James McPherson's Media & Politics Blog

Observations of a patriotic progressive historian, media critic & former journalist

  • By the author of The Conservative Resurgence and the Press: The Media’s Role in the Rise of the Right and of Journalism at the End of the American Century, 1965-Present. A former journalist with a Ph.D. in journalism, history and political science, McPherson is a past president of the American Journalism Historians Association and a board member for the Northwest Alliance for Responsible Media.

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Archive for February 8th, 2009

Civil disobedience might bring national redemption

Posted by James McPherson on February 8, 2009

I love the United States and feel extremely blessed to have been born here, and to have worked as a journalist and an educator in a nation that offers so many freedoms. Though we progressives have been denigrated as America-haters or the “blame-America-first crowd,” in fact the National Anthem can make me weepy, I have a very large American flag on the wall of my office, and I know the U.S. Flag Code better than most of the self-described “patriots” who disagree with me on many things.

Elwin Wilson probably would have described himself as one of those patriots at the time he beat a young black man into a bloody mess in a South Carolina bus station. But the case of Wilson, who, seeking redemption, recently sought the forgiveness of his victim–now-Congressman John Lewis–helps illustrate why this country could use more civil disobedience, and why the American press should start doing a better job of covering the people and issues involved with such disobedience.

In fact, civil disobedience has never all that popular in this country, even during Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The vast majority of us have always stayed on the sidelines, aware of the protests only if we happen to drive by them or catch images on the evening news. Unfortunately those images, however striking, generally have been too rare because journalists have been among those who do the most to marginalize nonviolent protest.

Worse, the ideas of the protestors also have initially been marginalized in favor of mainstream (and often bureacratic institutional) views, slowing the consideration and eventual implementation of what in many cases would become mainstream ideals–the abolition of slavery, labor laws, civil rights, women’s rights and the environmental movement among them.

More recently, had the media paid more attention to the widespread protests against the Iraq War (including exploring the claims and beliefs of the protesters), and the resulting arrests, perhaps members of Congress wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to join George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in their soon-to-be trillion-dollar rush (what–you thought only an economic stimulus could cost nearly that much?) to war and ignominy. They might also keep Barack Obama from his apparent determination to repeat Bush’s folly in Afghanistan.

Friday night’s episode of “Bill Moyer Journal,” with guests Jay Rosen and Glenn Greenwald, discussed the problem briefly.


On my computer upstairs, I have a lot of photographs from around the world this week, of protests, demonstrations of people who feel desperate in the midst of economic collapse and calamity. And they’re taking to the streets. We don’t see that in this country. Will Washington ever get the message unless they feel the pulse of people who are saying we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more?

Greenwald’s response:

I think the idea of street demonstrations is probably the most stigmatized idea in our political process. There were huge marches, for instance, prior to the Iraq war, against the war. There were hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people throughout Europe marching in the streets against the war.

And yet, the media virtually excluded those demonstrations from the narrative, because they’re threatening, and because they’re considered to be the act of unserious radicals and people who are on the fringe, and I think that in some sense, that’s reflective of the fact that that level of agitation is probably the most threatening to the people who have a vested in having the system continue unchanged.

Some areas of American life are particularly ready for civil disobedience. Democracy Now! has reported on the prospect of homeowners who might refuse to leave their foreclosed-upon houses and on how creative protest foiled wilderness land sales.

I think that teachers and students (and their parents)  who have been forced by education funding inequities to deal with crumbling schools should consider marching into and “taking over” nicer suburban schools.  Sick people who cannot afford health care might “sit in” in medical facilities until they get the care they need. The hungry might move, in large groups, into supermarkets–not necessarily eating anything (and therefore facing theft charges), but drawing attention to the fact that we live in a nation where too many don’t get enough to eat.

Workers laid off from companies where  managers (or mismanagers) are getting bonuses might just refuse to leave. The workers of Republic Window and Doors showed that protest can be effective. But as anyone in a 12-step program (or who has seen a portrayal of one on television) knows, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that the problem exists.

It would be helpful if the news media would look to protests as a meanings of helping society recognize concerns before they become full-blown crises. But for that to happen, protests might need to become as popular here as they are in some other nations–where, by the way, citizens also love their countries.

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