Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dissent is *Still* Patriotic

The “debate” surrounding health care reform has caught almost everyone's attention. The vocal opponents of health care have been variously described as a “mob”, “un-American,” and even “brownshirts.” This isn't just anyone saying this, but it is (in order), arguably the leading progressive columnist (Krugman), the #1 and #2 Democratic leaders in the House, and a U.S. Congressperson. The hostility and animosity expressed during these demonstratiosn including firearms being brought to events or Sarah Palin saying that a “death panel” would euthanize her son because he has Down's Syndrome (before, gallantly calling for civility) is becoming downright scary, including the actual death threats against sitting members of Congress. But, to have the kind of people calling out opponents of health care as un-American or comparing them to fascists is downright wrong.

Although I disagree with the tactics used by those who oppose health care reform, Andrew got me thinking about what it means to denounce them. Very thoughtfully, he reminded me that the sort of “deliberative debate” that I would prefer

imply a particular kind of deliberative democratic subject:

- One who is calm, considered, rational, and deliberative. This worries me because it implies that emotion is an illegitimate way of engaging in politics. That, in turn, privileges particular kinds of people, and kinds of discourses, as a matter of form.

He is right to point out that many people, often those who I care about greatly and support, use these tactics. I have been to labor protests where the rules of civility were thrown out the window because civility favored management. Disruption hit the financial bottom line and forced the managers, who were hiding behind this cloak of civility, to take notice. There is, I suppose, nothing wrong with these protests as a tactic and, certainly nothing un-American or fascist about them (leaving any violence—real or implied—aside). Americans have a right to redress their grievances to their government; nothing ever said that the government had to like the way that citizens chose to carry out this redress.

This reminded me of a really influential passage in the book Urban Fortunes by John Logan and Harvey Molotch. The book describes the process of urban land development, providing an interesting synthesis between traditional neo-classical and human ecological models of urban growth and Marxian models of economic growth. One of their main points throughout the book is that:

The traditional academic literature on the topic tends to equate “community organization” with progressive social forces generally and to see all such groups as analytically equivalent because they are from the “grass roots” and help “empower” local people.

They go on to point out that many local organizations (their interest is in understanding the forces guiding urban development) are indeed not progressive. One can look back in history to local community forces that were, indeed, not so progressive such as the northern white block clubs that tried to maintain the starkly segregated residential color line.

I have seen the argument that there is a difference because these protests are “astroturffed”, insta-activism bought by the insurance lobby. Although it seems to be funded by the insurance lobby, I also have a hard time believing that all of these activists are bought off. I also don't think, as Paul Krugman suggests, that “the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that’s behind the ‘birther’ movement, which denies Mr. Obama’s citizenship.” Granted, many of the birthers are probably among the crowds, but to say that this is all about Obama's race or that the tactics are somehow un-American denies the reality that there is a substantial opposition to health care reform. I don't think that it is the result of deep-seated hatred (though, for some, this is undoubtedly the case), but is likely a fear and mistrust of the government that has a real basis in reality.

The answer to this is not to disparage and insult those who are protesting, to question their patriotism (remember the “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper stickers). It is to organize an opposition, including some who might simply be confused or nervous about changes and have real concerns about government-run programs. I'm not tilting at windmills; I don't believe that one will ever convince most of the people shouting at town halls and I think that it would be futile to do so. But there are lots of people, I would guess, who are hearing some of their concerns echoed by the vocal protesters and who see that people—fellow citizens—really care about opposing this bill. Without effective organizing to counter-act this movement and inoculation against the opposition's talking points health reform is unlikely to succeed. Reformers have the advantage is that there are many in the reform movement, including the President himself, who have learned how to build an effective organizing base from which to enact reform. If this truly is an astroturf campaign, then real organizing (with time) should be able to overcome it. I just hope that he remembers that is how he got to have the meteoric rise from a state senator to President in less than a decade and that he calls some of those advisors up to help rather than those he keeps finding from inside the Beltway.


Jay Livingston said...

"is likely a fear and mistrust of the government that has a real basis in reality." These same protesters -- what did they do from Jan 2001 to Jan 2009, when the White House was greatly expanding its powers? They were extremely trustful.

"not to disparage and insult those who are protesting, to question their patriotism " Why is it that only the right gets to question the patriotism of those who dissent from government policy? When the Obama health plan is finally enacted (in whatever dismembered form), if wing nuts are still protesting, why can't the lefties haul out the old right wing placards that say "America -- love it or leave it"?

Mike3550 said...

Jay -- Thank you for posting this comment. I think, re-reading my post, I wasn't exactly saying what it is that I wanted to say and I think that I can clarify a little bit here.

Taking your second point first, I was severely distressed and angered by the Bush Administration and their stool pigeons saying that I wasn't patriotic because I didn't support a war of choice or didn't think that torture was acceptable on any terms. Because I felt so strongly about that, I feel that it is wrong for any government official -- whether I agree with them or not -- to do the same. That is why I am arguing that it is wrong that Pelosi, Hoyer, and Baird do the same. That said, if Move-On wants to advocate for lefties to start plastering their cars with "love it or leave it" signs, I would be all for it. But, for government officials to question the patriotism of those who disagree crosses a boundary that I think should not be crossed.

On the first point, I think that I slightly mis-stated my position and you are correct. I would hazard to guess that those who are protesting at town halls were fine doing whatever the government said. I was thinking more of those who are more passively participating in this debate, some of whom I've had conversations with. All had REAL problems with the Bush Administration, but many also have a real suspicion of government intervention. I disagree with them, but I can see that there are things that the government has done that have not had the desired effects and simply denying this or lumping them in with the protesters is problematic. But, that gets to the real point of my post, which is that we (i.e., proponents of reform) need to organize those people because right now the people having conversations with this group of people are the protesters and active organizers on the right opposing this.

dave3544 said...

Jay and Mike, if I may dissent...I think it would be horrible if we on the left adopted the "America, love it or leave it" stance, even just for fun. What I love about America is that we all have the right to stand up to our government. We all have the right to speak out. The reason the Bush admin were fascist thugs was because they blocked or arrested dissenters. They took away our right to be American. Thinking that we can adopt their tactics without adopting their mentality is what leads us down the road to leftist totalitarianism.

The way I see it, if my Congressman wants to hold a two hour meeting to "hear from the citizens," I don't see why that discourse has to be civil and polite. At it's best, it's just the Congressman rambling for an hour spewing talking points and then people getting up at the microphone for their two minute rant about whatever talking points their heard/read last. I mean, does anyone expect an original thought to be expressed or a mind to be changed at these things?

Jay Livingston said...

I agree with Dave. I don’t like the idea of adopting a “love it or leave it” attitude. I was trying to point out that it’s only the conservatives who take this stance and that they’ve been getting away with it. I think that someone should point out to them that if dissent is unpatriotic, it’s unpatriotic . . . even when the Democrats are in power. But the wrapped-in-the-flag conservatives don’t see it that way. They think that the Right is patriotic whether they are in power or dissenting, and that the Left is unpatriotic even when the Left is the government. So even though I don’t think the left should really adopt the LIOLI attitude, I do think that someone should say it to the wingnut dissenters just to see how they react.

Mike3550 said...

"Thinking that we can adopt their tactics without adopting their mentality is what leads us down the road to leftist totalitarianism."

Dave, this is a very good point and I think that it is wise to heed this advice. On the other hand, I, like Jay, would really love to see the hypocrisy of right-wingers pointed out. I would especially love to hear from those who publicly declared the LIOLI attitude under Bush just to see what mental acrobatics they could come up with.

But, on more careful analysis, doing something simply out of vengeance and to provoke a reaction is not the best reason to do something, either tactically or morally.

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