On Protest

You can’t be held down by a big bunch of lip,

And nobody cares about your paranoid trip.

You know Death and the Devil sure got it easy today,

Souls come so cheap, some people give theirs away.

You’ve got to break out!  You’ve got to prove you’re alive.

What makes you think that the weak survive?

And if you don’t have the stomach for all this radical crap,

Then have the guts to stand for something our you’re gonna be trapped!

Trapped in a world that you never made, a world that you never made.

Utopia, “Trapped”

As Will Rogers said, “All I know is what I read in the papers.”  There are a couple of significant items in the news today.  One is the commencement of the court-martial of pvt. Bradley Manning, the guy who sent thousands of classified documents to Wikileaks.  People were shocked – shocked! – to discover that governments engage in obfuscation, subterfuge and outright dishonesty in their dealings with each other.  Oh gosh, really?  How naïve do you have to be to not already realize that how’s it’s always been.  It’s called realpolitick, and without it, society wouldn’t be able to function in a high tech, post-nuclear age.

Let’s be clear of what Manning really stands accused of.  Behind all the rhetoric of “aid and comfort to the enemy” and “endangering lives,” stands one clear, undisputable fact: Manning violated the oath he took when he entered the military, the one where he swears to respect the chain of command and not violate orders.  One such order was to keep this information classified.  He took a sacred oath, and then violated it.  Period.  He committed treason, and the full weight of the Uniform Code of Military Justice must fall on him; if not, what’s to prevent others from just doing as they see fit?  The military works because it functions as a single entity.  When you join, you cease to be an autonomous human being and become the property of the United States government.  If you can’t handle that, don’t join (I didn’t).  Once you do join, you damn well better follow orders.

None of this is preventing people from rallying to his “defense,” calling for his immediate release, calling him a hero for being brave enough to tell the “truth” (again, who didn’t already know?).  Government should be answerable to the people, they say.  There should be no secrets.  Not surprisingly, there’s also a tremendous effort to make sure that every element of the trial be made public, to support the people’s “right to know.” 

What right?  Do we truly have a right to know every detail?  To those who say yes, I ask this: what are you looking for?  What “secret” information are you concerned about?  What are they trying to hide that has you worried?  “I don’t know,” you say, “but that’s the point.  The fact that it’s secret proves there’s something terrible going on.”  How paranoid can you get?You don’t know what you are looking for, but not knowing gives you the right to look for it?  Fair enough.  With that in mind, I assume I have your permission to ransack your house looking for… well, I don’t know what, but I should still have a right to look.  “What?  Hell no!  Stay out of my house!”  You have a right to know, but it doesn’t apply to yourself. 

It’s amazing how people can firmly believe two contrary things.Let me see if I can sum it up for everyone: “I have two unalienable rights, the right to know everything there is to know about others, and the right to prevent them from knowing anything about me.”  Makes perfect sense.  Nothing hypocritical there.

But back to the Manning supporters.  They stand in front of Federal Buildings, waving their signs, shouting their slogans, and doing everything else that passes for “protest” in the United States.  Which is ironic, given the other major news event of today.

Exactly twenty-five years ago today, the Tiananmen Square protests took place.  I assume everyone is familiar.  Student activists stood against repressive government forces in China, while the tanks were brought in and soldiers opened fire.  You all know the picture: a lone man stands in front of a tank.  The symbol of protest, of standing up against repression.  To this day no one knows what happened to him, but chances are he was executed.  For standing up.

Consider also the events of the last few years in places like Libya and Egypt and the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring.  People putting their lives on the line in uprisings named after the Prague Spring of the 1960s, where Soviet forces rolled tanks into the Czechoslovakian capitol where attempts were being made to open things up for democratic values.  Similar incidents have happened elsewhere, people risking their lives to stand up for what they believe is right.  Now let’s compare that to “protest” in America.

I’m talking about things like the Tea Party movement.  There are people screaming about “tyranny,” when what they really mean is that are expected to pay taxes for the things they take for granted.  Egged on by wealthy media figures, they argue against their own best interest by waving signs that compare Obama to Hitler and making dire predictions about “socialism” (whatever that means) and Obama turning the country into a dictatorship full of prison camps and death panels.

The government response?  Nothing.  No tanks have rolled into the town square.  No soldiers have opened fire.  Sure, there have been guns, but they are brought by the protestors, not the government.  Can you imagine what would have happened if a single Chinese dissident had been caught carrying a gun?  But, clueless of the rights they already enjoy, these people wave their guns to protest supposedly not being allowed to wave their guns.

And for this, they are not shot at, not arrested, not impeded.  Unlike for the Chinese, the Libyans, the Czechs, these people show up wearing their funny hats and waving signs with nonsensical rhetoric, and face no risk, no danger, no threat at all.  The worst thing that will happen is that they will go home, turn on the news, and not see themselves in front of the camera.

And they will indeed go home.  They will protest how bad things are, but then go home to continue to enjoy the highest standard of living the world has ever known.  They have food on the table, a safe place to live, and a government that is Constitutionally bound to protect those rights above all else.  And the fact that they still have them after two-hundred-plus years proves that the system works.

Lest I appear to singling out the Right in this, the Left is no better.  The Occupy movement is every bit as ridiculous.  The only difference is that they have little political influence, and thus their protests tend to turn into hacky-sack tournaments.  That the Tea Party does have influence owes less to their message than the fact that they are more easily co-opted by conservative politicians who are fighting for wealthy industrialists and corporate giants.  There’s money there, whereas there’s no money to be gained in supporting the Occupy movement.

To compare this idiotic posturing to real protest, where people with nothing to lose – because they have nothing – put their lives on the line, is offensive.  Show me a Tea Party or Occupy “protestor” willing to do that.  Show me just one who wouldn’t turn and run at the first sign of real oppression.  They would shut up in a hurry, because they know damn well that they actually have a whole lot to lose.

For such real protest in this country, we must go back to the 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement, where people did risk their lives.  Or further back, the labor riots of the early 20th century.  There, people fighting for a decent wage and non-lethal working conditions were oppressed by government forces who were so clearly in the pocket of the wealthy industrialists they didn’t even pretend they weren’t.  These are the same people, by the way, bankrolling the Tea Party and feeding average people’s unjustified fears, to keep them so distracted worrying about government secrets that they won’t notice that the corporations have been robbing them blind their entire lives.

So what am I really saying?  Don’t protest?  Shut up and enjoy what you have?  Well, when you have more than everyone else, it probably is a good idea to not make a fuss about it.  But what I’m really saying is to figure out what really matters, to find out how you can make a difference.  That comes from paying attention, listing to all sides, learning everything you can.  It means getting involved, not just waving signs.

And sometimes, occasionally, it means really putting your life on the line.  Anyone ready to do that?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “On Protest

  1. Jeff Nguyen

    I agree with the premise of your argument regarding protest that in America we’re fairly sheltered from the dictatorial abuses that take place around the globe on a daily basis. Where I differ is that while I wasn’t at these sites, there were widespread reports of pepper spraying and police heavy handedness at the Occupy protests, especially in NYC and Oakland.

    I think what many are trying to bring to the public consciousness is that even though we may not be as bad as Tiananmen Square, the writing is on the wall that there is a shift happening towards the suppression of dissent, whistleblowers and freedom of information that is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. In some senses, the last decade has been one long seamless regime from Bush to Obama.

    • Thanks for your comment. “Heavy handedness” is relative. I live near UC Davis, where one of the most infamous incidents took place, and it could have been avoided had the protestors been slightly less confrontational. It was a case of an ill-prepared campus police trying to deal with a hazardous situation, and all they were initially asking the protestors to do was move so as to not block a major thoroughfare. But that, of course was the point, to cause trouble. While there may be legitimate issues behind the protest, invitiably these movenents draw a percentage of people who are not concerned about the issue, but merely want to cause disorder, to get in people’s faces and “stick it to the man,” and the cause is irrelevant. They are wannabe anarchists who thrive on confrontation and conflict and who contribute nothing positive to the situation.

      I disagree that there is a shift towards supression of dissent. In what way have you or anyone you know been supressed? It’s quite the opposite, in fact. People have more channels of communication available to them than ever before in history. And perhaps that’s the problem. What you call the hallmarks of authoritarianism I call the ward agains the total breakdown of civil society. I am a major proponent of freedom of expresion, and from where I sit, that’s in no danger of being lost (other than being banned from Facebook for posting nudity). What’s needed now is for people to be less focused on supposedly eroding “rights,” and more concerned about the decay of any sense of responsibility to our fellow citizens. When everyone is in it for himself, no one is in it for anybody.

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