On the meaning of protest in America

How those who stood by silently as we marched blindly to war suddenly became champions of discourse and expression

Published August 11, 2009 3:36PM (EDT)

I'm getting a lot of angry e-mails in response to my column in the Baltimore Sun today. I want to respond. But first, a few excerpts:

If you're wondering what the ugly, pinched face of America looks like, just turn on the television, open a newspaper or fire up your laptop.

Public mayhem, scare-mongering, and even a warning from the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee about a fictitious "death panel" are, apparently, what constitutes thoughtful discourse about health care coming from the darker corners of American conservatism. . .

Their [birther] dreams of deporting Mr. Obama dashed, kooky conservatives have turned to Plan B: Shouting that the president's health care proposal amounts to socialism. No, wait, make that fascism: At health care town halls and other public events, we've seen posters of Mr. Obama with a Hitler mustache and of a child in a stroller holding a sign warning of impending fascism.

Socialism, fascism -- whatever, same diff. It speaks to the incoherence of these protesters that they can't distinguish the two. Yet, so long as the comparison makes the president sound evil, dastardly and un-American, such complications hardly seem to trouble them. . .

. . .The Obama administration has not done a good job explaining and promoting its health care plan. But if the hate-filled politics continues to simmer, the White House could benefit from a backlash against the fringe conservatives who offer little more in response beyond likening everything to socialism.

Or fascism. Whatever.

OK, there's nothing wrong with voicing opposition. This is America. I have no objections to protests, even loud protests. People should attend town halls and public forums and other debates. They should let their members of Congress and the president know what they think.

But what's annoying -- and I won't bore you with some of the e-mails I'm getting -- is the disconnect between this sudden surge in First Amendment expression when, just a few years ago, many of these same folks were deafeningly silent.

Indeed, let me ask a few questions in Salon's public square, if I may:

Where were these same people in the run-up to the Iraq war? Did they call for more concrete evidence, further study? Where were their voiced worries about government overreach or thwarting public will? Remember, a majority did not want to go to war, so why weren't they raising noisy concerns about an elitist government that was ignoring the will of the people and imposing its own will on them instead?

And how about the coverage of the war debate back in 2002 and 2003? Did these same folks who say the liberal media fix is in for healthcare question the planting of stories in major papers, sourced from shady characters like Ahmed Chalabi, by the vice-president and his cohorts? Did they challenge as bogus the later citation of these planted stories as proof of the case for weapons of mass destruction? Why weren't they protesting outside the supposedly liberal, dastardly Washington Post's editorial offices as that paper issued editorial after editorial calling for war? Shouldn't the Post's and the New York Times' pro-war reporting -- both papers later had to conduct internal investigations of their journalistic failings -- have been warning signal enough to these same liberal-media-conspiracy-believers that something was rotten in the White House?

Once the war began, where were these people and their concerns about the budget as the war costs mounted? Why weren't they harassing Republican (and many Democratic) members of Congress for failing to hold the Bush administration responsible for its claims that the oil money in Iraq would pay for everything? Where are photos of the signs they held up criticizing Bush as a Nazi -- or socialist, whatever -- for moving war expenditures off-budget, so as to mask the true cost of the war?

Speaking of costs, where were these capitalists defenders when the Bush administration was passing Medicare Part D's express prohibition against using the government's buying power to lower the cost of mass-purchased prescription drugs for seniors? Where were their volleys about government officials being a pack of liars when Thomas Sully, Bush's Medicare guy, told the Congress bald-faced lies about the long-term costs of Part D? Where was the concern for the free market back then? Why wasn't that called "socialism"? (Or fascism, whatever.)

We hear about the fear of government bureaucrats who are out of touch and can't be relied upon to make good healthcare decisions for the public. Fine, but where was this argument as we watched Anderson Cooper reporting live from New Orleans before the federal government managed to arrive post-Katrina? Why is there never any anti-bureaucrat fervor directed at Defense Department acquisition and deployment personnel, given that our troops were sometimes bathing in unsafe water and couldn't get sufficient armor for their vehicles in Iraq? (Oh, right, it was just a matter of "physics" back then, according to our glorious secretary of defense.)

I could go on, but you get the point. What amounted to heresy, even treason, a few short years ago in our public discourse has now morphed into patriotic, true-blue American First Amendment expression.

Look, I think people should speak their minds. They should voice their opinions, even their anger, and protest, too. I'm a small-d democrat, through and through. But once you enter the arena, your words and actions have consequences. They reflect on you and the quality of your ideas. The right to enter the public fray does not entitle citizens to misrepresent, to scold, to intimidate. (I say this to liberals as well.) And one's behavior and words, though protected by our Constitution in their expression, are not protected from reasonable judgments about their interpretation: their relevance and quality, their meaning and legitimacy. Free speech is a right but also comes with responsibility.

Are all Americans who oppose Obama or his healthcare plan raving lunatics running around with Nazi signs as they scream at their local member of Congress? Of course not. Should criticism and complaints about the healthcare proposal be squashed as a result of a nutty few? Absolutely not. But while some of this activity is organic and uncontrollable, some of it is being coordinated by groups like Americans for Prosperity, or at least being cheerleaded by ratings-hungry megalomaniacs like Glenn Beck. And it is getting ugly.

Democracy is not always pretty, of course. That's fine. It got pretty ugly during the colonial days, to be sure. But what's happening in some locales, coming from some people, is not democracy at its most enlightened, and it is making thoughtful, reasonable public discourse less attainable. And what's most irritating about it is the asymmetry of it all: Those who fell curiously silent a few years ago are, I suspect, some of the same folks who are the loudest, most angry and unhinged scaremongers today.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

MORE FROM Thomas Schaller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Healthcare Reform War Room