The Paradox of Protest
As 2011 draws to a close, we all feel the calendar-driven pull to convert News to History. We're primed for the end-of-the-year efforts to make sense of it all. But like the museum-goer standing too close to a pointillist painting, our retina reads all dots and no pattern.
Enter Time Magazine's annual attempt to do the work for us, with 2011's 'Person of the Year': The Protester.
It's hard to argue and definitely more inspired than Time's 2006 entry (remember when 'You' were the Person of the Year?). But the story-line of "protest" is much harder to parse. After the heady early moments of the Arab Spring, in which the meme was dictators replaced by democrats armed with Twitter and Facebook, we devolved through the remaining months of 2011 to the prospect of democratically-elected regimes dedicated to anti-democratic values in Egypt and liberators with illiberal aims in Libya. Perhaps it is a mercy at year's end that Vaclav Havel - a protester who rose to be president - died before the Arab denouement.
In the U.S., the 'Occupy' movement is no less easy to read. To the extent its 'demands' are evident at all, Occupy pairs a street-level antipathy toward the police - the 'police-state' - with an embrace of the State as rescuer from the plutocratic one percent who currently rule. But Big-Government Anarchy is more oxymoron than agenda. A question as Occupy rings in 2012 in Zucotti Park: After their student loans are expunged - read, absorbed the the State - and taxes are raised on the rich - read, empowering the State - will the 99 percent be more or less free?
As for the environmental strand of protest, major conservationists like Friends of the Earth demand a shift from fossil-fuels to energy drawn from the wind and sun. But beyond this romantic invocation of renewable energy, the same group campaigns to stop mining of the Rare Earth Elements that will make renewable energy viable.
The environmental activists have long claimed the credo of Think Global, Act Local. But that ethic is honored largely in the breach. As a movement, environmental activists' moral myopia would be hard to match. Conflict metals banned in the West will be mined with Chinese investment, with no questions asked as to the slave labor with which they're extracted. Activists ring the White House to stop the Keystone Pipeline bringing oil from Canada (Freedom House rating: 1) propping up oil prices for the ruling regimes in Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia (Freedom House ratings of 5, 6 and a bottom-scraping 7, respectively).
A U.S. conservationist group launches a lawsuit to save the Desert Tortoise from a California solar farm. The action slows the transition to solar power, keeping the petro-economy in place, to the cheers not only of turtle-lovers, but of dictators in the oil-rich world. Environmental activists rally to stop a copper project in Alaska. Iran, Pakistan, Angola and DRC Congo - a coalition of the world's Not-Free Nations - accelerate plans to mine copper for a world market that must meet the need from somewhere. Will the resulting mines pay workers more fairly? Will they meet our vaunted environmental standards? Will the revenues they realize help the many, or line the bank accounts of the few who rule? What does it mean when dissidents suffering under dictators elicit less concern than desert turtles?
And in every campaign, the anti-mining activists utilize social media techniques on iPhones and laptops that draw on dozens of the very specialty metals they want to keep in the ground, without even a hint of irony.
In ways that should make its adherents supremely uncomfortable, the protest movement is repeating the early error of the revived American Conservative movement, which in William Buckley, Jr.'s famed phrase, consisted in 'standing athwart History, yelling Stop!'
But history seldom listens. The evolving genius of the American Conservative movement was to move beyond pure protest to a positive program - not just 'freedom from,' but 'freedom for.'
Without a positive program, protest can be a profoundly status quo - even reactionary - phenomenon. In the manner of Juvenal's 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?,' it falls to us to ask: who will lead the protest once the protesters enlarge the powers of the State at home and the power of dictators abroad?