Some Independence Day Thoughts

It’s Independence Day.  As we recognize our oldest national holiday, dating back to before the country was even formally founded, no doubt many people are thinking that these are strange, difficult times, and are wondering just what the future may bring.  We’ve experienced significant protests across the country — with “Black Lives Matter” signs being seen even on a small road in this remote corner of Maine — and in this presidential election year political passions are running high.  

The spirit of unbridled protest has always run deep in this land.  We’ve fought two civil wars in an effort to define and structure concepts of liberty and freedom, and we’ve experienced other periods where the vein of protest pulsed strongly.  The country has seen the mass civil rights marches and Vietnam War protests of the ’60s, the women’s suffrage movement, the Prohibition and anti-Prohibition movements, and the organized labor movements in the late 1800s — and that’s just scratching the surface.  Each of these protests has changed the country in some meaningful way, and there is no doubt that the current protests will, too.  The spirit of protest is so important to this country that we have codified our right to protest in the very first provision of the Bill of Rights and specifically stripped Congress of the ability to make any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  People who wring their hands about protests simply don’t understand our history, or our institutions.  In reality, protest is as American as apple pie.  

We often think of the “Founding Fathers” as gentlemen with powdered hair in fancy dress who secured freedom just by signing the Declaration of Independence — the execution of which gives rise to the holiday that we celebrate today.  From our vantage point, more than 240 years later, we tend to forget that country’s first civil war, which we now know as the Revolutionary War, was a harsh, bloody fight that occurred in a bitterly divided land — and the Founding Fathers in their silk stockings were the rebels

Courtesy of a present from Richard, I’m reading an excellent book about the first part of the revolutionary period by Rick Atkinson, called The British Are Coming.  One passage had particular resonance with me, in view of the period we are currently living through:

“John Adams, never taciturn, later would be quoted as saying, ‘I would have hanged my own brother had he taken part with our enemy in the contest.’

“Few were hanged, at least not yet; incivility rarely turned to bestiality.  But no one could say how brutal the war would become.  Conformity, censorship, and zealotry now flourished.  Even small sins, such as ‘speaking diminutively of the country congress,’ might be punished with forced public apologies, boycotts, ostracism, or property confiscation.  A mild word of praise for the British government–or simply being suspected of thinking loyal thoughts–could provoke a beating.  Militias served as a political constabulary, bolstered by the Continental Army.  When Queens County, a loyalist stronghold on Long Island, voted 788 to 221 against sending representatives to the provincial congress, the names of those in the majority were published in the newspaper; they were forbidden to travel, hire a lawyer, or practice a trade.  More than a thousand militiamen and Continentals then swept through Queens, arresting opposition leaders, seizing weapons and extracting allegiance oaths–except from the 250 obdurate men who fled into the swamps to await General Howe’s arrival.

Such measures spread.”

In short, there is nothing new under the sun, and we’ve been through these kinds of challenging periods–in fact, much more challenging periods–before.  Reading accurate histories of America would provide reassurance on that point.  Unfortunately, airbrushing history has also been a tradition in this country.  How many of us who went through the American school system were taught of the horrendous Tulsa, Oklahoma race massacre of 1921, or of lynchings, or the role of the Ku Klux Klan in subjugating African Americans — or for that matter the egregious history of lies, broken promises and mistreatment of indigenous Americans, Chinese immigrants, or other ethnic groups, or the Japanese internment camps that were created during World War II?  Those terrible racist episodes are as much a part of American history, and our ability to gain a true and complete understanding of our country, as the lofty pronouncements in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Emancipation Proclamation.  Those of us who were taught that America’s history is an unbroken story of freedom, liberty, and fairness in service to the world were not told the whole story.  We deserved the truth, but we didn’t get it.

I hope that that will be one of the positive impacts of these current protests.  We can only fully grasp the meaning and complexity of American history, and the true importance of crucial historical figures, if we take an unvarnished view of their lives and understand their faults, flaws, and failings as well as their successes.  I hope that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms that we are seeing in these protests ensures that American history is never sanitized again and the full story — good, bad, and ugly — is told from here on out.

The exercise of our freedoms is something worth celebrating.  Happy Fourth of July, everyone!  

Off Kilter On Campus

College campuses have always been curious enclaves, removed from the hurly-burly of normal life.  The concentration of young students, fresh from the restraints of their childhood homes, exposed to new ideas and groups and exercising their personal freedoms for the first time, makes for a kind of hot-house atmosphere where superheated emotions and actions can come to seem almost normal.

That’s a big part of the reason why colleges are such a fertile ground for protests.  It’s been that way since at least the ’60s.  The reasons for the protests can change — when I was in college in the late ’70s, after the Vietnam War had ended and the economy was in the dumper, some students worried about their job prospects were actually agitating to let the CIA back on campus to recruit students — but the fact of protests is almost an assumed part of the college experience.  If you’re not going to protest in college, you probably won’t protest anything, ever.

So I’m not worried about the existence of protests at colleges.  Nor does it concern me if college presidents decide to resign in the face of protests, as happened at the University of Missouri.  I obviously don’t know the full back story of what’s been happening at Mizzou, but I doubt that a little unrest, standing alone, would be sufficient to topple a university president.  If it was, the president probably wasn’t that suited to serve as the ultimate decision-maker in such a stilted environment.

f8ede305-f224-42bc-82a1-7df2166210f7_cx0_cy5_cw0_mw1024_s_n_r1What bothers me, though, is that the recent incidents at campuses like Missouri and Dartmouth indicate that students don’t really seem to understand the full range of freedoms that we are entitled to exercise in America.  In a well-publicized incident at the University of Missouri, students congregating in a public space prevented a journalist from taking photos and exercising his indisputable First Amendment rights to do so.  (Even worse, the student actions were apparently supported by an assistant professor of mass media studies, who obviously should know better.)  More recently, at Dartmouth, a Black Lives Matter demonstration saw protesters entering private study spaces, disrupting, physically harassing, and shouting obscenities at students who were studying for exams rather than joining in the protest.

These incidents, and others, make you wonder what students are being taught on college campuses these days.  If an assistant professor of mass media studies doesn’t understand how the First Amendment works, then perhaps it’s not the students’ fault, and college administrators need to do a better job of hiring instructors.  It also makes you wonder about how media-savvy the current crop of student protestors are, too.  The old-line protestors of the ’60s craved every bit of media attention because they understood it would help their cause; they would no more have tried to block a photographer than they would have listened to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians in their dorm rooms.  Were the Mizzou students afraid that Mom and Dad might see that they were out on the quad, camping in tents?

The key point of it all is understanding of, and tolerance for, the rights of others.  We tolerate student protests for various causes because they have the right to assemble and advocate for whatever changes they wish.  But journalists have the right to cover those protests and take photographs without being blocked, pushed, or harassed, and students who exercise their rights not to join the protests of others have the right to make that decision without being pressured or verbally or physically intimidated.

Some people are calling today’s college students pampered crybabies.  That may be true, but it’s only true in the sense that it has always been true for the last 50 years, where college campuses have increasingly become a kind of zone of alternate reality.  (Visit a college campus and look at the recreational and social facilities that colleges are building to attract students, and you’ll see lots of tangible evidence that inevitably will lead students to think they’re special.)  The real problem isn’t pampering, it’s education — and the protestors ultimately will learn a very hard lesson when they leave the rarified land of ivory towers and encounter the hard realities of a world in which others aren’t going to hesitate to enforce their rights.  The first college agitator who thinks he can stage a sit-down strike to force his unpleasant boss into quitting, or bully his co-workers into supporting his approach to workplace politics, is going to find himself with a pink slip and an abrupt career change.

It would be better for the students and their future lives and careers if they learned that lesson while still on campus.