Social Protest is a Crazy, Liberal, All-American Idea

Guest post by Dr. William Turner.

Recent news reports indicate that Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain has stated that the Occupy Wall Street protestors are “unamerican.” Huh? Can you say, “American Revolution”?

Social protest is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

Who is he kidding? Of course, regrettably, puffed-up big bizpigs who think they know something and are fit to lecture the rest of us just because they stumbled into a position to get rich are an American invention but not, one hopes, a successful export commodity. What the world does not need is more Herman Cains or Donald Trumps.  At least Cain has control over his hair.

Indeed, permission for protest is the genius of the American system. Human societies the world over have incessantly relied on more or less totalitarian systems to keep the populous in order, from the Confucian bureaucracies of ancient China through the moral terrorism of the Catholic Church to the KGB under Stalinism.  The United States really does have minimal state apparatus, and what we have is remarkably self limited.  I think we’re now so accustomed to ideas like providing legal counsel free of charge to any criminal defendant who needs it (socialism!), or the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which prevents the authorities from just throwing you in jail and leaving you there for no reason, that we forget how remarkable these constraints on the power of our government really are, even if the police inevitably forget about, or deliberately press against, such constraints. When I see people showing up at Tea Bag (snort) protests with drawings of assault rifles, I have to laugh. Give me an independent federal judge and professionally trained and committed law enforcement any day. No matter how many guns you have, the feds will always have more and bigger.

That Americans are free to protest at the drop of a hat is the safety valve on this pressure cooker of diversity we have created by mashing people from all over the world together in one (granted, really large) place under one national identity.  The Tea Baggers themselves are the best, most ironic, example. How oppressed are you when you can show up at the imperial capital and scream and yell about how oppressed you are while openly mocking the head of state? I think people in concentration camps and gulags and Guantanamo Bay would love to suffer such oppression.  Where was Cain when the Tea Baggers descended on Washington, D.C.?  What, so protest is okay so long as it’s notionally “conservative”?  It’s not, of course.  Protest is a distinctively liberal idea.   True conservatives don’t protest.

And this oppression-protest dynamic is relevant to Cain in a highly specific, personal way. The people in the United States who have both suffered the most vicious, lasting oppression and who have used social protest most effectively are Cain’s own forebears: slaves and their descendants.  Eliminating slavery was a crazy, liberal idea.

And that’s the genius of social protest.

Dude down the block disses you and your kind? Go picket! Start a petition! Demand redress from your public officials, who at least in principle have a formal commitment to listen to you. The cynical version, of course, is that everybody gets their jollies from a day in the sun shouting clever slogans and playing their favorite tunage way too loudly, but nothing really changes.

But, whoops! We don’t have slavery anymore. We don’t have segregation anymore. We’re no longer colonies of the British Empire. Women have the right to vote.  We tried prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcohol, then realized that was a dumb idea and recanted.  Opponents of same-sex marriage are regretfully admitting that they’re losing that war.  Granted, one can snicker a bit at the image of skinny, little Susan B. Anthony zooming around upstate New York in her sleigh, importuning her neighbors to sign the petition du jour calling on Congress to eliminate slavery as fat white boys sit, comfy and warm, in Washington, D.C. and ignore her, and slaves continue to suffer the lash to the point that their backs become knotted masses of scar tissue, but we remember Susan, and Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman, a lot more than we remember any slave owners, and, um, they DID get the last laugh.

After the American Revolution, no examples of social protest in US history have been more consequential and impressive than the drive to eliminate slavery, and then to eliminate its bastard spawn, segregation.

You can read a culture by looking at its official holidays. That we associate with specific individuals, we have two: President’s Day, which is a mash-up celebrating multiple Founders, especially George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Luther King Day, social protestors all.

No, Herman Cain has his head firmly lodged in a place that notoriously impedes both clear perception and rational thought. Someone once said long ago that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I think there are lots of cool things about the good ol’USA, home of Tina Turner, jambalaya, and the First Amendment, but I’m not going around screaming America! America! at the top of my lungs because I know that people with nefarious motives have repeatedly used appeals to an emotional, knee-jerk feeling of nationalism to get people to do bad things without thinking carefully first. That’s what Hitler did. He invoked a very conservative ideal of German national identity to justify exterminating Jews, queers, gypsies, disabled persons, anyone who violated the Aryan ideal.

In a far less drastic way, this is also what Joseph McCarthy did, except he used the insidious, unseen enemy approach to scare his fellow Americans. We see this approach again with the “war on terror,” which now becomes an increasingly elastic, durable excuse to use the police powers in novel ways to contain social protest. We haven’t seen any New York cops explicitly claiming that they’re saving us from terrorists. I guess they realize that would be too patently ridiculous for anyone to believe. We have, however, seen some police behaving despicably toward protestors.

The real Americans are the people who are defending the rights of the protestors.

Also, it’s not as if everything American is admirable and desirable.  Arguably, the modal American in 2011 is the obese, diabetic person doing the shop ‘til you drop thing at Wal Mart.  Not pretty.  Not healthy.  Of course, people like Herman Cain are also the most prone to the whole, “love it or leave it” mentality.  Seems to me it’s like raising children.  Smart parents who really love their children tell the children when they’re screwing up.  It’s how we learn.   Or teaching.  If you want your students to learn anything, you have to tell them when they’re wrong.  You should do so as gently and compassionately as possible, but you need to correct mistakes.  Similarly with our nation.  If we see it doing things it shouldn’t do according to our understanding of its central values, then we should speak up.  It’s called protest.

©2011 Dr. William Turner. Visit his blog

Click here to see our series of posters about the crazy liberal ideas that have made America what it is today



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