America’s mastery of free speech, even for maniacs
You’ve got to hand it to those Americans. For them, there is much more to democracy than theory. It’s there to be practised and even better if it can be done in the streets.
A now-ageing generation took democracy to the streets and forced the politicians to bring an unpopular war in Vietnam to an end. And against the odds they changed America and world history campaigning for civil rights laws that paved the way for a black American president.
And though small in number by comparison, those freedom-of-speech loving Americans were back in Washington streets at the weekend to protest against the policies of that same black president.
Now I’m not suggesting their protest against President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus spending and plans for universal health insurance in America made any sense.
It is a big call to campaign against health reform in a country where even basic health cover is denied to more than 40 million of its people. Can you imagine Australians taking to the streets to protest against Medicare or Kevin Rudd’s $42 billion economic stimulus package? Not bloody likely.
Irrespective of the merit of their argument, the Washington protestors have at least to be admired for the passion that got them out in the street in the first place. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, we mightn’t agree with their point of view but we’ll take to the barricades to defend their right to say it.
While the protestors may live in a world super power, due to the articulate insularity of so many Americans, they probably don’t have the faintest idea that their protest against ‘President Hope’ was heard half a world away.
But I’ve long admired America’s capacity for protest and the apparent openness of their government agencies - at least the ones not up to their necks in covert activities.
As a newspaper correspondent in New York in the 1970s, I was asked to get the US experience on problems the RAAF was having with its newly acquired F111 aircraft, which seemed to have bad habit of crashing, much to the embarrassment of the government that bought them.
Back in Australia, the Defence Department, true to type, was refusing to give any information on what was causing this series of embarrassing crashes – with only 24 of the aircraft, we couldn’t afford to lose any.
I was asked to contact the Pentagon to find out how many F111s the US had lost. Expecting the same Canberra stonewall from their American counterparts in Washington, I called US Air Force public affairs.
Amazingly, by mid-afternoon, the Pentagon was back on the line to tell me—a foreigner representing a foreign newspaper albeit of a close ally – in explicit detail the number of F111s America had lost.
There was also a breakdown of what caused the crashes right down to those resulting from pilot error. Needless to say, it made for a great “what they won’t tell you in Canberra” headline.
Sadly, more than 30 years later, there is nothing to suggest that Australia’s Defence Department is any less opaque or unresponsive to straightforward requests for information.
It was again impressive to see America’s democracy in action in the “fallout” of a near catastrophe at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania when a nuclear reactor reached partial meltdown in 1979. Had the Three Mile Island power station gone up, just about everything within a 1,000 mile radius including the Big Apple would have fried.
As the drama unfolded, thousands of anti nuclear protestors carrying lighted candles suddenly appeared in Times Square. It’s still a mystery in that pre-mobile phone era how so many people could be summoned to the “crossroads of the world” to stage an anti nuclear protest at seemingly a moment’s notice.
Perhaps the movement was helped by some unintentional Hollywood hype. As Three Mile Island threatened to explode, “The China Syndrome” - the fictional story of a nuclear power station coming close to meltdown - starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon was playing in Manhattan movie theatres.
I grew to love Americans’ penchant for taking to streets at the drop of a hat and not always for heavy duty politics. When Muhammad Ali’s life story, “The Greatest”, was playing in downtown cinemas, the Great Man himself decided to come down to Times Square to check out the box office. More like a march down Broadway accompanied by a spontaneously assembled retinue of thousands of fans and the simply curious.
But thinking again about the weekend protest against Barack Obama’s health reforms and stimulus spending – who’s to say their cause won’t become a powerful movement in America?
There are extremely powerful lobby groups in the US who are vehemently opposed to the notion of universal healthcare. Private health plans dominate and, for the most part, Americans obtain their health cover via their employers’ health insurance plans – the same health inflation plagued system that almost ruined General Motors.
Many Americans passionately regard Britain’s mostly public National Health Service as rampant socialism and Australia’s mixed public and private system (though admired by some American health policy makers) would be seen as a socialised second cousin.
So, when the anti-Obama protestors took to the streets of Washington at the weekend, it doesn’t mean or matter whether they were right or wrong. But their right to be wrong should be defended.
And true to democratic ideals, while they were protesting against him, Barack Obama was balancing the books with an election style pro-health reform rally. But the President has been reminded, he’ll have to work harder to get his reforms through Congress.
As Winston Churchill once said, for all its infuriating problems, democracy is still better than all of the alternatives. And for Americans, always good for a day at the barricades.
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