Abu-Jamal and the Costs of Reflexive Anti-Leftism

In the interests of showing that I will disagree as loudly with my friends as with my foes….

Mark invokes what has become a stand-in for every “loony left” cliche there is, the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. If perhaps you haven’t heard the story of Mumia Abu-Jamal, he is a man convicted of murdering a police officer in Philadelphia, and sentenced to death for doing so. His case has become something of a cause celebre on the left, owing to questions about either his factual guilt, or the impartiality and fairness of the actors in his trial (and thus the trial itself). Personally, I don’t hold strong opinions either way about the case, but I do have to say that many of the statements by the judge, particularly during his sentencing of Abu-Jamal, seems to me to make it abundantly clear that Abu-Jamal’s political  views (Abu-Jamal is a Black Panther and radical African separatist) were illegitimately considered in sentencing Abu-Jamal to death. I could easily be wrong; I just don’t think in being wrong I’m somehow handing away my membership card to the “To Be Taken Seriously” club.

I am disinterested in (metaphorically) legislating the Mumia Abu-Jamal case in this space. I only have to ask the question: based on the available information, should questioning the fairness and legality of his trial, conviction or sentencing relegate someone permanently to the ranks of the unserious? That, after all, is the point of treating the Abu-Jamal case like the anti-leftist dog whistle it has become. One only needs to say “Mumia”, and eyes glaze over, discretion leaves, and we are suddenly aware that the person being considered is “one of those”, unworthy of invitation into the realm of the thoughtful. Serious people can disagree about controversial matters, and while I don’t think we have to take everyone who believes in a flat earth or fluoride in the drinking water as government mind control as a serious participant in the conversation, I think we are much too quick to bring people into that level of dismissal. Arguing that Abu-Jamal is entirely innocent of his crimes is going too far, as I see it. But does that really mean that anyone who thinks so is necessarily unworthy of listening to? I’m biased. But I don’t think so. And I think it has everything to do with the cultural definition of leftism as it exists in our media.

Sadly, this is not just a phenomenon that we find regarding Abu-Jamal, but of a piece with a sustained campaign to exclude leftists from serious political discourse.

Ross Douthat, who I have great respect for, wrote a First Things piece (I can’t find a link, sorry) about the Iraq war, recently quoted in New York magazine, in which he wrote

I supported the war at the time, and it was a popular war, backed by liberals as well as conservatives … It was critiqued, of course, but mainly by left-wing shouters like the ‘poets against the war,’ and what seem in hindsight like the best arguments against the invasion—the conservative arguments against it—were often conspicuous in their absence.”

You see, what is important, really important, is preserving the cultural critique. Above the need to actually sort out who was right and who was wrong about a disastrous, hideously expensive, bloody and intractable fiasco like the second Iraq war, the need to determine who is serious reigns. The need to sort our political actors into the camps of the suitable and the not is the only lasting imperative. So much the worse for leftist shouters like myself that being unquestionably correct about one of the great policy decisions of my lifetime has such little salience, when weighted against the vital dictate to occupy the narrow confines of the Serious.

Poets, presumably, can’t be serious, or smart, or politically saavy. Poets couldn’t possibly understand the horror of war, I suppose, or have had the foresight to see what a massive disaster Iraq was to become. Never mind that these hypothetical poets were able to come to the correct conclusion about the Iraq War, an achievement which eluded Ross Douthat. No, that discretion and predictive ability is of course of little value when married to the wrong kind of politics, and more importantly, the wrong kind of cultural branding. This is why the ANSWER set is to receive no credit whatsoever for being so entirely correct about the merits of the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter if you’re right, only that you act and dress and talk in the way prescribed by the Serious. Better to be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong reasons! Better to be a serious person leading your country to an unmitigated fiasco than some left-winger counseling discretion and restraint. Priorities, people.

You can’t be too hard on Ross about this. This is what happens when a rhetoric of exclusion has grown to include such a large slice of political and philosophical life. The left-wing– you know, once half of the political spectrum, a vast, diverse and ideologically and intellectually teeming slice of thinkers– has been pushed out of the conversation. This would be wrong in general, but it has sadder in the wake of current events, which demonstrate how utterly necessary the political left is. There have been two vitally important lessons of the last decade of American political life: that wars of aggression, particularly those designed to spread democracy and increase stability, undermine democracy and destroy stability; and that the free market is not self-regulating and wise but rather requires strong hands to reign in risk and prevent human greed from damaging everyone working within those markets.

Neither of these notions, skepticism of aggressive war or skepticism of unfettered capitalism, are necessarily or completely the best way of looking at the world. And I should be clear: it is hardly the case that it is only or primarily conservatives who have marginalized leftists. No, as a matter of fact, it has often been liberals who have done the most work to silence or degrade their leftward flank, good liberal commissars like Peter Beinart organizing rhetorical culls of the unworthy. Whatever the case is, though, this is true: this is a country that needs the leftist critique, needs a counterbalance for the unrepentantly aggressive militarism of the mainstream right and the liberal hawks, and needs a vociferous opponent of the reflexive bias that mainstream political movements demonstrate in favor of corporations, the moneyed, and the powerful. This crisis shows us that.

But we can’t have the left and its necessary contributions when we’re stuck in a discourse that marginalizes without argument, excludes without discretion, and assumes away the opinions of many by trafficking in reductive cultural cues.

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41 thoughts on “Abu-Jamal and the Costs of Reflexive Anti-Leftism

  1. As Allen Ginsburg said: “and poets should stay out of politics or become monsters/I have become monstrous with politics/”.

    They’ve made their monsters. If only just to slay them.

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  2. Freddie:

    Just to be clear – in context, I was invoking it because of the fact that it is so utterly non-germane to 99% of the protests in which it is invoked.

    Look – carrying a “Free Mumia” sign (or, as I hypothesized, an even-more ridiculous “Pardon Scooter” sign) not only marginally distracts from the intended message of a protest – it is in fact intended to do so. You don’t carry such a sign unless your primary purpose in attending the protest is to use the protest as a vehicle for promoting your pet issue.

    That’s why I think most protest movements are ultimately exercises in futility – they are going to attract people who, while perhaps sympathetic to the underlying goal of the protest, are more interested in advancing some broader agenda that may or may not be germane to that goal. Those people will also, inevitably, be the ones most interested in getting their message across – they’re going to be the people who fight hardest for camera time and for reporters’ notebooks.

    I’d also add that I find it absolutely tragic that Mumia has become perhaps the most prominent face of complaints against our justice system. Whatever the problems with his case, they were absolutely nothing compared to the problems that occur on a daily basis in courtrooms across the country; even if he was ever just a poster-child for anti-death penalty activism, there are at least dozens, if not hundreds, of far more worthy candidates for that slot.

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  3. I was a poet and against the Iraq war, but felt it would be intolerable to join any unified “poets against the war” coalition, as poets should remain independent and, if poetry is what they’re after, as apolitical as possible. Now that I’m more blogger than poet I still make sure to try my best to never mix the two…

    Which is really an aside, but still…

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  4. “most protest movements are ultimately exercises in futility – they are going to attract people who, while perhaps sympathetic to the underlying goal of the protest, are more interested in advancing some broader agenda that may or may not be germane to that goal. Those people will also, inevitably, be the ones most interested in getting their message across – they’re going to be the people who fight hardest for camera time and for reporters’ notebooks.”

    A convenient blanket argument for the established order against fundamental protests, and one that sweeps broadly. In this view, being against the Iraq War or the Vietnam War, marching for civil rights, protesting against economic injustice is reduced to whining and looking for media face time. This is also the kind of argument that illustrates Freddie’s point – we’re simply unwilling to entertain fundamental critiques of The Way Things Are and instead name-call the participants or question their motivations. So the narrowly defined concensus blunders on merrily from disaster to disaster, unchallenged by folks who are just too rude, DFH, or heterodox to be listened to.

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  5. Shorter me:

    If you’re going to protest the war or, in the case of the Tea Parties, government spending, then protest the war or government spending. But if your protest of the war or government spending includes a multitude of protests of all sorts of other issues, don’t be surprised if people (including the media) get confused as to what it is you are actually protesting and, perhaps more importantly, why.

    It’s not that taking issue with the Mumia case makes you an “unserious person” – it’s that using a war protest as a forum to take issue with the Mumia case makes you unserious about protesting the war.

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  6. Scott:

    No. See my follow-up comment. If you want to protest economic injustice – then protest economic injustice, just not in the middle of an anti-war rally. One thing at a time.

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  7. There’s a guy you know. He recently became an atheist.

    Somehow, he manages to work it into every conversation.

    “Oh, you did an easter egg hunt this weekend? I don’t celebrate easter. I’m an atheist.”

    “You don’t have to say ‘god bless you’ when I sneeze. No demons left my body. There’s no such thing!”

    You’ve met this guy. You might have even been this guy for a couple of weeks.

    The Mumia folks are variations of this guy. It’s not that Mumia isn’t a kick’n topic, it’s that we weren’t talking about Mumia and, as a matter of fact, were deliberately going out of our way to talk about something else entirely. We’re trying to raise awareness about Breast Cancer Research (or whatever) and here you are explaining to us that we should not, in fact, open with a non-denominational prayer (or whatever).

    This ain’t about you.

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  8. “I just don’t think in being wrong I’m somehow handing away my membership card to the ‘To Be Taken Seriously’ club.”

    I wouldn’t take seriously any “To Be Taken Seriously” club that would have me as a member. So I hope that group blogs don’t count as TBTS clubs.

    On topic: Why is the Left unable to overcome its marginalization? Why was it marginalized in the first place? Could it be said that the Left’s exile was preceded by a rhetorically decadent phase? There’s so many ways to tell this story…

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  9. Ross: “I supported the war at the time, and it was a popular war, backed by liberals as well as conservatives … It was critiqued, of course, but mainly by left-wing shouters like the ‘poets against the war,’ and what seem in hindsight like the best arguments against the invasion—the conservative arguments against it—were often conspicuous in their absence.””

    Ross, as usual, is wrong. IIRC, from 1/3-2/3 of the American public opposed the war (again IIRC, support numbers went up when it appeared to be both imminent and a certainty, not a potential war).

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  10. It was a weird time. I couldn’t believe we were actually going to war, or that the media was so silent on it, so supportive of it, that so few responsible voices were coming out in opposition. It was pretty scary to see how quickly a nation could change their tune, from not really thinking about Saddam at all to fully supporting an invasion.

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  11. E.D., there’s good points you raised – the elite MSM, those Evul Librulz, for the most part eagerly carried the administration’s water. And this was less than 2 years after 9/11. Given those two factors, the level of public support should be discounted even more, by any competant, honest columnist. Which leaves Ross out, of course.

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  12. Mark: “Look – carrying a “Free Mumia” sign (or, as I hypothesized, an even-more ridiculous “Pardon Scooter” sign) not only marginally distracts from the intended message of a protest – it is in fact intended to do so. You don’t carry such a sign unless your primary purpose in attending the protest is to use the protest as a vehicle for promoting your pet issue. ”

    Yes. The problem is, of course, that’s really hard to keep such people away.

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  13. “In the interests of showing that I will disagree as loudly with my friends as with my foes….”

    Upon reading that opening line I was expecting a real smack-down. Along the lines of the bitch-slap you handed Robert Stacy McCain weeks back.

    Instead this twee, “affectedly or excessively dainty,” dish is offered.

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  14. “The problem is, of course, that’s really hard to keep such people away.”

    Doubly so when there is (always) a significant minority explaining that, yes, this is a fundraiser for raising awareness of breast cancer, but maybe we are being hurtful to the faith impaired by opening with a non-denominational prayer and perhaps we could be more inclusive by exploring other, different, groupthink activities at the beginning of the session.

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  15. It is interesting that our friends on the Right were substantially more interested in venting for months on end about the Duke Lacrosse players, but mention Mumia…whoa Nelly, then you see how interested the pundits were about justice. Just sayin’.

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  16. From my studies of the Mumia phenomenon, it is a case where the justice system railroaded a guilty man.

    Leonard Peltier would make a far better poster child, if you ask me. You could even get the G Gordon Liddy types on board. Bipartisanship at its finest!

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  17. Peltier probably won’t get freed because a) the Republicans honestly don’t care and b) the Democrats are hypersensitive to the “soft on crime” charge.

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  18. Similarly, you’ll be hard pressed to find any political commentor, in the MSM or in a blog or anywhere, willing to say “I’m a pacifist”, lest they be excommunicated from the ranks of The Serious. It’s sort of like how you aren’t allowed to be on the jury of a death penalty case unless you agree that the death penalty is a fine idea.

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  19. Freddie –

    Two thoughts:

    1) The problem I find with the “Free Mumia-ites” is not Mumia (who I perceive to have been dealt with unjustly), but what comes next. Ten years in Berkeley and San Francisco have taught me that I’ll likely soon be hearing about AIPAC, a couple of “Palestine: from the river to the sea” chants, and if I’m lucky, about how “teh Jews” control the banking system. So I cut it off.

    2) Was A.N.S.W.E.R. really counseling discretion and restraint? As far as I can tell, the “Pacifica Left” merely favors American Imperialism in a different form. They want a shifting of USAID money, different people labeled terrorists and extradited to the US, and support for a different group of dictators. But discretion and restraint are generally not part of their program. I don’t think it’s wrong to say that the process by which they arrived at their policy program was unserious and not one that’s likely to produce good policy in the future.

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  20. This was a great post, and it’s a shame that whoever this Mark Thompson is has ransacked the comments about it with his pointless defense of his particular instance of liberal stereotyping, rather than allowing a discussion about the substance of the post to occur.

    The only thing I would add to, actually amend, Freddie’s points is to say that he weakens his powerful argument by summing the axiom of the Serious as follows:

    Better to be wrong for the right reasons than right for the wrong reasons!

    When what he actually demonstrates is that the axiom is more accurately described this way:

    Better to be wrong for the right reasons than right for the right reasons!

    After all did the poets arrive at their conclusion through some invalid or misinformed reasoning? I guess Freddie isn’t perfectly clear, but he comes pretty close to saying their reasoning (he calls it “discretion and predictive ability”) was “correct”:

    Never mind that these hypothetical poets were able to come to the correct conclusion about the Iraq War, an achievement which eluded Ross Douthat. No, that discretion and predictive ability is of course of little value when married to the wrong kind of politics, and more importantly, the wrong kind of cultural branding.

    The fact is, in our current media environment merely expressing certain opinions makes a person unserious, thus ipso facto rendering the argument being made summarily dismissible. If you were against the war, you were “Against the War,” and so didn’t have to be taken seriously, even listened to. You needn’t have held any sign at all, on that topic or regarding anyone on death row — you were simply categorized as like those who might and accordingly written-off. Thus did we close our eyes, sing Mary Had A Little Lamb together, hold onto each other’s dicks, and skippingly prance into a strategic and moral fiasco.

    But let’s be sure we can all agree that anyone who cares whether Mumia Abu-Jamal did the crime is not to be taken seriously.

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  21. Michael Drew:

    I’m not sure how clarifying and defending the remarks that Freddie was replying to are “ransacking the comments,” seeing as they were my remarks. Lampooning the “Free Mumia” activists is not reflexive anti-leftism if the reason I’m lampooning them is that they interject Mumia into issues that have nothing to do with Mumia, and thereby confuse those issues.

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  22. Michael Drew, “this Mark Thompson” is one of the key architects of and contributors to this site. Disagree with his ideas all you want, but don’t question his right to participate in the discussion like anyone else who happens to stop by.

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  23. “The fact is, in our current media environment merely expressing certain opinions makes a person unserious, thus ipso facto rendering the argument being made summarily dismissible.”

    Dude! That is *TOTALLY* happening with the Tea Parties too!!!

    Anyway, I’d say that the problem is not whether Mumia is a topic worth discussing but whether a guy who shows up to an anti-war protest carrying a Mumia sign is protesting in something approaching good faith or whether he’s protesting as a form of therapy.

    In far, far too many cases, the folks who show up to anti-war protests dressed up in outfits designed to have newspeople come up to them, carrying signs designed to provoke, and doing all sorts of wacky stuff are, in fact, people who are protesting as recreation.

    This undercuts the entire protest in the same way that the people who show up to tea party protests and scream about burning books undercut the people who just want the government to quit spending so much goddam money.

    Also, you and I both know very well that there are opinions that, when stated, scream “I Am Not A Serious Person!”… and doubly so when one uses a protest designed for Something Else Entirely as a staging area for them.

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  24. Anyway, I’d say that the problem is not whether Mumia is a topic worth discussing but whether a guy who shows up to an anti-war protest carrying a Mumia sign is protesting in something approaching good faith or whether he’s protesting as a form of therapy.

    That’s pretty damn funny, actually. Therapy indeed….

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  25. That’s not intended to (overly) denegrate protesting as therapy, mind.

    Everybody needs a hobby and I cannot recommend Dungeons and Dragons to more than a handful of people.

    But the at which you find yourself having to scream “THIS IS SERIOUS” is usually a good indicator of how helpful to your cause you are being.

    If the point is to go out, hold a sign, have a drum circle, meet some chicks, and engage in some primal screaming… mission accomplished. I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.

    If, on the other hand, you are trying to Free Mumia…

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  27. I didn’t question Mr. Thompson’s right to comment here, and it is absurd to suggest I did. It’s also fairly humorous to suggest I should know or care who the architects of this site are. That said, I was in fact aware of who he is. I think it reflects poorly on you all to jam up comments sections on your own site, thus very considerably influencing the direction of the discussions there. If it were my site, I would want to hear more of what my readers have to say. If I was in Mark Thompson’s spot, with a desire to continue on a topic with another blogger, I would avail myself of my ability to do so as another entry. So the ‘whoever Thompson is’ quip was tongue in cheek.

    My view was that Freddie’s entire point was that, whatever their shortcomings, public protest (in his view, especially on the left) is essential to the functioning of our democracy, and such fippant dismissals as are routinely accomplished by reference to marginal but persistent causes such as Mumia are really destructive and in bad faith. That was his larger point, but Thompson continued to pursue the specific question of Mumia in the comments, beyond just an initial clarification that it wasn’t his central point either (though Freddie’s point is that it doesn’t need to be; it can just be used as a throwaway to devastating effect in producing real marginalization of important dissent). He continued to pursue the Mumia inquiry for several more interchanges, thus essentially taking over the thread and preventing Freddie’s points from being explored. This, of course, would be fine if it was one of your readers doing this, but I found it quite striking behavior for an official contributor to a site of self- described Gentlemen. I would have thought that one of the principal values of Gentlemanly discourse to be preserved in such a place would be an exquisite sensitivity to the full meaning and intent of the arguments of one’s interlocutors, and a desire for those to be clearly understood and discussed in their best possible light. I thought Mr. Thompson’s treatment of Mr. Freddie’s arguments to fall substantially short of that aim, and my comment was a reaction to that.

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  28. Uhh….my follow-up comments were all direct response to questions directed at me, except my initial follow-up comment, which I wrote immediately after my first entry, and which was intended solely to summarize my first comment. I’m sorry if you think I was thread-jacking a comments thread on a site to which I am a primary contributor; but the notion that I am trying to direct the comments away from Freddie’s point is, frankly, absurd, and indeed I have no more ability to direct the flow of comments than any other commenter. If you’re not interested in my comments, that’s your prerogative; if you want the comments to deal primarily with something else, then the solution to that is just to make a comment pertaining to that something else.

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  29. Fair enough. I wasn’t charging intentional threadjacking, merely pointing to the effect as I saw it. Freddie’s non-Mumia points were profound, and his main point is that Mumia is an unfair distraction. So too much talk of Mumia merely perpetuates the problem as Freddie sees it. I would hold myself to the standard of being fair to the initial post if I were a priamry architect here; like I said if outside commenters steered the discussion awau from the author’s main point; that’s the game, and then you’re right about the solution — other commenters stepping up.

    I have a thing about bloggers posing as “just commenters” on their own sites, though, I admit that. So you discount my view by a bit.

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  30. “The problem I find with the “Free Mumia-ites” is not Mumia (who I perceive to have been dealt with unjustly), but what comes next. Ten years in Berkeley and San Francisco have taught me that I’ll likely soon be hearing about AIPAC, a couple of “Palestine: from the river to the sea” chants, ”

    Yeah, heaven forfend that anyone be aware of the Israeli Lobby’s sway or advocate a united, non-racist, secular Palestine along the lines of, oh, South Africa. That would be totally un-serious, of course.

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  31. Thoughts on this?:

    The Tea Parties

    They resemble nothing so much as the anti-war protests during Bush’s first term. The claim that they don’t have an organizing premise strikes me as obviously wrong: They’re anti-bailout, anti-stimulus, anti-deficit, and anti- the tax increases that will eventually be required to pay for the current spending spree, and complaining that they don’t also have a ten-point plan for reforming Medicare and Social Security reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of protest marches, I think. The claim that they’re hypocritical and partisan is a bit stronger – where were they when Bush was running up the deficit, etc. – but in fairness, many of the organizing figures were anti-TARP from the beginning, and there’s something slightly odd about saying that if you didn’t take to the streets to protests a $300 billion deficit you aren’t allowed to protest a $1 trillion deficit. The numbers matter, surely …

    But they do have all of the weaknesses of the anti-war marches: Their message is intertwined with a sense of disenfranchisement and all kinds of inchoate cultural resentments, they’ve brought various wacky extremists out of the woodwork (you know, like Glenn Beck), and just as George W. Bush benefited from having opposition to his policies identified with peacenik marchers in Berkeley and Ann Arbor, so Barack Obama probably benefits from having the opposition (such as it is) associated with a bunch of Fox News fans marching through the streets on Tax Day, parroting talk radio tropes and shouting about socialism.

    –Ross Douthat

    Perhaps folks here buy this comparison, find the situations perfect analogues. But regardless of the extent that is true, this is where a focus on style and theatrics over substance, merit, and relative weight of the matters being protested leads us. If any demonstration is rendered unserious by the presence of a few off-message sign-carriers, we might as well discard it as a mode of public communication. That would be a bad outcome for those citizens wishing to communicate opposition to future unjust wars, as well as for future expressions of the sentiment behind our current ersatz tax uprising (though I’d like to suggest those two results are not of equal consequence for the country at large). I don’t think we want to go out of our way to marginalize political demonstrations more than they already have been in the culture. They have played an essential role throughout our history, and to downplay the significance of protests that in the main (discounting for the inevitable static in gatherings of any significant size) carry a clear political message and evidence of any considerable level of support for it is really just to downplay the seriousness of the issues we face in todays world vis-a-vis previous generations.

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