12.16.2011

Thinking about Protesting



Even before Time Magazine anointed "The Protestor" as person of the year for 2011, I had been baking on a post about my feelings about protesting. Nevertheless, what I write is less than half-baked, so apologies if it reads in a confusing or offensive manner.

It seems to me that one can make an ever so subtle differentiation between two levels of protesting. To use a sports analogy, there is protesting to get on the field, and there is protesting to level the field. The first is about living in a political democracy and a free market, where you enjoy government-protected liberties to believe what you want and do what you want. The second is about living in a society that has equality of opportunity and equality of access.

Let me preface the rest of my remarks by saying that both are important, and protesting when either are not in place is a noble and necessary act. I am profoundly thankful for those who have gone ahead of me, at great risk and sometimes cost to themselves personally, to make possible what I have. I am not unaware or dismissive of this.

It seems to me that the Arab Spring has been largely about the first kind of protesting: no longer satisfied with life within a stultifying dictatorship, protestors long for economic, political, and social freedom. The removal of longstanding dictators obviously does not immediately create a level playing field, so it remains to be seen what protests of the second kind will look like as the exhilaration of freedom gives way to the harsh realities of structural inequities.

It seems to me that Occupy Wall Street has been largely about the second kind of protesting: the 1 percent are perceived to control a disproportionate amount of resources and power, and the 99 percent are clamoring for a more equitable arrangement within which to live, work, and play. Here too there is a connection between the two kinds of protests: the fact that Occupy protestors have been allowed to protest and have their voice be heard nationally is a testament to the freedoms secured by our Founding Fathers and defended ever since, that we are a government "of the people" and a society guaranteed basic freedoms.

Personally, I am heavily biased towards the first type of protest and away from the second type of protest. I am, after all, the son of Taiwanese immigrants. My parents are of the generation that fights for a free and democratic Taiwan, so I know the importance of wanting to be on the field, and of raising my voice to secure that right. My parents are also of the traditional of putting their heads down and overcoming adversity through sheer work ethic: the typical Taiwanese response to an unlevel playing field is to hustle all the more to overcome any inherent disadvantages.

Of course this is a common attitude of any immigrant, who is willing to endure great obstacles: language barriers, social exclusion, distance from mother country and its familiar anchors. Verily, not only do many immigrants endure these obstacles, but they choose into them, for the very reason that the first kind of protest has already been victorious in this country: they are willing to endure the unlevel playing field because they are grateful to be on the field at all, and have chosen it over whatever was the situation in their nation of origin.

I scarcely know what this means in terms of when and for what to raise my voice about, and what to teach my kids. I do not fall in line with everything being voiced by protestors from the Middle East to Greece to Wall Street to Oakland. But I salute their gumption and validate their right.

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