.00001 Billion Rising: Another Failed Mass Movement

February 14 has rolled around again, and we all know what that means — right?

No, you silly, not Valentine's Day. That's heteronormative and has thus been condemned to the dustbin of history.

And no, it doesn't even mean V-Day, the rape-themed anti-holiday invented to promote Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues. V-Day has gotten stale.

Instead, February 14 is now 1 Billion Rising day, Ensler's new dance-oriented hijacking of her own V-Day which was itself a hijacking of Valentine's Day. The thesis behind 1 Billion Rising is that if the world's one billion rape victims all rose up en masse and danced every February 14, then rape would cease to exist because unicorns and rainbows.

I attended San Francisco's second annual 1 Billion Rising event, one of many similar events held in cities around the world.

We gathered in front of San Francisco's City Hall at 4 p.m. for the ecstatic festivities. Would we reach one billion participants and stop rape forever?

I had previously estimated the attendance at last year's event as somewhere around two thousand. But the 2014 1 Billion Rising, as shown by this overall shot of the pitiful crowd I snapped from behind the stage, was much smaller — a few hundred at most. This newspaper report says there were only 100 participants, while a more generous media estimate says "nearly 400" at the high end, most of whom showed up late in the event to hear Black Eyed Peas rapper apl.de.ap spin records as the headlining attraction.

The event's own official Web page reveals that only 71 people RSVPed, which seems about right, considering that well over half the people on hand were the organizers, performers, staff, volunteers, speakers and security.

Even an impromptu pillow fight flash mob, which happened at the same time as 1 Billion Rising just a short distance away in SF, drew a much larger crowd, driving home the point that Ensler's depressing attempt to transform Valentine's Day into a rant about rape hasn't caught on, even in the most sympathetic political environment.

Organizers might counter my dismissal by pointing out that the San Francisco event is only one out of "hundreds" of 1 Billion Rising events around the world, but even their own promotional video, shown here as part of a TV news report, reveals that most of those other events are even smaller.

1 Billion Rising? More like a few thousand, grand total, worldwide. The problem with overselling yourself with a grandiose name is that when you fail to meet your promise, you look foolish. And unimportant. And small

In the final analysis, like all "protest movements" 1 Billion Rising is selling a product — in this case the notion that rape and wife-beating are an emergency crisis that deserves more attention and money than other crises — and to sell any product in America you need pretty girls. Except in this case they aren't draped over the hood of a sportscar or putting on the season's latest fashions; instead, they're chosen to stand on stage and hold the official signs. Yet since the entire ethos of 1 Billion Rising is to oppose the objectification of women, well...am I getting dizzy or are the fumes of cognitive dissonance filling the room?

The point I made in last year's 1 Billion Rising report remains true:

The main problem I have with 1 Billion Rising and V-Day and SlutWalk and all the rest is that they are purposeless — protests "against" a non-existent strawman. The only legitimate rationale behind having any kind of political protest is to support one side or the other in a contested ideological battle. But in this case, we're protesting against rape, even though there is nobody in this country who supports rape.

Sure, there are rapists out there, but I kinda get the feeling none would go to a rally like this to have their minds changed, and they sure as hell don't care what a bunch of protesters have to say on the topic (presuming on the off-chance that a rapist would ever hear of events like these, which is extremely doubtful). Rapists already know that rape is "wrong," but somehow that knowledge never dissuaded them in the past. Furthermore, there already are laws against rape and sexual abuse — laws with amongst the most severe punishments in our legal system. So: everybody (except for psychopaths) already hates rape. Rape is already as illegal as it can be. Rape is universally loathed. What more do you want?

In response to my criticism, the organizers claim that the message of 1 Billion Rising is not directed at men/rapists, but rather at women/victims, and that the purpose is to "empower" victims and "raise awareness" of the problem. Take, for example, this quote from one of the organizers of the S.F. event:

"I stand here as a woman with my strength and power. And say it's not okay anymore. We have to stop this," Lyn Augstein said.

Critics have questioned the impact of the global dance initiative but in interviews published Friday, organizers declared the dancing has had a tangible impact.

In a press call with reporters, Ensler herself explained how this is all supposed to work:

"I had a vision that the one billion women who will be raped or beaten in their lifetime, I had a vision of them and all the men who loved them rising and dancing to end violence against women."

Missing from these quotes is any explanation of how "standing here as a woman with my strength and power" and "rising and dancing to end violence against women" will miraculously translate into a lower crime rate. What we have here is a classic example of "magical thinking," which confuses symbolic gestures with effective action. One is reminded of The Ghost Dance of the 1890s, in which Native Americans tried to stop the advance of Western Civilization by engaging in a series of dance rituals. Needless to say, the Ghost Dance was ultimately futile, as will be the dances of 1 Billion Rising.

Despite this, the joke's on me, because Ensler has already raised $100 million to promote her dance project. Perhaps the name refers not to the number of participants, but rather Ensler's fundraising goal: $1 Billion Rising out of your pockets into our bank account.

Enough with the overview. Let's get down to details!

A group of hardcore radicals joined the 1 Billion Rising event but at first stood at the other end of the plaza from the main stage, where they announced through megaphones that they were going to tear up pornography and Bibles, to make the point that both Christianity and the sex industry are part of the patriarchy oppressing women, and equally to blame. They tore up porn and the wind scattered it around the plaza.

I came in close to try to see the torn-up Bibles too, but instead the porn just blew in my face.

After they left and rejoined the main event in front of City Hall, I sifted through their protest litter and discovered that they hadn't torn up actual Bibles, but rather signs on which Bible quotes had been written.

Each attendee was handed a placard on which was printed "This is what JUSTICE looks like" followed by a blank area that we were supposed to fill with our visions of justice. Having completed the placards, we then had our souvenir pictures taken in the 1 Billion Rising photo tent.

Most of the messages were predictably feminine and psychological...

...but there were a few hardcore definitions of justice that were much more practical and effective and which I could therefore get behind enthusiastically (at least the nuts-and-bolts punishment part, not the passive-aggressive psycho-babble).

Planned Parenthood drew a small crowd by handing out free t-shirts. Except — there was a catch. In order to get your "free" t-shirt, you had to first sign your name on some petition they had. It later dawned on me: isn't it illegal to pay people for signatures on petitions? And isn't a t-shirt a payment-in-kind, a bribe of sorts?

Despite the borderline illegality of it all, they had plenty of takers, and soon all the t-shirts were gone, and the petition was filled with signatures. Hey, whatever it takes — right?