Citizen protests: An all-American tradition

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputy, Steny Hoyer, stand accused of calling the impassioned, enraged and generally incoherent protesters currently disrupting town-hall meetings as "un-American."

As usual in the health-care ruckus, this charge is a half step away from the truth. What they said, in an op-ed for USA Today, is, "Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American." Wrong. Oh, so very wrong.

Going back to colonial days, when representatives of the crown were pelted with rocks and garbage when they tried to promulgate royal decrees, we’ve been pretty good at drowning out opposing views. George Washington sent an army against Western Pennsylvania distillers protesting Alexander Hamilton’s economic reform package. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and the First Amendment to jail dissenters. During the Palmer raids of 1919-1921, socialists, pacifists and assorted leftists were arrested wholesale and many of them deported. It was a way of drowning out opposing views.

Recall that at the 2008 Democratic and Republican conventions the various protest groups were shunted off to areas out of eyesight and earshot of delegates. But does anybody doubt that if those demonstrators — and the globalization protesters who dog every meeting of the World Bank — gained entrance to the venue they would holler, scream and fulminate in a manner that would evoke stunned admiration from the Tea Baggers?

It is likely a futile hope, but we should call a halt to the high-decibel, over-the-top rhetoric. Rush Limbaugh’s comparisons of President Obama’s government to Nazi Germany and the Democrats to the Nazi party and the health-care logo to the swastika are not only gratuitously nasty but trivialize a great evil.

Even if there were shadowy groups behind these disruptions, people still wouldn’t turn out unless they were truly upset and alarmed. But their concerns will never be addressed if people can’t understand what they’re asking or hear the answers.

There’s another reason to lower the rhetoric. South Korean lawmakers may be laughing at us; they get YouTube, too. It is a comedic staple of American television to show the raucous debates of the South Korean National Assembly, with the members assaulting each other, attacking the podium and throwing furniture.

It’s as if, after more than two centuries, we still haven’t gotten the hang of democracy.


  1. gazelle1929

    Your reference to the Whiskey Rebellion as well as to Lincoln’s actions during the US Civil War has no real connection with the uncivil actions now taking place at town hall meetings across the US.

    The Whiskey Rebellion was literally a rebellion, though on a much smaller scale than the later unplesantness. This is from the wiki article:

    “Finally, the civil protests became an armed rebellion. The first shots were fired at the Oliver Miller Homestead in present day South Park Township, Pennsylvania, about ten miles south of Pittsburgh. As word of the rebellion spread across the frontier, a whole series of loosely organized resistance measures were taken, including robbing the mail, stopping court proceedings, and the threat of an assault on Pittsburgh. One group, disguised as women, assaulted a tax collector, cropped his hair, coated him with tar and feathers, and stole his horse.”

    It was only at that point that Washington took firm action to affirm the authority of the US national government, and the response was not aimed at oral dissent, it was directed at those who used violence and the threat of violence to undermine the United States.

    Our Civil War was about the existence of our country. There was indeed a national emergency, at least in the eyes of most people in the Northern states.

    But what we have now is groups of people who refuse to allow others to speak. This is not an action on the part of the government, such as you saw in the Whiskey Rebellion and the Civil War.

    Your reference to the period from 1919-1921 is much more appropriate to the discussion, at least insofar as Government action is concerned. Wilson’s second administration could serve as a poster child for nascent Fascism; he imposed totalitarian and authoritarian controls over the population, and armed hooligans enforced the “laws”, often raiding homes because someone had said that the occupant disagreed with the imposioton of such laws as the Sedition Act of 1918, not to mention the Espionage Act of 1917.

    Under the latter, publishing views critical of the US Government was defined a felony, with imprisonment for up to 20 years upon conviction.

    Still, this has nothing to do with what’s going on today because what we are seeing is citizens attacking the rights of other citizens to peacefully assemble and to exchange views.

    One North Carolina Congressman has received a death threat. Another has responded by announcing two town hall meetings to be held by teleconference.

  2. storky

    Rebels without a Clue!
    It is indeed American to strongly protest and reject intrusive and distasteful policies. . . when they are REAL.

    Previously, attempting to protect oneself from imaginary threats would get one an interview with a psychiatrist and perhaps a trip to a mental ward.

    Not anymore! Now, there is safety in numbers. Such a large segment of the populace has been misdirected by these lies that the number of ways to safely diffuse the anger is rapidly declining. Worse yet, its not really their fault — media outlets are not required to test and reveal the veracity of claims before reporting them.

    The Repugnant Party is actively promoting this misinformation and feeding the FUD in hopes unseating their opposition. They’re spoiling for a fight in all senses of the word.

    Is this how they hope to regain the majority? Do they not realize that they’ve stirred the pot so vigorously that violence will certainly ensue?

    What then?

  3. woody188

    I’m just happy to see people are actually off their butts and out there in the faces of their Congress critters and spitting mad. It’s long overdue!

    This isn’t just about health care folks. That is just the straw that broke the camels back. The issues run the gamut from forgotten campaign promises, to rights lost and not restored, to voting for TARP, PATRIOT, and others when there were clear majorities of 80% or more against the bills on Main Street.

    We will no longer be ignored. We will be at your meetings and will demand to be heard. The failure will be to continue to screen us out like at Obama’s “town hall” meeting where only staunch supporters were allowed inside. Limiting access to the President is a play right out of the Rove book on manipulating the masses.

    Once I was able to meet and see the President and Vice President of the United States. They came right to the South Oval at Ohio State and no one was denied access based on their signage or what their shirt said. This was only 1994! Look at us now! What a shame!

    R U Main Core?