One of the most noble protests in the history of protest was that of Thick Quand Duc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who doused himself in fuel and lit himself on fire on a Saigon Street in 1963 to protest Buddhists’ treatment at the hands of the corrupt American-backed regime, and by extension, to protest American involvement in his country. He never flinched until he collapsed, consumed by the flames. And he started a trend, as other monks followed.
One of the most repulsive moments in the history of protest was when the South Vietnamese president’s sister-in-law then referred to the martyrs in an interview with an American reporter as “barbecued monks,” a remark then picked up in the United States.
Powerful protests unsettle the powerful, particularly the powerful who are entrenched, have nothing to lose and lob their invectives from a distance. You’d think Americans would have some reverence for protest. The First Amendment enshrines it as the first and most fundamental right of citizenship. But they don’t. They specialize in the vilification and suppression of protest however noble the cause, whether it’s Woodrow Wilson’s mass arrests of dissenters after World War I or Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower crushing veterans at the point of bayonets in Washington in 1933, whether it’s Bull Connor’s dogs mangling civil rights marchers in Birmingham or Gov. Ronald Reagan unleashing his goons on the peaceful gatherings at Berkeley’s People’s Park in 1969, or whether it’s regular folks, too many regular folks, reacting with glee and support to the National Guard’s murder on the Kent State campus of four students protesting Nixon’s Cambodian invasion in 1970.
By then the “barbecued monks” remark had come home in the form of “surly, foul-mouthed, know-nothing punks” who deserved to die, as people saw protesters, according innumerable letters that ran in the Kent newspaper after the killings. “The National Guard made only one mistake—they should have fired sooner and longer,” went one letter-writer. Words as fresh as today’s anti-protest vigilantism: recall how Dan Adamini, the Republican Party official in Michigan, described how he’d like anti-Trump protesters treated last week: “Time for another Kent State, perhaps,” he wrote. “One bullet stops a lot of thuggery.”
It’s still just words, though there’s a lethal difference between words of protest and words that directly incite violence.
What worries me isn’t the words. It’s the spate of bills in state legislatures that would do to protesters what words alone can’t: restrict, confine, suppress them and, as in North Dakota, make killers immune from prosecution if they run over a protester, as long as they don’t do it on purpose. It’s a perversion of a law inspired from the already perverted stand-your-ground scenario. Minnesota proposes to bill demonstrators for the cost of law enforcement, as if the right to protest no longer exists in Minnesota. In Iowa protesters who block traffic could face a felony and five years in jail.
The Bush administration not so long ago opened the way for the systematic repression of free speech with its cynical creation of “protest zones.” Anyone visibly protesting the president’s or vice president’s public appearances was barred from their proximity, even if it meant wearing protest t-shirts. The Secret Service routinely set up zones far away from the president or vice president where protesters could supposedly exercise their First Amendment rights, but out of earshot or even visibility of the president.
There was no point. If we can’t subject our public officials to relatively in-your-face protest, give or take a few dozen feet for safety’s sake, let’s at least not call ourselves either free or democratic. Zoning out protest is the very definition of repression. The Bush-era zones succeeded for too long, though more recently, at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, a federal judge struck down such restrictions. But the rules under President Obama didn’t exactly improve: he signed an updated version of a 1971 law that, as Dahlia Lithwick wrote in Slate, “makes it easier for the government to criminalize protest. Period.”
That many of the state bills (though likely not Obama’s Orwellian lock) would be nullified even by conservative courts is beside the point. Lawmakers, police and people who just don’t like to be bothered with the noise of democracy are feeling empowered to crush dissent, legally or not, which means the climate in the streets is as toxic as the language of the proposed bills and the language of radio and TV shout shows. Of course there will be blood.
In Florida, right-wingers are pushing a proposal to do what appears to be the opposite, give government power to prohibit limits on campus speech. It sounds good. College students on many campuses have turned tyrannical in their mis-application or restrictions of free expression. One survey found 51 percent of college students favoring speech regulations and 63 percent favoring the use of “trigger warnings” in classes, when any material that could make anyone uncomfortable for any reason is used. Certain speakers are routinely excluded from the campus circuit, as if their mere presence is a threat to college students who clearly skipped the seminar on John Stuart Mill.
Speaking of trigger-warnings: Bill Maher, host of Real Time on HBO (the same Bill Maher ABC fired in 2001 for being politically incorrect and saying, on a show called “Politically Incorrect,” that the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards), triggered a new controversy this week for inviting Milo Yiannopoulos to his show tonight. Yiannopoulos is an islamophobe with daddy issues cut out of the crypto-fascist Steve Bannon’s rib. He’s made carpet-bombing of vilification for a living, targeting immigrants and women when he tires of insulting Muslims. He’s also frequently blocked from appearing on campuses, just to speak. But being despicable is no reason to be silenced. If universities still extend invitations to the likes of Henry Kissinger (a mass murderer), Louis Farrakhan (a bigot) or Geraldo Rivera (an idiot), there’s certainly room for Yiannopoulos—more so, as he is representative of the ascendant nationalist sleaze now in charge of the country. If it’s defeating him you have in mind, Sun Tzu would not recommend silencing him. Beyond that, no point of view, however extreme, should be intimidated out of university halls.
But it’s not government’s place to be the arbiter of speech. The proposal Stanley Kurtz and the Goldwater Institute want to present to a Florida House education subcommittee next week would require universities to ban speech codes, forbid them to disinvite speakers, punish those who interfered with others’ free-speech rights (an ironic double-twist of those bills seeking to punish protesters) and even recover legal fees from free-speech battles, thus further opening the door to mercenary litigation.
In principle the aims are sound. But as principles, not as laws. The marketplace of ideas belongs in the marketplace, whether we like it or not. Campus speech codes are ridiculous. But so are laws banning speech codes, as are laws criminalizing speech you may not like, or laws criminalizing protesters.
It all seems to be the result of the amplifying echo chambers we all live in. We surround ourselves with like-minded media, like-minded friends, like-minded believers and scream heresy at anything that transgresses our little world. We’re a nation of intellectual cowards, uncurious but for the reaffirming dogmas we know best. There’s so much of what we’re comfortable with anyway (every pretend marketplace of our own making is intellectual sugar), it’s easier to skip doubt. Making the effort to transgress is itself heresy. It’s what makes it so easy to live in alternate realities, and so dangerous: we’ve cozied up to extremes in our own way of looking at the world, and are now surprised that extremists are in charge. No wonder we look at protesters as the worst of heretics.
But they may well be the last patriots. Freedom for the thought we agree with is as cheap as a Facebook click on the “like” button. “Freedom for the thought that we hate,” to quote Justice Holmes’s phrase—now that’s what separates Americans from thuggery.