Politics & Media
May 06, 2024, 06:27AM

You Have the Right to Protest

But don’t go too far!

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Everyone agrees that, as Americans, college kids and all the rest of us have the right to protest. We’re Americans, after all! Free speech is particularly important on college campuses, of course, and qua Americans we have the right peacefully to assemble and to petition our government for redress of grievances.

Our president agrees. "Dissent is essential to democracy," Biden remarked on May 2, "but dissent must never lead to disorder". I seem to recall the great Orval Faubus saying just the same thing, and I agree with Biden's observation that Orval Faubus' approach to public safety has long been undervalued. As Biden would certainly have gone on to point out in a longer presentation, disorderly people like John Lewis misunderstood the nature of legitimate protest, and the nature of America itself. So, in the company of Biden, David Brooks, John McWhorter, Michael Smerconish, and so many others, I say: Forward with Faubus.

As Biden, Faubus, Smerconish, and McWhorter argue, there’s a clear line where protest ceases to be legitimate, and that is at the point at which dissent is publicly and pointedly formulated in a way that someone might find disturbing or might claim was disruptive. Then you've gone too far. And as Biden and Faubus so passionately point out, if your dissent is never expressed, it can't disturb anyone or disrupt the educational process. As it happens, Putin and Assad see it the same way. They can't all be wrong. So if you disagree with me, keep that shit to yourself. Or expect to be gassed, zip-tied, and detained.

When Professor McWhorter got to campus at Columbia a couple of weeks ago and saw the protests, he was taken aback. The protests on my campus are not justice, he insisted, though it was hard to figure out just what he meant by that. But it’s clear that McWhorter—like our nation's president and like the former governor of Arkansas—strongly favors the right to protest, as long as it's orderly and peaceful.

And McWhorter's standards of peacefulness, like Faubus' and Biden's, are strong: "The other night I watched a dad coming from the protest with his little girl, giving a good hard few final snaps on the drum he was carrying, nodding at her in crisp salute, percussing his perspective into her little mind. This is not peaceful." If that sounds entirely peaceful to you, you need reminding that McWhorter is the linguistics professor. He may well have a highly-refined definition of "peaceful" in "mind."

Martin Luther King, Jr. would’ve—did, in fact—regarded singing and drumming and chanting as non-violent forms of protest. But today we have entirely different standards of violence, standards according to which drumming is not peaceful and "from the river to the sea" is an immediate incitement to genocide, or is itself genocide. It's a theory that’s gained traction in academia for decades, though McWhorter hadn’t appeared until now to endorse it: a theory according to which the word “apple” is good to eat and “rain” gets you wet. So if you're going out, you better take an “umbrella.”

At any rate, young idealists, keep right on expressing yourself! As long as you do so in complete silence and privacy. You know, the way our heroes in the 1960s did it. Today's aging establishment lionizes the peace movement and the civil rights movement. But they’ve mutated into exactly the sort of people who tried to repress it.

Because even if you protest silently and privately, you should know that your protests will be highly counter-productive! You’re just making things worse, as Michael Smerconish, James Traub, and David Brooks argue. You should stop saying so emphatically that you don't think tens of thousands of non-combatant Palestinians should be killed! Because that will hurt Biden's re-election efforts. Don't you understand that?

American opinion writers last week suddenly came to the realization that the protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 were extremely counter-productive, and that we’re headed in the same disastrous direction this year, when Cindy Witty will again host the donkey-fuckers (these are typos). The demonstrations hurt the Democratic Party, after all. They led to Hubert Humphrey's defeat. And Humphrey would’ve ended the war in Vietnam.

One might reply that throughout the 1968 campaign Humphrey endorsed the war in Vietnam and every one of the measures taken to embroil us in it more extremely, as pursued by Lyndon Johnson, the president he served. It’s very likely that Humphrey would’ve escalated the war dramatically, as Nixon ended up doing, or more dramatically, supposedly in preparation for a negotiated peace. All these counterfactuals about a Humphrey administration are speculative hooey, it's true. Yet all old white guys now endorse them foursquare, so I do too.

It might be asserted that, if the anti-war explosion of 1968 had never happened, neither a President Nixon nor a President Humphrey would have much in the way of motivation to end the war. They probably would’ve continued to listen to the fantasies of their generals and their defense contractors. It might be said that without an extremely disruptive anti-war movement we'd still be bogged down somewhere in the jungle, that the real outrage of America's young people, expressed explosively, expressed in a way that extraordinarily conventional people like Brooks and Smerconish would have found disruptive and hence illegitimate, eventually and effectively ended the war. Well, it might be said. But Faubus would’ve disagreed, I bet.

And even though Biden claimed in that same short speech that the protests aren’t changing American policies at all, they are. Biden obviously feels the pressure and has taken in turn to pressuring Israel. If he hits the point of withholding some lethal aid momentarily, much less moving toward some sort of peace, I’m going to blame the kids at Columbia. Again. 

Follow Crispin Sartwell on X: @CrispinSartwell


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