Sunday, July 25, 2004

Privilege, Protestors, Profiteers and the Party of the People

Boston – The Democrats may be The Party of the People, but some people get special treatment. I learned that as soon as I got off the plane at Logan Airport yesterday; I was waiting in line for my cab when Congressman Jerry Nadler, Democrat of Manhattan, went walking by. Escorted by a volunteer from the Democratic National Convention, he neatly cut in front of me in the taxi line. That was an annoying bit of perksmanship. But today, I was reminded that some people truly deserve special admiration—a category that does not include Nadler.

Meanwhile, other Democrats, too, reminded me that egalitarianism is mostly just a party slogan, not a personal practice. At a party for People for the American Way on the Harvard campus, everyone was supposed to ink their name on the little sign-up sheet. But not James Carville—he just blew right past the interns sitting help helplessly behind the desk.

Other Democrats were nicer, albeit snug in their cushy environs. I watched an amiable-looking Michael Dukakis amble across the restaurant at another joint not associated with horny-handed sons of toil, the Four Seasons Hotel. The former Democratic governor of the Bay State, whom his party ran for president in ’88, is now in his 70s, but he looks great. He still has lots of bushy hair—I couldn’t get close enough to tell if it was all real. (I figured that this jovial occasion of posh eating was not the moment to walk up and introduce myself, perhaps to remind him that I had worked against him in that campaign 16 years ago.)

OK, those are my bigshot-spottings.

Since nothing is happening today—not that anything newsworthy is likely to happen tomorrow—I figure I will go watch protestors.

There’s a designated protest-zone near the Fleet Center, but it’s enclosed by a cyclone fence. One protestor I saw on TV called it “Camp X-Ray North,” referring to the Taliban/al-Qaeda detention center operated by the US government in Guantanamo, Cuba. I’d say that it looks like the place where the Jets and the Sharks rumbled in “West Side Story.” Either way, it’s clear that The Party of the People doesn’t want to hear from the people. So instead, the protestors have converged on Boston Common, which has been the hub of civic life here for nearly four centuries.

But the Revolutionaries and Abolitionists who once raised their voices are long gone. The signs, buttons, posters, and tee-shirts read, “Free Mumia” and “Free the Cuba Five.”

I turn down a chance to buy the newspaper Socialist Appeal, the headline of which reads, “The Democrats are the Real Enemy.” But I accept a flyer from the Freedom Socialists—an oxymoron, in my view—which argues that there’s no real difference between Bush and Kerry. I get a sense of where these guys are coming from when I read such rhetorical questions as, “Is fascism at hand?”

Speaking of fascism, I see a man walking along wearing a tee shirt that reads, “Panzerfaust Records.” The original panzerfaust was an anti-tank rocket used by the German army in World War Two, which is to say, used to kill Americans. Hmmm. This new Panzerfaust, according to its website—I am typing this at a Starbucks with WiFi—is the “home of white power music.” Hmmm again.

All the while, of course, while I am walking along, surveying these written ideology-rants, someone is ideo-haranguing in the distance. I hear bits of speeches, e.g. “The American Dream is nothing but a nightmare for the working class.”

Amidst the drone, the most eye-catching protest is more of a display—a minor flesh show. These are the women of “Axis of Eve”—get it? They’re youngish females in body suits and bikinis; I can’t tell if they’re protestors, publicity-seekers, or profiteers, maybe all three. In any case, they’re selling panties inscribed with such naughty cleverisms as “Lick Bush,” “Expose Bush,” and “My Cherry for Kerry.”

Enough of this, I think to myself. Time for a little genuine inspiration. That means a walk to another corner of the Common, to the frieze dedicated to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the black volunteers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Their heroic story—they died fighting Confederates in South Carolina in 1863—is told in the movie ”Glory,” starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington. But it is best remembered here, in the city where Shaw was born.

Shaw was a protestor of a different sort. Fired up by the cause of ending slavery, he volunteered to fight for freedom and union in 1861. Two years later, he was killed. He was 25. The inscription on the monument reads in part, “But the high soul burns on to light men’s feet/Where death for noble ends makes dying sweet.”

And I thought to myself, There’s a protestor really worth admiring. It’s hard to imagine another set of heroes, so fired up by selfless idealism, coming together like that again. On the other hand, I know someone might say, if a truly noble protest came along, maybe you wouldn’t even recognize it. Still, I’m pretty sure that history will never hold the celebrants of socialism and cop-killers in high regard.

Next, I find myself in this Starbucks. And then something surprises—and moves—me. It’s a protest of a much different kind. No hackneyed leftists, no misplaced anger, no sexual bravura. It’s a peaceful procession by the Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa. Their brothers and sisters are routinely and energetically persecuted in China by the Beijing regime. As best I can tell, Falun is a peaceful program of physical exercise, mediation, and philosophy. And if it has a political component, too, that’s fine—it’s a free country.

Oh wait—China’s not a free country. And so they are imprisoned, tortured, and killed over there. Here, they can protest, and they do—in the thousands. The procession along Boylston Street is polite, but it’s so numerous that it takes half an hour to pass by, as the cops stop them every so often to let cross-traffic through. Some hold signs in Chinese and English, others hold flowers, others hold pictures of those murdered by the Chinese government. The parade even includes a gruesome float, depicting people tortured and killed; it’s an image from Madame Tussaud’s dungeon.

And it hits me: if China ever becomes a free country—free for speech, not just for big business—then these Falun Gong people, bearing polite witness to tyranny, will deserve no small share of the credit. And so maybe, someday, the Faluns will be remembered on the Boston Common. Remembered, that is, not for being jerks or vamps, but for upholding the liberating and self-sacrificing tradition of Shaw and the men of the 54th.

Souls don’t get much higher than that, and neither does memory in history. If there’s any inequality that’s earned, it’s in the aristocracy of virtue and self-sacrifice that’s not dead, even if it’s often martyred.

--Jim Pinkerton

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