WE GATHER IN PROTEST; Dissent Is Central to Our Nation's Character

By Patton, Charlie | The Florida Times Union, June 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

WE GATHER IN PROTEST; Dissent Is Central to Our Nation's Character


Patton, Charlie, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Charlie Patton, The Times-Union

*******************CORRECTION June 9, 2004

Kenneth Gould, an expert on the anti-globalization protest movement, is a professor of sociology at St. Lawrence University. Because of an editor's error, he was not identified in a story on Page C-1 Tuesday.

***************

When demonstrators gather in Southeast Georgia this week to protest at the Group of Eight Summit on Sea Island, Ga., they will be doing something that is as American as apple pie: dissenting

"A healthy democracy is one where people are arguing," said David P. Thelen, Distinguished Professor of History at Indiana University.

"Democracy is a result of protests," said Ralph Young, a professor of history at Temple University, whose two-volume book, Dissent in America, will be published this summer.

"America was founded by protesters," Young said. "Dissent is very central to the American character, one of the defining things about America."

AGE OF PROTEST

We tend to think of the 1960s and 1970s as the age of American protests.

"All contemporary protests get judged versus late '60s and early '70s," said Heidi Ardizzone, a professor in the American Studies Department at the University of Notre Dame who teaches a course in 20th century protest movements.

The Civil Rights movement climaxed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The gathering momentum of the anti-war movement led to Lyndon Johnson's decision not to seek re-election and eventually helped end the war in Vietnam. The women's movement, though it failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, did, over time, create fundamental changes in the lives of American women.

But while the protesters of the '60s may have been noisier and more abundant, protest is as old as America. Young, in fact, begins his course Dissent in America with a discussion of Martin Luther, the German monk whose differences with the Roman Catholic church in the late 15th and early 16th centuries began the Protestant Reformation.

A century later, a group of Protestants in search of religious freedom established the colony of Massachusetts and almost immediately encountered their own dissenters, including Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, the founders of Rhode Island.

Moreover, while we associate anti-war sentiment with Vietnam, "there has not been a single war in American history that didn't create anti-war protest," Young said.

By John Adams' estimate, only a third of Americans supported the American Revolution while another third actively opposed it. Anti-war sentiment during the War of 1812 almost led the states of New England to secede from the Union. The Mexican-American War was widely unpopular, denounced as an act of naked aggression by such critics as Abraham Lincoln.

Even World War II, the so-called "good war," was a highly divisive issue prior to Pearl Harbor, with isolationists, America Firsters and pro-German groups lobbying hard to keep America out of the war in Europe for more than two years.

Other protest movements that have eventually prevailed include the abolitionist movement of the 19th century, the suffrage movement, which fought for the right for women to vote, and the trade union movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Throughout American history, individuals and groups of people, oftentimes vociferously, marched to the beat of a different drummer and raised their voices in strident protest," Young said.

UNPOPULAR DISSENT

But while dissent may be the ultimate expression of the American idea, dissenters rarely get celebrated in the early stages of a protest movement.

"No protest ever began with everybody saying, 'They are right,' " Ardizzone said.

And while some protest movements gradually change hearts and minds, others never make a significant impact. …

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