January 31, 1991

Prayer and Protest

The voice of protest, of warning, of appeal is never more needed than when the clamor of fife and drum, echoed by the press and too often by the pulpit, is bidding all men fall in and keep step and obey in silence the tyrannous word of command.

Charles Eliot Norton 1898 (denouncing the Spanish American War)

If anything is fundamental to a free society it is protest. In dictatorships it is either non-existent or underground.

Protest is one way for a minority to make itself heard. The majority doesn't need it. And an essential to a free society, besides majority rule, is free expression for minorities. A Christian country is not free if one must be a Christian to be heard.

In a democracy, there must be a proper forum for protest. That forum is usually the public meeting and a free press that is accessible to everyone.

What is the role of the street demonstration in this whole process? Is it a true expression of free speech or is it a perversion of it, designed to bludgeon the majority with the opinions of a minority? Is the blockading of a birth control clinic or of a highway a legitimate exercise of free speech or is it the tyranny of a minority?

Street demonstrations often contain an element of anger in them. They tend to cater to television and it is the violence that the cameras focus on. All of this may be to the detriment of genuine movements for change. They remind me of the days leading to the coming to power of the Nazis in Germany. Street violence may be a prelude to the suppression of free speech by the people in power.

As an adolescent in the 30s I watched the Right and the Left moving toward violent conflict between the two, with everyone else being caught in the crossfire. The communists deplored the violence of the Nazis, but were all too willing to bust a few skulls at a Nazi meeting and vice versa.

The Right and Left Wing were at the vanguard of the peace movement prior to World War II. The left became militant after Hitler attacked Russia and the right did the same after Pearl Harbor. They were not interested in peace, but in victory for their side.

There are groups of people with genuine commitments to peace. The Quakers steadfastly held on to their pacifism through two world wars and to this day. There were people like Bertrand Russell in England who retained his pacifism long after it became an unpopular stance. I have great respect for people of principle but I suspect that those at the forefront of most peace movements are not pacifists by principle, but are there because they are for or against one side or the other. Given the appropriate side-changes they would be willing to take up arms. Some are a bloody lot who get their jollies out of violence.

How effective are street demonstrations? They are very effective in catching the eye of the TV camera. As far as accomplishing what their protagonists wish to accomplish, they seem relatively ineffective and may actually turn many people they would like to lure to their side against them. I suspect that many people voted against the environmental initiatives because of the protests. Unlike the quieter forms of protest, street protests tend to provoke counter-demonstrations. When the two sides meet, there is often violence.

There are very effective forms of protest with which a minority can gain more power. Economic and political pressure are truly effective. Getting someone into office who is sympathetic to their viewpoint is effective as is an economic boycott. A strike which closes a factory is very effective, while one where people just carry signs and shout accomplishes little.

Public protest as well as prayer vigils give its protagonists the illusion that they are accomplishing something. To me the prayer vigil seems to be a requiem for a lost cause. The street protest also is mourning a lost cause, but it expresses anger rather than sadness.

Next column

Return to the Race, Class, Culture, Religion Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page