18 November 2007

The Meaning of Protest

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The contrarian’s perspective on the situation in Pakistan: what an amazing demonstration of the power of and passion for democracy we are witnessing!

Clearly, I am not referring to General Musharraf’s unwillingness to follow the Pakistani constitution by ceding one of his two (mutually exclusive) posts, or his declaration of emergency rule and sacking of the Pakistani Supreme Court to remove threats to his power. Nor am I referring to the habitual meddling of that country’s military in its politics, a shameful but long-standing tradition – and the means by which Musharraf came to power in the first place. The house arrest of opposition politician Benazir Bhutto is certainly a flexible one – she has access to the outside world, news cameras included – but is still wrongful detention. Yes, the fears that have been articulated hither-and-yon about the potential for misuse of the country’s nuclear weapons is terrifying. Moreover, as with most such foreign situations, we cannot truly know what is going on without being there ourselves; it may be worse than we know.

Nonetheless, the news about Pakistan show some things we have not seen in the United States in many years: an actively engaged (actively enraged) citizenry, taking part in vigorous public protests, despite the fear of arrest and bodily harm. Here in the United States, we are almost five years into an unsuccessful, unpopular war, led by a president who has used every tactic imaginable to increase the power of his position – notwithstanding the actual principles established in our own Constitution – including writing his own interpretation of laws passed by Congress. But while the citizens of Pakistan protest (in fact, they have been protesting strongly, on and off for the last six or seven years), Americans do nothing. Occasionally, we attend “protest” marches, but these are sporadic and ineffectual. Millions of us cannot be bothered to vote, an act of citizenship that does not risk police detention, and millions more of us are eligible to vote – all one has to be is a U.S. citizen over the age of 18 – and have not registered to do so. And while all of this non-action takes place around us, the majority of our politicians (supported by the two major political parties) compete to present themselves as most-alike-one-another-with-some-small-differences, lest Americans be tempted to vote for a candidate who actually represents potential change from the downward-spiraling status quo.

So: am I concerned about Pakistan? Absolutely, as we all should be. But I also find a kind of terrible irony – and locus of optimism – in the degree to which the people of this 60-year-old “start-up” democracy are, in their way, more engaged with their country’s political process, and the impact of the outcome, than we Americans are with our own.


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