Monday, April 19, 2010

Who cares about Tea Parties?

I haven’t commented on the “tea party” protests that cropped up during the first year of Barack Obama’s reign as U.S. president in 2009. The tea-party people are united in their opposition to the president’s social democratic agenda, mostly. But I don’t believe in protests, not in a democracy at least.

Certainly, in states where censorship, police repression and other forms of authoritarianism are the rule, mass protests are a legitimate tool of dissent. In democratic polities, however, protest demonstrations are contrary to the democratic spirit. For example, those tea-party people who are presently demonstrating against the statist agenda of their government (a cross-country protest was held April 15, the deadline for filing annual tax returns in the U.S.), have the ability to persuade their fellow citizens of the probity of their views, by means other than protest demonstrations. They do not suffer from censorship, repression or any other arbitrary impediments to political action.

The fact is, the small-government agenda pursued by the tea party folks was repudiated at the ballot-box in the general election of 2008, which saw not only the leftist Obama voted in as president, but Democratic-party majorities in the Congress strengthened, too. Perhaps the Democrats will lose both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections of 2010. But that’s the way democracy works, isn’t it? Elections invest power in a certain candidate or party for a certain period, during which they will attempt to enact an agenda or programme. Those who are opposed to that programme have the opportunity to run them out of office when an election is held next time, and thereafter pursue their own agenda.

How do protest demonstrations fit into this? They don’t. At best, protests are simply irrelevant; they are orgies of mass self-congratulation, which the participants carry signs that say (as in the Buffalo Springfield hit, For What It’s Worth) “hooray for our side!” If legislators and governors believed that the protests represented majority sentiment, they would adjust their policies at least somewhat to jibe with this.

But a protest demonstration consisting of tens, or even hundred of thousands of people (the latter being exceedingly rare in any case), is still only the fraction of the total number of voters in even the smallest democratic polity of the present day. Why should any politician even bother with them, when they know by public opinion polling whether or not the protestors have majority opinion with them? The fact that a protest movement focuses on demonstrations as it main activity, is substantial proof that it certainly doesn’t have majoritarian backing at all. They protest because they cannot convince others of the legitimacy of their views.

But it isn’t any better when protests are not irrelevant — that is, when they actually do have a real effect on a democratic state. It is by now a platitude that “people have the right to protest”, but I find this sentiment a bit sophistic. After all, who seriously argues that no one has the right to participate in mass protests? The maxim, in a free society, is that an individual may do what she wants, so long as she doesn’t violate the rights and freedoms of others. Yet, the attitude of those involved in protest movements is that their right to demonstrate is triumphal over the right to freedom of movement enjoyed by the vast majority who are not protestors. This is true even where a particular protest is genuinely non-violent and non-coercive. Assuming the latter to be true, non-protestors have to deal with the disruptions in traffic and convenience that inevitably go along with street protests.

And yet, many mass demonstrations are not simply marches or rallies at all. The specific intent of their organizers is to get the government to change a policy on a particular issue — based on nothing other than the size of the demonstration itself. But to emphasize, even the largest mass demonstrations consist of no more than a small percentage of even the total electorate (to say nothing of the total population). Just who are the leaders of a protest movements to demand a change in any policy? Again, it demonstrates the democratic impotence of protest demonstrators, that they feel the need to demonstrate, instead of organizing to persuade voters to support their agenda. This is where, of course, protest leaders are not contemptuous of democratic government entirely.

I’m addressing the anti-government tea-party protestors, just because they are most conspicuous type of demonstrator at the present time. But this is even more pertinent to protest-demonstrators with a decidedly anti-tea party agenda that were commonplace in the decade prior to the election of Obama in 2008. These latter protests began as an “anti-globalization” movement (although this was a severe misnomer), which then morphed into an “anti-war” movement following the attacks of September 11, 2001. And, in contrast to the tea party movement, this group of protestors were explicitly coercive in their aims. This was evidenced at one of the early such mass demonstrations of the “anti-globalization” movement, which occurred at meeting of the World Trade Organization at Seattle, Washington, in December 1999.

The first day of the meetings between leaders of most of the world’s governments had to be cancelled when the protests blocked access to the facility at which the conference was to be held. When, the next day, police prevented the protestors from blockading the conference again, there came the inevitable cries of “police brutality!” The “anti-globalization” movement’s rationale for taking to the streets, in Seattle and in many places thereafter (including Ottawa and Quebec city) must be more flimsy than those of the tea-party protests. The “anti-globalizers” were not censored or repressed in expressing or articulating their views: on the contrary, many parts of the establishment — including most academics, many in the news media, as well as in the government itself — are sympathetic to these views, and much of the “anti-globalization” / “anti-war” protests’ coverage was extremely sympathetic to the cause.

This is not the case, however, for the tea party protests. Initially, in 2009, most major news media simply ignored the demonstrations. This is odd in itself, given how news services generally find protest-demonstrations irresistible to cover. However, when the tea-party movement became too big to be ignored, most news media chose to cover the events in, at best, a condescending way; and at the worst, reporters and commentators were outright hostile toward it.

At least some referred to them as “tea bag” protests (a term, which means, according to the online Urban Dictionary, to place one’s testicles into the mouth of a sexual partner, whilst the latter is lying down). There isn’t even any wit or cleverness about that; it is just to substitute a vulgar term for the real one, because the latter sounds like the former. The other tack taken by the news media is to portray the tea-party demonstrations as something akin to Hitler or KKK rallies. This bore fruit when, last month, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to extend health-care coverage to all American citizens, by forcing them essentially to buy medical insurance.

Tea-party demonstrators were present near Capitol hill when the vote was taking place. At one point, several black legislators were passing near the demonstrations, and at least a couple of them alleged that they heard at least some of the tea-party protestors shout “nigger” in their direction. There were also allegations that one or more of these legislators were spit upon. Accounts of this event vary. Initial reports quoted one of the legislators as saying much or even the whole crowd were chanting this insult. Later, this was “clarified” to state that only one or two of the demonstrators had made this remark.

These allegations quickly were reported around the world. My wife told me as to how she was “disgusted” with the racist comments made by the anti-heath care bill demonstrators, a report that she heard on the car radio on one of the local station’s hourly news updates. This is what is meant when it is said that an untruth goes halfway around the world before the truth has time to put on its hat. Since this alleged incident took place, no independent corroboration of tea-party demonstrators using racist language against the Congress members, or anyone else, has been revealed. This is in spite of the fact that the demonstrations — and the legislators’ walk through the crowd — was attended by many television reporters and freelance videographers. There is, even so, no audio or visual record of this event. The only people who claim to have heard it, are those making the allegations.

Somehow, though, the onus has been placed upon the tea party movement and their supporters, to prove that the incident didn’t happen. One conservative activist, who’s offered $100,000 to anyone who can produce audio-visual proof of the incident, was recently taken to task in an Associated Press report for publishing footage showing the Congress members passing through the tea-party demonstrations, apparently without being harassed or abused, racially or otherwise. Except that, AP claimed, this particular tour through the crowds took place some time after the alleged racist language was used. This, in itself seems odd. If the tea-party crowds were so threatening the first time through — one legislator initially claimed that the crowds reminded her of Klan rallies — why would they return to be abused again?

In the AP article just noted, independent corroboration did seem to come from a “blue-dog” (that is, more conservative) Democratic-party member of the Congress, who said he also heard the racist taunts. The Associated reporter took care to mention that this particular legislature was white, as though that fact alone would verify the accusation. However, speaking to a different reporter later, this same Congress member said he was misquoted, and did not hear the abuse at all. Nevertheless, Joan Walsh, editor of the online journal Salon, after touting the blue-dog’s testimony, just went ahead and took the word of the offended black Congress members that the incident took place. No proof needed, so long as the accuser is on “our” side.

There is a larger point being lost here: what if one or two of the demonstrators actually had said these words? Should this reflect upon the entire group of demonstrators? I think anyone — even Joan Walsh of Salon — would be hard-pressed to argue this point, by logic or by example. Just as any protest-demonstration in itself, no matter how large, necessarily represents majoritarian sentiments, no single member of any crowd can be said to speak for all of those present. This is especially so, given the fact that anyone at all can join a crowd of demonstrators. I don’t recall Salon or any other news service making a big deal out of “anti-globalization” or “anti-war” protestors of past years, carrying banners that depicted the former U.S. secretary of state and national security chief (both black Americans) as gorillas, or in other instances, signs that read “Death to Jews” or “Kill the Jews.” Unlike the tea-party people, the anti-war and anti-Israel crowd can rely on the news media keeping their backs.

Update 20 Apr 10: Roland Martin, a commentator at the CNN web site, has this to say to those who would criticize the tea party demonstrators:

First, let's deal with the Tea Party haters. Please, shut up. How can any liberal, progressive, moderate or conservative be mad about a group of Americans taking to the streets to protest the actions of the country? What they are engaged in is constitutional. The freedom to assemble, march, walk, scream and yell is right there in the document we all abide by.

How true.

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