Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 1 May 2024

 

What we’re getting wrong about protests

It’s a mistake to regard youth demonstrations like those at USC and other schools through a lens of ’60s nostalgia.

JONAH GOLDBERG

DEMONSTRATORS decrying Israel’s war in Gaza confront police at USC last week. Protests are rightly protected by the 1st Amendment, but that doesn’t mean they’re inherently good. (Brian van der Brug Los Angeles Times)

The current campus demonstrations are a reminder that of all the mossy clichés and puffed-up pieties of polite (and impolite) American discourse, the sanctity of protest is the hardest to question.

Doubting the loftiness of protest invites elite scorn more than any other skepticism about a constitutional right. Proposing limits on free speech, for example, attracts far less outrage. Indeed, people question free speech all the time: in debates about “hate speech,” campaign finance, social media and more. (Let’s not even get into the fashionableness of questioning 2nd Amendment rights).

But if I say that most protests are performative cosplay, or mass meet-ups of the angry, the radical, the lonely or the misinformed, someone is bound to point to the civil rights protests of the 1960s or the campaign for women’s suffrage, followed by a string of righteous how-dare-yous.

This gets to part of my objection. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about protesting. Organized protest is a form of speech, and, like speech, it is rightly protected by the 1st Amendment. But, also like speech, its morality — though not its legality — is wholly dependent on the content.

You have a right to say, or protest for, awful things. Invoking that right doesn’t make your view any nobler.

The Jim Crow-era civil rights protests were noble because the cause was noble. They did not prove that protesting is always good, merely that it can be. Replace the March on Washington with the Nazi march on Skokie, Ill., and you get the point.

The aesthetics and psychology of protest are often ugly because crowds encourage extremism and intimidation. Well-intentioned protest organizers know this better than anybody; they often struggle to keep the crowds from becoming dangerous mobs. The core message of mass protest is “strength in numbers,” a primordial feeling that can often lead to a kind of illiberal power-drunkenness. “The hallucinations of alcoholics provide us with an opportunity to study crowds as they appear in the minds of individuals,” Elias Canetti writes in his brilliant book “Crowds and Power.”

Some argue that democracy is all about strength in numbers, and that’s partly true. But democratic will is exercised by the private actions of individual voters casting secret ballots. The strength in numbers invoked by most large protests is better understood as populism, and populism has an uglier history than democracy, from the long history of race riots to Jan. 6.

The irreducible political unit in America is the individual, not the crowd. The highest form of protest (and speech) is captured by Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of a lone, working-class dissenter standing up for his conscience as his neighbors listen politely, not by images of mobs shouting insults, blocking traffic, occupying buildings or worse.

Again, not all protests are ugly riots or mass tantrums. But the tolerance often shown for both is a product of romantic impulses driven by ’60s nostalgia. As a generation, progressive baby boomers take a back seat to nobody in their stunning self-regard and overestimation of their historical importance. But these people have shaped the narratives of academia, entertainment and journalism. They’ve convinced themselves, and the young minds they shape, that protest is self-justifying, a rite of passage of enlightened youth.

Elite universities, run by acolytes of this cult, struggle to deal with protests because they believe, as a matter of educational philosophy, that giving voice to authentic passion is the route to self-actualization. As one headline conveniently summarized, “Student Protest Is an Essential Part of Education.” Who says? People who love student protest, duh.

I could have salted this column with examples of today’s protesters revealing how little they know about the issues supposedly motivating them — or of fawning coverage of mobs siding with terrorists.

But my point isn’t about these protests in particular. It’s about the broader cult of protest.

The nostalgic champions of the campus protests of the ’60s would have Americans believe they were a heroic success, stopping the Vietnam War. But what they actually helped achieve was Richard Nixon’s election and seven more years of war.

Performative protest feels good for those drunk on their own, unearned sense of importance. But such spectacles are often terrible for their intended ends. That’s one more reason not to glorify protest for its own sake.

@JonahDispatch

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