It’s amazing the things one runs into in the neighborhood.

Wherever you are. Just open the door and step outside. Take a stroll, give it a little walkabout. You’re bound to run into something extraordinary.

And informative. If not life-changing.

Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. But, when I did, just the other day, I did. Take a stroll, that is; then find something out of the ordinary. something informative and well — thought-provoking. What I found just down the street was: a bunch of banners, some angry voices raised in wrath at certain powers that be, a smattering of reporters, a few police tucked in the corner watching it all with a jaundiced, “can’t-get-too-worked-up-about-this-it’s-only-Pasadena-fer-chrissakes” eye . . .

. . . and a bunch of questions. Like:

  • What’s going on here?

  • Why is everyone out here shouting and looking so distressed?

  • What does China have to do with this ole town in the southwest corner of California?

  • Are the silver-haired grandmas in their floral blouses with the oversized posters the good guys . . . or the bad guys?

  • What did Beijing do to Pasadena to create such a furor?

The answers were actually more than a bored afternoon walker with a little time on his hands could possibly have hoped for.

Pasadena, as you may know, is famous for its annual Rose Parade — well, “Tournament of Roses” in official parlance. And, apparently, in this year’s parade a float from China — and specifically trumpeting the 2008 Olympics — is slated to appear. And there’s the rub. Pasadena — and other nearby communities like South Pas and Alhambra and Sierra Madre and San Marino and Gardena and Monterey Park — are home to thousands of Chinese. Some from Taiwan, others refugees from Hong Kong or recent emigres from China, itself. People presumably with money. And many of them have an ax to grind, it seems, with Beijing. And most of those axes seem to have amassed in front of the Wrigley Mansion, official headquarters of the Tournament of Roses Committee.

The banners propped up on the lush island of lawn swimming between Orange Grove Boulevard and the bright faux-Italian palatial estate speak of the oppression of Falun Gong members, in particular, along with complaints by Tibetan independence activists, groups from Myanmar, and advocates of religious and journalistic freedom. Many of the signs are written in kanji, with inelegant, at times abstruse, English translations above; but the pictures make up for any missed message: they are graphic in their depiction of torture, brutalization, and death. How true this all is, the peripatetic taking his casual promenade around a medium-sized American city about a third the way around the globe from the alleged scene of the crimes, cannot possibly know. But the earnestness of the protesters, coupled with vetigial recollections of the cultural revolution by way of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Tiananmen Square leads one to imagine this could easily be so.

The protesters, themselves, are pleasant enough, their demeanor solicitous, if not upbeat and bright. A few pose for photos, chat excitedly on cell phones, hand out promotional literature, trying to gain a sympathetic ear.

Even if I am only a private citizen out for his daily constitutional.

The media do turn out, too, so the protesters also get a chance to make more public noise, through the vessel of the press.

And though the press plays their part — each major outlet publishing at least one story — in the end, the protesters’ message falls on deaf ears. Despite allegations that Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard pressed for inclusion of the float due to his close association with China, the city council ultimately votes in favor of favoring Pasadena’s newest national buddies. According to this account this will be the first time that China has ever had a float in the world-famous Rose Parade.

Another sign, one supposes, of the former isolated giant joining the community of nations. An active participant now in our gargantuan world of pop (thereby sealing the deal of joining the fellowship of consumer frivolity).

And the best part for China?: free pub. The $400,000 float will cost them absolutely nothing. According to the LA Times, the entry will be bankrolled “by 10 wealthy Chinese American donors, some of whom have business interests in China, and Pasadena-based Avery Dennison Corp., which has thousands of employees in China and assumed half of the float’s . . . cost.”

(And, no — in case you were curious — the float’s message will not be about its great success in political oppression. In keeping with the parade’s theme of “Passports to the World’s Celebrations,” it has been announced that the Chinese float will herald the 2008 Beijing Olympiad, via the Games’ official cartoon mascots.)

And then came the report that, when I read it, I just had to laugh.

It was oh, so much like America, I thought, with its medium- and large-size towns captive to their small-town sensibilities. So much so that when you read comments like this and have to wonder: “where the who do we manage to get all this talent, anyway?”

I mean, imagine all the education, all the money that went into acquiring the pinache and polish to produce the subsequent expenditure of electrical activity in the nether reaches of his dithering noggin . . . according to this story, following hearings before Pasadena’s Human Relations Commission, and prior to the city council vote, the following recommendation was tendered: that “the city council . . . formally look into the issue, and suggested that the Dalia Lama (sic), a Tibetan spiritual leader, be grand marshal of next year’s parade.”

Now, if there wasn’t a better example of 27 years of education exposed as a sham in one simple utterace. They didn’t even get the Supreme Spiritual Leader’s name right!!! But they want to invite him anyway. Well, sure . . . I think he would go for that . . . don’t you?

Or, I suppose if you wanted to be charitable (which is, after all, a key plank in the American philosophy), you could say that they were simply displaying the American penchant for treating politics as the art of compromise . . . As in:

“Well now . . . you all say that the Tibetans got an issue with this here Chinese entry? Hell, I can solve that. Just make their top guy the Grand Marshall next time ’round. That oughta appease ’em. Fair is square, you know.”

But can you imagine this spiritual leader — the one who, according to his web site is “recognized as the manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet, who has postponed his own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth in order to serve humanity” — sitting for 3 hours in an open-air Lincoln waving to Okahomans and Arkansans and Iowans here on a seven-day westward swing in their flannel shirts, overalls and clodhoppers, while the 80-piece West San Antonio High School Marching Band strut to The Doors‘ “Light My Fire”?

Or perhaps that is the Dalai Lama’s definition of human service?

Or might just could be his Nirvana . . .

Well, as I walked away from the site of this short-lived, and ultimately futile, protest-a-float, the thought came to me that “this America, it is the society of protest. Everywhere — in every single nook and cranny, there is protest afloat.” America is the land where all are allowed to give voice to their displeasure. A country where the first amendment provides people with the right to assemble, and the freedom to express their private thoughts publicly. That right is all around us — embodied daily in certainly hundreds, possibly thousands, of organized activations of dissonance. One only has to scan headlines to find writers on strike in Hollywood, replete with picket lines and public expressions of disapproval by workers claiming that their bosses are cutting them out of a fair share of profits. This is only the most visible of the current vocal discord. All around us public expression percolates, extending to venues large and small, public, semi-public, and even private. Cars sport bumper stickers proclaiming:

“Make the world safe for democracy: impeach Bush”


“If you don’t like how I’m driving . . . glad to hear it.”

At the semi-public corporation where I am currently working, the University of California, when fee hikes are proposed, students protest by stripping off their shirts (“the shirt off our backs” — get it?), and when the nuclear labs are up for review, hearings are disrupted by protesters whose outbursts result in their being dragged off to jail.

Not all of this is visible during a simple stroll out the door, for sure. More and more, public disagreements and private grievances are taken out of visible, shared physical space, and played out in the less obtrusive webbed world. A parallel universe unseen and unheard by many. This has produced a kind of paradox of sorts. Because while there is an increase in perceived power, there is, in actuality, an immense diminution of efficacy. Yes, discourse has multipled at an exponential rate — thanks to the proliferation of chat rooms, message boards, and the blogosphere; yet, the voices have managed mostly to paint over one another — to the point where almost none can any longer be seen, nor heard. Viewing protest today It would appear that the multiplication of opinion has managed only to generate noise; it is certainly doubtful that there is anything close to the core of criticality required to engineer effective dissent. For the most part, the new world of dispute amounts to nothing more than solitary howls sent up in the face of shrill, gusting wind, coursing through a long narrow tunnel, emptying into deepest outer space.

Reminding one of the tagline from the original Alien:

In space, no one can hear you scream

While that doesn’t minimize the overall reality — that anyone taking a step out into our world will find protest afloat — it certainly mitigates the consequences.

As the Tibetan and Falun Gong protesters outside Pasadena’s Wrigley Mansion recently discovered.