Along with throngs of supporters President Bush will be met by hundreds of protestors when he visits Utah next week. On Utah NOW we’re breaking down the elements of dissent…In a country founded by revolution how crucial is protest to a vibrant democracy and what are the limits?
[Doug Fabrizio, Host]:
Opponents of George W. Bush and his policies are staging protest rallies next week when the president visits the state. Supporters are organizing their own gathering as a response to what they see is a troubling breach of respect.
All of this does raise questions about the nature of dissent. In a country founded by revolution, how crucial is protest to a vibrant democracy? And what are the limits?
Hello and welcome to Utah now I'm Doug Fabrizio, On Tuesday President Bush will arrive in Salt Lake to speak to the American Legion Convention.
While here he's expected to stump for Utah senator Orrin Hatch. While a presidential visit is a big deal for a red state in the country's west there may be more to the president's trip to Utah than the typical meet and greet.
The white house lately has been looking to boost or at least stabilize the president's approval numbers and it seems Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's trip will also help to shore up lagging support for the war in Iraq. Inside the convention center Mr. Bush will encounter a friendly audience.
Outside, opponents of the president's policies and his handling of the war, including Salt Lake 's Mayor Rocky Anderson will gather for a protest rally.
Supporters will also gather outside to offer a response to what they see as the audacity or at least the sheer lack of respect for such a protest. Especially at a time like this.
But all those who will gather next week understand that dissent is not a departure from the American experience, but a critical part of it.
Images of Dissent
The images are reminders, of the moments of upheaval, of turbulence, times in the history of this country when all the players knew something meaningful was happening.
That something significant was at stake.
While there's usually anger, or at least anguish in these displays, there's nothing vulgar about them, or really anything particularly exceptional in the scheme of things.
In a country forged by resistance, this process of dissent is deeply embedded in our psyche. And throughout our history we've understood that dissent is not tolerated in a free society, it's expected.
But the methods of protest always disturbed polite society and raise questions of propriety. For some it's a matter of respect, shouldn't a measure of deference be offered, if not to the man, at least the office?
Aren't there some things we set aside that we hold harmless from the shouting?
But there's a restlessness that has always fueled defiance, that feeling that nothing is sacred or settled while someone disagrees.
There are risks to dissent. The risk that while the lives of American troops are on the line this expression will be manipulated or misinterpreted.
There's the risk that in a time of uncertainty in this country, when civil discourse has broken down, that protest could undermine the efforts of those trying to find common ground.
After all, how can such ferocity heal a people?
But dissent is only part of the story of change in this country. It's the part that's raw and visceral. It is by nature severe, even shrill. And the healing, if there is any, usually comes after the outrage.
The images are reminders of conflict, but also of uncertainty. Feelings of rage are born of desperation and vulnerability. And in the crucial moments of dissent in this country, the outcome was always in question.
Tonight we're talking about the evolving nature of dissent in light of the president's visit.
Joining us now is Richard Davis. Davis is a political science professor at Brigham Young University and professor, welcome, thanks for being with us.
[Richard Davis, Ph.D., BYU Political Science Department]:
How important, first of all, is the idea of dissent to who we are as a country?
[ Davis ]:
It's critical. As Americans, we value the freedoms that we have, including freedom of speech. Without that we become like a dictatorship. The principle of free speech is one that we've held for a long time, although we haven't always abided by it.
We should talk about that, because dissent hasn't always been seen as a critical part of this experience in the country.
[ Davis ]:
That's true. In fact, soon after the framing of the Constitution, the congress passed an act called the Sedition act that prohibited criticism of the current administration.
It was repealed three years later. But nevertheless, there was a lot of unease about the idea of dissent. And then particularly during war time, in 1917, another act was passed, sedition act that says you couldn't criticize the war effort during World War One.
So we've come at this slowly, tentatively, but now we embrace dissent much more than in the past.
Do you think that our current idea of freedom of speech is settled, or do you think it is still in a process of movement?
[ Davis ]:
There are certainly certain areas of speech that we're still debating, the idea of flag burning for example, free expression in that sense. During a war time we become worried that free speech will lead us to help the enemy, to create treason. So there are certain issues that I think are still live, and there are certain moments in time when we worry more about whether we can tolerate free speech.
Do you think there's a question now that we sort of come round to the other side of the pendulum swing in some ways, that there are troops on the ground, we are at war.
Should there be some kind of boundary at times like this?
[ Davis ]:
Well, the problem with establishing a boundary is that it tends to stay after the war time effort is over, because it seems so convenient to keep it in place. Plus, it doesn't allow for discussion of alternatives, which the public in a democratic society needs. So what dissent essentially does is say, there are other policy options that we could pursue, let's look at those options. And if you don't have that, then the public is probably just going to go along with the option thinking that's the only way that we can go. So dissent actually helps the public to be able to make a determination about which policy it wishes to pursue.
I want to get you to respond to a comment by Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson.
He of course is playing an important role in protesting the president. I want to play this for you and have you respond to it, if you would.
[ Davis ]:
[Mayor Rocky Anderson , Salt Lake City ]:
And those who suggest that you shouldn't ever oppose the president, whether he's right or wrong, as Theodore Roosevelt said, that's not only unpatriotic and servile, it is morally treasonable, and I absolutely agree with that. I think that the sense of deference to the president no matter what he does, is one of the most dangerous trends imaginable in this country.
Well it seems like there are two parts to this. First of all does Mayor Anderson have a different obligation, do you think, as an elected official, in greeting the president of the United States ?
Is this a proper role he's playing?
[ Davis ]:
Perfect in a common citizen.
[ Davis ]:
Certainly he has the responsibility to be a host, and that's a job that we have given to mayors and governors, etcetera, when the president comes. But on the other hand, the tradition of public officials, mayors, governors, senators, members of congress, anybody protesting is certainly not new. I mean it has been going on for a long time. Members of congress for example routinely will join protest marches, rallies, circulate petitions against policy. We see that as just another form of them expressing their views, and this is really what's going on here. We certainly would not want to rob a public official of their right to say what he or she thinks about public policy at their level or at any other level. That would be unconstitutional, illegal to do that. And therefore it may be seen by people as inappropriate to do so. But in any kind of legal constitutional sense, he has the right to do that.
Is the second part of what he was getting at in that clip though was that this idea of deference, sort of blind, in his mind, he described it as a threat. No, as a trend, I believe, is the word. Do you think that's a legitimate concern that this idea, especially in the political atmosphere of today, that there is some trend that when you speak out that you're not being respectful, or you're not being deferential.
[ Davis ]:
Absolutely. That's long been a sense particularly since we went through wars where we were pretty much united as a country, that if you spoke against current policy, the current administration, that you were somehow treasonous. And I think there's a lot of that. And communicating the sense that, no, you, as a supporter of current policy, may at some point find yourself in the opposite position, and you would also want to not be seen as treasonous because you oppose a particular policy.
Trying to distinguish between the support for the American system and support for a particular policy is something that may be difficult for many people to understand, but it has been a tradition in U.S. history for that to happen, for people to be able to distinguish between those two, and to say I support the system, I just don't support this particular policy.
Less than a minute so let me ask you to respond to this quickly, if you would. Do you think that if you put this protest in context of the larger picture of what's going on in Iraq , the picture of the president's approval rating, those sorts of things, are we seeing this visit come at a kind of turning point, do you think?
[ Davis ]:
Certainly the president wants to have a very favorable audience, and Utah is the most supportive state for President Bush and his policies right now. That plays well to have that. But the very fact that he has to come to Utah in order to get that favorable audience is certainly an indication that we have seen a dramatic shift taking place, and his approval ratings and support for the war, and it indicates that there's enormous amount of trouble here for the president. And I think that trouble will extend to Utah , as well. I mean it already has actually. His numbers have gone down considerably. And what you'll see I think in the future is that even many Utahns saying we need a new policy, here. We need more of a clarity about where this war is going. So yeah, I think this is very symbolic that the president is picking here to come and to make that message, because this is one of those last bastions of support for him.
Professor, thanks for being with us.
[ Davis ]:
As we consider the questions and the limits of dissent and the responsibility of an elected official when the commander in chief comes to town it seemed to make sense to gather this week's Vox Populi at the City County Building in Salt Lake, right outside the office of Mayor Rocky Anderson.
If I had to choose between a mayor who stages a protest or a Mayor who welcomes President Bush with unquestioning support, I'd choose the protester for sure.
He does work under the commander and chief and works for the state of Utah I think he may be better off if maybe someone else led it rather than somebody who is a civic leader.
Anyone in this country has the right to protest if they feel something's wrong.
He has a right to, but I think he needs to use a lot of tact, he is a government official.
This is a free country so everybody is free to think about different ya know
I do have some issue with that given the fact that he's the mayor probably should show some respect but I have no objection to other people protesting.
Last time I checked it's not a dictatorship we live in, I mean he's got the right to do what he wants to do.
In this state we need as many voices as we can speaking out about how destructive this administration has been, but could rocky have done it in a more effective way, made that statement? I think so probably.
We're going to continue our discussion about the nuances of political dissent with Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at University of Utah , Karen Shepherd is here aside from serving in the Utah Senate she represented the Second Congressional District from 1992 to '94, welcome to you both.
[Karen Shepherd, Former Member of Congress]:
I want to begin sort of with that last question I asked of Professor Davis, there.
Put this protest, the visit, anyway, in context for us. Is it coming at a crucial time, at a kind of turning point do you think, Kirk Jowers?
[Kirk Jowers, Director, Hinckley Ins6titute of Politics, University of Utah ]:
It is. First and foremost it really is an honor to have the president of the United States , regardless of his party and regardless of his policies. But for this moment, the Bush Administration has had a number of setbacks. His numbers are falling, and more importantly, I guess the support for the war is falling. American Legion is a great place for him to try and make his case again, and then Utah happens to be a great place to find those supporters. We have remained, from 2000 until the present as the state that is most favorable to the president and his policies.
What are you saying? Are you seeing a kind of transition?
Is the ground soft, I guess?
Well, the ground feels like it might be soft, but that's typical, maybe, for this time of the year, before an election. So you know we're reading tea leaves as far as I'm concerned and I'm not sure yet what's going to happen. But clearly this, if I were advising President Bush, this would be a good place to come and a good time to come here.
I wonder what you make of the visit itself. As I said at the beginning, this is probably more than a meet and greet. You've got the secretary of state coming, the secretary of defense coming. Does it represent in some ways for the white house a way to sort of jump start, launch some sort of campaign to get Americans thinking differently about the war? Because support for the war seems to be now more than half of the country seems, at least by most polls, to be opposed to it.
That's right. And I think it has to be. This has to be a substantive proposal by them, a real jump start, as you say, for the administration's plans on our foreign affairs particularly in Iraq and the fight against terrorism. They can't afford to all three come to a place like this, especially with the American Legion, and just say the same things they've been saying. That would essentially signal that we are staying the course, even though the rest of the country is not going with them.
Were you surprised that Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld are both coming as well?
Yes, I was, and it does seem to indicate that they might have a plan. Although today there has been, to this date there is no record of any plan or any thoughts of a plan, other than stay the course. And I think that the president had a press conference early in the week, when he basically said just all the same things.
I wonder, do you think the protest, and the response to the protest, because there's going to be a bit of a playing off one another, five rallies, I think, are being proposed for the president's visit, that all the shouting, all the inflamed rhetoric, is really going to be helpful? Is it helpful, this sort of thing?
I think that dissent in a free society is, if I can use a cooking metaphor, you know, it's like a stew pot that you make in a pressure cooker, and you have all these interests, and you have particularly the interests of various minority groups, minority being defined as anyone who's out of step with whatever the power structure is at the moment. And if there is nothing worse in our political lives, and everybody has a political life, than feeling voiceless, and feeling unheard. And the fact that people can go to a march, or they can write a letter to the editor, they have many options to dissent, is the pressure cooker, it's the steam valve, that I think makes our democracy very healthy.
What do you think, Kirk Jowers?
I applaud all five of the rallies and protests. I think it's great to have people cheer the president, I think it's great to have people voice their discontent with some of the policies.
And at the Hinckley Institute we spend every day trying to get people motivated to participate, whether it's on the far left or the far right, or somewhere in between.
So‑ ‑ And that's why it is such an honor to have the president here, because it gives people an opportunity to find that voice, and that interest. It's sometimes difficult to get people, especially students, interested in politics. And the president provides that focal point that we can all rally around, or rally against. And so it's exciting for me.
It seems like there's this question about, there seems to be clarity on whether this is, the people have the right to do this. The question is whether they should do it especially in a time like this. I want to play another clip from Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson and get you to react to it. It seems like the question is whether dissent at a time like this, there's clearly a gap in civil discourse going on, we're at war, there are troops in the field, whether this, at this time, is going to, in fact impede our ability to find some sort of resolution to all of this. Let me play this clip and get you to react.
[ Anderson ]:
I don't think polarization at a time like this is necessarily a bad thing. I'm all for unity but not at the cost of everybody just falling in line and being good, blind, obedient soldiers.
And I think at the same time we need to make clear, regardless of our opposition to this president, that our patriotism, our love for our country is what's guiding us.
What do you think? How do you react to that?
I remember a bumper sticker that said my country, right or wrong, and if you're of the school that thinks that you shouldn't speak up under any circumstances, no matter what is happening in reality, then you would disagree with Rocky. But it seems to me that in America, one of the virtues of living here is that every citizen can look at reality, can make their decisions about whether it's going well, whether they agree with it, whether things are being done appropriately, or not, and they can respond to that. And this dissent is nothing more than a response to a war that's gone badly.
Is there a limit? Is there a boundary? Is this pushing it at all? Something like this?
Well, the boundary that's being pushed, I think, is Mayor Anderson himself.
I really believe he‑ ‑ So I should say, get my points where I can, I agree with him in principle of what he said there, that certainly we have every responsibility to protest, to get active and to work for or against policies that we disagree with. But I do think that Mayor Anderson has the opportunity to be a statesman, and he is just utterly bound to fail. He is the mayor of Salt Lake City , and he needs to put aside his, I can't think of another word, but narcissism for one day. He can protest President Bush 364 days a year but on one day he needs to honor him. I had my staff look through for the years of Clinton, and for Bush, for another mayor or governor of the opposite party of President Clinton or President Bush who did anything similar, and we talked to eight or nine political scientists. Not one could think of anything like what Rocky Anderson is doing.
He has forgotten that he is not just an activist, but he's also a mayor and the city will pay for that.
Let me ask you, we've got less than a minute so I'll ask you to be brief. I suppose you can be. Will this make a difference?
Do things like this make a difference, this kind of dissent?
It's like LEGO toys. It's a little, one more little block and I don't know what's being built, and I think in a very, very dynamic time like that you never know what's being built.
But it's another LEGO block and a lot of people will go home from these demonstrations feeling empowered instead of helpless. And the fact that they feel empowered is a very good thing for the democracy.
Kirk Jowers I'll have to give Karen the last word. We're out of time. Thanks for joining us.
Speak Out Utah
Finally tonight Enid Greene doesn't believe free society should limit dissent, but that expression should always be tempered by common sense.
Once a striking young woman approached me and asked about my views on abortion. I shared my beliefs with her and then, because she seemed to want a genuine discussion, I added something I usually didn't talk about in a campaign setting. I told her that I was adopted, and that I realized that that was an additional influence on me.
Having been born in 1958, I said, had abortion been readily available, perhaps rather than make the choice to carry me to term and give me up for adoption, my birth mother would have chosen to end my life and abort her pregnancy.
Smiling, the young woman leaned toward me and said softly, "too bad she didn't."
Dissent in the political arena is not just an American tradition but a constitutionally protected right.
Remember the Boston Tea Party? Where I think we sometimes go wrong, though, is when we personalize issues and attack the individual who disagrees with us, rather than argue the merits of our beliefs.
You could fundamentally disagree with Hilary Clinton on nationalized health care without belittling her hair style when she testified before congress.
You could choose not to vote for John F. Kennedy for president without demeaning the Roman Catholic Church.
And you can object to the war in Iraq without labeling George W. Bush a dishonest, corrupt, war monger.
People who choose to attack rather than discuss generally lose any opportunity to persuade. There is no chance for thoughtful discussion with the young woman I spoke of, and I'm not very interested in the message of anyone shouting epithets or carrying placards inappropriate for my young daughter to see.
Even in politics, I think we need a resurgence of an old‑fashioned virtue‑‑simple common courtesy. Instead of attacking someone's intelligence or sincerity, can we sometimes simply acknowledge that their values may be different from our own?
I'm not suggesting we temper our passions on difficult issues. I'm simply suggesting we temper our manner of expressing them. I'm not so naive as to think we can solve all our disagreement by talking with each other. But we've been shouting at each other for so long now that, as a nation, we're nearly deaf. Polarized and angry.
It's time to lower the decibel level. I'm Enid green. Thanks for listening.
That's Utah now for this evening. Our thanks by the way to Steve Milam for the use of his photographs of last year's protest. Also our thanks to you for joining us. You can continue this conversation by visiting our web site or emailing us, it's UtahNOW@KUED.org . In the meantime we'll be back next Friday with another edition of Utah now. Until then, I'm Doug Fabrizio.
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