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.