, it’s worth reviewing what actually happened then. Media legend lumps sixties radicals and hippies together, but from the very beginning most leaders on the left looked at the hippie culture as, at best, a distraction and, at worst, a saboteur of pragmatic progressive politics. Hippies saw most radicals as delusional and often dangerously angry control freaks. Bad vibes.

Not that there is anything magic about the word 'hippie.' Over the years it has been distorted by parody, propaganda, self-hatred, and, from its earliest stirrings, commercialism. In some contemporary contexts it is used merely to refer to people living in the past and/or those who are very stoned.

The hippie idea, as used here, does not refer to colloquialisms like 'far out' or products sold by dope dealers. At their core, the counterculture types who briefly called themselves hippies were a spiritual movement. In part they offered an alternative to organized religions that too often seemed preoccupied with rules and conformity, especially on sexual matters. (One reason Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism resonated with hippies was because they carried no American or family baggage.) But most powerfully, the hippie idea was an uprising against the secular religion of America in the 1950s, morbid “Mad Men” materialism, and Ayn Rand’s social Darwinism."

Goldberg concludes:

"Any bohemian movement will attract goofballs. Drum circles may inspire and unify a crowd in one situation, but simply drown out conversation in another. It is one thing for a polite protester to offer 'free hugs,' and quite another for a sweaty inebriate to impose them. The way to deal with this is to rebuke individual jerks, not to dismiss a vibrant section of mass culture.

As Martin Luther King pursued his strategy of nonviolent protest, the NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, who oversaw most of the legal strategy for the civil rights movement, mocked him by asking, 'How many laws have you changed?' King replied, 'I don’t know, but we’ve changed a lot of hearts.' Obviously, the civil rights movement needed both spiritual and legal efforts to achieve its goals. So do modern progressives. As Nick Lowe asked in the song made famous by Elvis Costello, 'What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?'"

I like Goldberg's piece, but he hasn't convinced me that drum circles are essential to progressive movements. His idea that OWS needs a spiritual dimension is an interesting one, and possibly true, but I would argue that spirituality is not contingent upon the presence of a drum circle. I would also argue that the 1960s were a long time ago, and that it's time for new art, music, writing and other forms of creative expression to emerge.

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