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Comparing movements, measuring history


Remember that high school history teacher you had? The one with the one jacket he wore every day, with patches on the elbows, who liked to stand in your personal space and was forever blathering about thought experiments? Today I’m that guy. Thought experiment! Go ahead and roll your eyes and get it over with.

There’s a quiz at the end.

If there is a point in knowing history it must be to avoid mistakes. One can analogize from past historical situations and outcomes and compare with present circumstances in the hope of finding a better path. Not a great many people in history seem to have grasped this point, as so many historical situations play out over and over again with drearily similar outcomes. I’m trying to do better.

Let’s pay a visit to Boston in 1774. Some of the locals — no one knows exactly what percentage, but not many — are very irritated at their overlords’ casual disregard of their British constitutional rights. With a semi-outlaw group known as the Sons of Liberty, mostly urban Boston dwellers, setting the tone, the irritated locals — let’s call them “rebels” — protest. The protests begin peaceably, but the overlords are uninterested in appeasement and eventually violence results as the “rebels” clash with the overlord.

The “rebels” are very good at the Twitter and social media of their day, which were quaint anachronisms known as “newspapers” and “rumors” and undertook a serious propaganda campaign. The agitators weren’t exactly rocket scientists, but were mighty smart about fake news. A whole lot of other citizens are both irritated and aghast at the goings on of the “rebels” — we’ll call those other citizens “Tories” — and are perfectly fine with the status quo, sure, maybe a few tweaks are required, but overall, it’s fine. The rebels and the Tories had two quite different ethics.

Jumping forward in time to January 2016. We find ourselves in Harney County, Oregon at a Federal wildlife refuge. Some of the locals — no one knows exactly what percentage, but not many — are very irritated at the overlords’ casual violation of their constitutional rights in the acquisition and management of Federal public lands in the West. With a semi-outlaw group known as the Ammon Bundy family setting the tone, rural people, ranchers, the irritated locals — let’s call them ‘rebels’ — protest. The protests begin peaceably, meetings and words, a march, but eventually, the protestors physically occupy a Federal facility and exclude its employees. The overlords are uninterested in appeasement. Only one violent incident results: the overlord kills one of the rebels. The “rebels” are abysmally poor propagandists and newcomers to organized protest and, while themselves clear about the issues, seem unable to explain them to non-ag people, which is most of the American population.

Most of their fellow citizens nationwide — excluding every soul in agriculture, who uniformly agree with the rebels — think of the crisis with a small “c,” though the issues, to the rebels, rate a large “i.” These people are generally both irritated and aghast at the goings on of the “rebels.” We’ll call those other citizens “Tories.” The Tory crowd is perfectly fine with the status quo. In Harney County, too, the rebels and the Tories had two quite different ethics.

A few short years later we find ourselves in Seattle, 2020. Some of the locals — no one knows exactly what percentage, but not many — are very irritated at the overlords’ occasional police brutality against minorities, represented as “systemic racism,” or perhaps they’re irritated with the fact of the existence of police at all. With a semi-outlaw group known as Antifa, mostly urban dwellers, setting the tone, the irritated locals — let’s call them “rebels” – protest. The protests begin peaceably but quickly there is violent rioting and looting and homicides and ultimately physical occupation of several downtown blocks by the rebels.

Some of the overlords, not all, are falling over themselves in their desire to appease the rebels but the resulting efforts seem bizarre, pandering — a diverse crowd of people and entities apologizing left, right and center, firing, canceling, crying, therapy, you name it. The “rebels” are skilled at propaganda, very good at Twitter and social media, but seem to suffer from a lack of focus, as every rebel interviewee voices a different motive and different desired outcome, which seriously complicates the appeasement math.

These agitators aren’t exactly rocket scientists, but are mighty smart about fake news. Across the nation similarly inept and violent protests proliferate. Most of their fellow citizens nationwide think of the crisis with a small “c,” though the issues, to the rebels, rate a large “i” — and these non-rebel citizens are generally both irritated and aghast at the conduct of the “rebels.” We’ll call those other fellow citizens “Tories.” The Tory crowd is perfectly fine with the status quo, sure, maybe a few tweaks are required, but overall, it’s fine. Again: The rebels and Tories in Seattle have quite different ethics.

Are these three examples of American protest analogous? Can we derive from the first two, now past history, outcomes or expectations about the present example? I thought I might compare and contrast the first two as against the current and see what is to be seen.

The political independence of the American colonies was a measure that would affect everyone, then about six million souls, if realized. Everybody had a personal stake. The issues the Oregon rebels wanted addressed only held immediate, personal interest for approximately five million, including youth and foreign-born ag employees, of an overall population of roughly 335 million — about two percent of people. The current concerns, immediately and personally, about 14 percent of the population.

I am sure its proponents will disagree — “justice denied to any is justice denied to all!” It’s a convenient slogan, but untrue: Injustice to others certainly draws my sympathy, precisely because I have been unjustly treated by persons and institutions many times myself, despite my “white privilege,” whatever that is and injustice in all sorts of situations occurs regularly, regrettably and unavoidably. It is a fact of life, like gravity. Unjust outcomes aren’t solely referable to skin color. Every system of every description built and run by people has problems with consistent results for otherwise similarly-situated petitioners, black, white, brown, purple, smart, dumb or otherwise.

In Boston and later, hard-core Tories fled to England. The rest, stuck in the colonies, either came to agree with the rebel faction or at least stayed out of the way and ultimately accepted the outcomes or sold out and left. In Oregon the Tories were indifferent to issues they could not understand and which had no impact on them. I am sure the Bundys would disagree with the Tories, very reasonably pointing out that high-handed Federal land policy carried out at the expense of agricultural concerns will eventually make growing food impossible. To the Bundys, their fight was everyone’s fight but not everyone saw it that way.

The Tories in the Seattle situation — I am probably one, myself — still do not understand the issues, for several reasons. While their propaganda is thorough, the desired rebel outcome is unfocused. The lack of clarity seems exacerbated by a compounding of whatever the message is supposed to be through juvenile analysis by TV people, trying to force whatever it is into a mold they can understand, or maybe serves whatever agenda is convenient, plus the hijacking of the original movement by agitators who have a different, though also garbled, message.

Violence in association with political protest is nothing new. The rebels in Boston sacked the royal governor’s mansion in the early going. Later the rebels tore down a statue of King George in New York — not for impenetrably dark and solemn wayward symbolism, as a result of logic one might expect of a discussion group consisting of a social worker, three transvestites looting a makeup counter and a half-dozen screen-eyed feckless 20-somethings lacking necessary emotional diapers, a cell phone welded to one hand and the last latte from the burned-out Starbucks in the other — but rather because under the gilt, George was made of lead, which the Boston-type rebels turned into about 10,000 musket balls. The statue-tipping of old George served an immediate practical purpose.

Of course the sacking of the royal governor’s home in Boston did eventually lead to a war, which is pretty much as much violence as can be had.

The cowboys at Mahler Wildlife Refuge engaged in no violence. They did, however, carry firearms. Somehow the toting of lawful weapons transformed their issue, in the “reporting,” from outrage at Federal transgressions and injustice to “gun rights.” Better a hot-button issue to pigeonhole the whackos than trying to explain to the public what the rebels in Carney could not quite explain themselves.

The only violence done at the Refuge was by the overlord — the shooting of a 54 year old man who, granted, probably was a threat to the Federal buffoon wearing 40 pounds of military-style assault and carrying his Bible-sized rules of engagement. A six-year-old with a stick is a threat to that guy. Otherwise the cowboys used the bathrooms as they were intended, cleaned the place up (you don’t want ranch wives inspecting your housekeeping) and built a better horseshoe pit. The Fed invented charges and booked everybody when it was over. I bet none of the violently destructive people in Seattle will ever be indicted.

The burning and sacking of a number of American cities in pursuit of the current rebels’ goals is inexplicable in connection with what seem to be their stated aims, which in a general sense is perfect justice in all circumstances. How is burning down one’s neighbor’s store or home calculated to further that aim? I get that it draws attention. Yet simply gathering draws attention, which is only right and proper. Destruction, arson and killing muddle the message, at best and invite the overlord, at worst.

So far the overlord has kept his hands clear. I don’t expect that to last — the vast majority are not rioting and have a right to expect some security, the basic obligation of government.

There were several elections in Boston between 1770 and 1774, when the fighting broke out, for their Assembly and so forth. The rebels were carrying most of the electorate by then. 2016 was an election year. 2020 is an election year. I believe that fact has a bearing on events in Seattle and elsewhere, but I am cynical enough to devise reasons why a number of interests across the spectrum would find value in popular discord.

Well … has history taught us anything? Here are my takeaways.

One, political protest is a continuing American theme — and God bless it.

Two, violence in protest, to have value, must bear some relation to the protested activity or the desired outcome; that is, protest and violence aren’t fungible.

Three, sometimes the rebels are right.

Four, whether they are right seems to have to do with the size of the population segment directly affected.

Five, whether they are right seems also to do with communicating a clear message.

Six, the overlord can worsen whatever caused the protest to begin with by reacting poorly. I sincerely hope we don’t see that here.

Seven, appeasement never seems to work as intended.

Eight, timing probably matters.

Nine, the “Tories” among us would rather the whole shameful, Banana Republic-esque charade would come to an end and in large part are ignoring it because …

Ten, every parent learns to ignore their children’s temper tantrum or they’ll have them 24 hours in each day. Okay, “ten” doesn’t immediately follow from the historical examples; it just follows from “nine,” as every parent knows.

Adding it up (OK; omitting ten): This isn’t “The Revolution,” or anything like. It’s a tantrum. No Bastille here, folks, nothing to see. Ten is what is happening now. Certainly some awareness has been raised; certainly it will result in some tweaks; change is the only constant and that’s OK. It’s healthy to re-examine our assumptions sometimes. There’ll probably be some lingering effects visible in electoral returns in the fall, which is ordinary America.

I might add my own observation — the world is watching and few out there wish us well. I suspect foreign machinations will appear in an attempt to exploit whatever division or chaos it can find for it’s own benefit.

“Buster” Raymond is a graduate of the Naval Academy, a former Marine Officer, and an attorney. A native of Montana, he recently departed his beloved Big Sky country, and relocated with his family to the Tidewater region of Virginia. The exact location remains unknown.

Image: A mob pulls down a gilded lead equestrian statue of George III at Bowling Green, New York City, 9 July 1776, William Walcutt, courtesy Wikimedia.

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