Friday, February 25, 2011

Public Protests Here And There

Before the Mubarak regime collapsed in Egypt, David Ignatius - a Washington Post columnist who writes on foreign affairs with all the aplomb and expertise of a chimpanzee discoursing on Aristotle - appeared on Diane Rehm's radio program and allegedly quoted some of his "sources" who were complaining about the possibility that the United States might well stand with the Egyptian people against their government. Essentially, Ignatius' argument - or, rather, his alleged sources' argument - was that "a few thousand protesters" did not represent a country of 85 million people, that undermining a long-standing ally was against our national interest, etc., etc.

Fast forward to a column by another member of the WaPo's stable of typists-in-residence, George Will, and this time it isn't "a few thousand Egyptians", but a few thousand Wisconsonians who are trying to overturn an election. Except, of course, they are actually exercising their constitutional rights. The last time I checked we weren't a parliamentary system; in Britain, say, or Israel, or France, a party is elected and has the opportunity to pass certain key legislative programs at the heart of the electoral process. In the United States, while elections do indeed have consequences, the rights of the minority to protest, and even disrupt the legislative agenda of the incoming majority, is protected by the constitution. Furthermore, one wonders if the voters of Wisconsin actually elected Scott Walker to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Considering certain facts - that pay and pensions are not part of negotiations but of statute; that the unions were nevertheless willing to accept temporary accession to certain benefit cuts due to the economic situation - the only thing the governor and Republicans in charge of the state legislature seem to have to fall back on is they want to break the public employees union because they can.

It seems that the formula political figures have for dismissing protests come from the same playbook. Ben-Ali, Mubarak, King al-Khalifa, Pres. Saleh, Col. Qaddafi, and now Gov. Walker with some help from former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, all insist that those protesting not only are not representative of the public at large, but may well be (wait for it) . . . outside agitators! Bussed in union supporters and Democrats from outside Wisconsin, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, wherever. Because, see, local folks love the government, whatever it does, so discontent has to lie outside the borders and boundaries of the state or nation. It was outside agitators who were responsible for the Civil Rights marches, for the anti-Vietnam War marches, for protests against the invasion of Iraq, for Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the list is endless.

Public protests are the sign of a healthy, vigorous, engaged citizenry. They are, therefore, despised, belittled, and otherwise marginalized by those who hold power. Whether that power comes from bullets or ballot boxes, it is always a threat. For that reason alone, it should be encouraged.

Virtual Tin Cup

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