Politics & Media
Jul 21, 2021, 05:57AM

Protest and Contest

The fight to define rebel crowds, from Cuba to Hong Kong.

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Every time there are crowds of protestors in a foreign land, there’s a rush of U.S. commentators hoping to spin your perceptions of the protests’ purpose and meaning—not so much for or against the protestors as in favor of the U.S. commentators’ own political agendas.

In last week’s column, I mentioned the odd spectacle of The New York Times correctly calling (some of) Cuba’s current wave of protests “anti-government” while Fox News (and libertarian Anthony Fisher) were uncharacteristically eager to tamp down the implications of the protests, their rough consensus being that the protestsmight be anti-communist but were not per se anti-government, as if it makes much sense to split hairs about that in a place like communist-run Cuba.

The bland Biden administration initially appeared to endorse the view that the protests were narrow in scope—objecting to COVID lockdowns, COVID spread, and shortages—but the administration has since, to its credit, clarified that (some of) the protests are both anti-government and anti-communism and that communism—and socialism to boot—are failing systems. Good for Biden.

But a wave of lefty academics on Twitter was quick to assert that the real meaning of the protests (as supposedly attested by a few flags and placards in the crowds) is pro-communist (at least one big rally has been) and that the problem with the current Cuban regime is that it hasn’t held true to the principles of the revolution. The tweeters can hope that’s true, and you can’t blame them for spotting the flags and slogans they prefer, but keep in mind that rebellious crowds often express their outrage in the language of the current regime, even if they don’t particularly want that regime sticking around. It gives them a sort of common language and decreases their odds of getting shot.

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China were a jumble of pro-democracy denunciations of the Communist Party and almost-Maoist-sounding accusations that the Party had betrayed the core precepts of Marxism and thus fallen into corruption. Accusations of hypocrisy are powerful stuff for protest purposes, even when the protestors wouldn’t necessarily like consistent adherence to the principles being violated. The Tiananmen protestors abutted thoroughly Chinese calls for social democracy to the occasional U.S.-friendly Statue of Liberty symbol, and (to the bafflement of some leftists) there have been American flags amidst the Cuban protestors, too.

Confusion on the left shouldn’t be taken as a sweeping endorsement of the U.S. government’s policies toward Cuba, either, which at the moment include a wrongheaded triple-whammy of economic blockade, patrol boats preventing refugee emigration, and the occasional very-quiet murmur in favor of military intervention (which coincidentally or not might be made easier by the toppling of the nearby government of Haiti by what appear to be fighters trained in Colombia with U.S. aid partly during Haiti-molesting Bill Clinton’s presidency). None of those policies are libertarian or market-friendly.

If journalism is, as they say, the first draft of history, that first draft is a mess compared to what tends to solidify in the history books years later, isn’t it? For now, you can choose among major media telling you the Cuba protests are anti-government, pro-government, anti-communist, pro-communist, anti-U.S.-blockade, or a purely internal matter depending on your political preferences, especially if you steer clear of uncertainty and nuance.

Is the mainstream consensus—coincidentally or not the sort of consensus the “moderates” at the U.S. intelligence agencies tend to like—that we want gentle pressure on the Cuban government, not sudden violent upheaval, and for goodness’ sake not so much upheaval that the masses everywhere in the world might start getting revolutionary ideas?

There have been trickier analytical morasses across the world in the past decade or so, though, including theories galore about what the “Arab Spring” meant for the future of freedom in that region, whether the Obama administration dropped the ball by not supporting massive Iranian anti-government protests on its watch (Biden and his colleagues being eager at the time to work out an expensive arms control bribe/agreement with the regime), and whether various subsets of the broader Chinese population from Tibet to Taiwan have any hope of making common cause against Beijing. (Given how reluctant people are to make sweeping, abstract anti-Communist arguments today, we may have to make do with little empirical tidbits of what the future could hold such as the new documentary about unrest in Hong Kong that was unexpectedly unveiled at Cannes.)

The global struggle against communism leaves us with countless tricky strategic, pragmatic questions, from whether the “Color Revolutions” of Eastern Europe were authentic (and how much that matters) to whether William Shatner’s new talk show on RT (formerly Russia Today), called I Don’t Understand, will make him an unwitting tool of Russian propaganda. I’m inclined to think he shouldn’t do the show on that channel, but then, I think PBS should cease to exist, as a matter of anti-government principle.

The world makes so much more sense if you drop the right/left tribalism and the nationalist tribalism and adopt consistent anti-government principles: End the blockade of Cuba. End communism. End government of all stripes, everywhere, including here, even if means saying no to some charming, flag-waving social democrat protestors. Stick to property rights, a functioning price system, and no or, if you insist, very little government.

Along the way, watch for new protest-and-rebellion opportunities. A study suggests two-thirds of Southern Republicans would like to secede from the U.S. Let them go, and encourage others from all factions to follow. Surely, weariness with lockdowns is also turning into a political-spectrum-spanning educational opportunity about the limits of the public’s patience with regulation. Does anyone (who is not a pro-government fanatic) relish the thought of an immense government crackdown on, say, bootleg liquor or homes with peeling paint on their exteriors after all that government has already put us through in the past year and a half? It should leave us alone now.

New talk of the U.S. requiring women to register for the draft could somehow turn into just another right vs. left moment, but it would make a lot more sense if it became a moment that united the left (out of anti-militarism), the right (out of anti-feminism), the far right (out of anti-imperialism), libertarians (out of opposition to all coercion), and conventional civil libertarians against government (and particularly against the military-industrial complex). I look forward to all the usual bland intellectuals and media outlets trying to spin that one if it gets out of control, struggling to book “the two sides of the issue” on the usual TV shows.

It’s enough to make you hope Selective Service tries—and if the surprise result is the whole world united against establishment-liberal feminists-for-the-military (Hillary hawks, if you will), so be it. The hippies of old would’ve understood. Even me admitting that and seeing those hippies as natural allies means a wall of some kind is crumbling. Be rebel girls, not anyone’s establishment weapons.

—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey.


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