ON PROTEST & POWER

Very recent memory has born witness to the eruption of fervent protests, in both our country and the Middle East. While the protests in the Middle East have been met with violence, suppression, and yet, revolutionary progress for some, those in the United States, which have incurred hardly any governmental reaction, have amounted to little consequence for the status quo. It is my belief that this dichotomy is rooted in a millennia-old mechanic of social order and control: the tolerance of free speech as a means to mitigate social change.

While the use of free speech as a means of suppressing freedom may seem paradoxical at first, the historical record seems to bear it out, most notably in the Augustan period of the Roman Empire. NYU Professor of Classics Joy Conolloy discussed a pattern similar to this in a lecture at TCNJ a few years ago, in tandem with her book, The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome. Her argument, to paraphrase the relevant sections, was thus: in tolerating a work of literature that clearly is anti-imperial (Dr. Conolloy’s interpretation), the Roman Empire allows its citizens to feel rebellious or free without actually accomplishing very much in terms of real political freedom. To expand upon the professor’s argument, I would add that in not reacting to such protest literature, the imperial polity removed itself from the range of popular dissent. Thus, allowing a voice for protest can be a two-part strategy for maintaining power: first, by allowing the dissidents to loosen their tension, and second, by ignoring and thus removing the efficacy of a would-be vox populi.

I feel that the same mechanic can be applied to a comparison of protests in the Middle East and in the United States. In the Middle East the protests have been addressed, in most cases violently, with the aim of suppression. This intolerant interaction has forced the Middle Eastern governments in question to engage with the protesters, and thus allows for a true interaction. In addressing or suppressing the vox populi, rather than ignoring it, these governments actually increase the efficacy of these protests. And, as we have seen, there has been consequence. In the United States, by contrast, these protests are largely ignored by the assailed and have thus been ineffective. The ultimate irony here is that in tolerating and ignoring protests, the United States has removed their power, while at the same time making the protesters feel as though they are contributing to their respective movements.

So, in a social mechanic where the efficacy of protest has been effectively shrugged off, what are the options for the dissidents? The solution, it would appear, is to assault the intellectual framework that sustains the parasitic elements of the status quo by exposing and destroying them in the cold light of truth. The situation is akin to what Tacitus called the arcanum imperii (“secret of power”), an illusion of freedom which, once exposed, revealed where true power lied, and why. In Imperial times, Tacitus could do nothing, as the Emperor could kill him; however it is my hope that the American public understands and exposes these truths before such dreaded accumulations of power.

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