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May 22, 2006

Rohe's Dissent

Publius has a fascinating post on the left's capacity for effective dissent, focusing on Jean Rohe's pre-buttal to McCain's graduation speech. "I did," Publius writes, "find her speech (and McCain’s heckling) troubling – not because it showed disrespect, but because of its utter futility as a method of dissent." But Publius doesn't actually mean "futile." If Rohe's dissent was merely "incapable of producing any useful result; pointless," there'd be little reason to address it. What Publius means is that it was counterproductive:

the problem is that “the Left” has been so stereotyped and caricatured for so many years (often aided and abetted by people like Lieberman or even itself) that true Left-wing protests don’t undermine anything (in the Lefty sense of undermine). In fact, they usually do precisely the opposite in that they further the interests of the target of protest. Rohe’s speech and the hecklers are Exhibit A. Despite their intentions, they actually helped John McCain’s presidential chances. He wanted to be booed and heckled there so he could use that example to skeptical Iowa conservatives. See, liberals hate me. In this sense, the “dissent” is precisely what McCain needed. Oddly enough, a roaring reception would have been more “subversive” to his campaign than the heckling. George Allen: Well, I'll you one thing Wolf, they wouldn't have cheered me at the New School.

In general, Publius is correct. The upper-middle class, overeducated, hyper-politicized college student is nothing but a sad caricature, one the public has long ago grown inured to. If you sing a chant but nobody's listening, do you really make a sound? Indeed, college protesters have become nothing but downside; their competent actions are ignored, their occasional tumbles into extremism are expertly exploited by the very establishment they mean to discredit.

But this is not the general, it's the specific, and here, Rohe has an edge. Whether she knows it or not, she's echoing Hillary Rodham Clinton's first step onto the public stage. Clinton was graduate speaker for her graduating class at Wellesley. She was slated to go on directly after the day's marquee attraction, Sen. Brooks. Straying from her prepared remarks, she offered an extemporaneous demolition of the Senator's comments. It was a stunning performance, so much so that parts of her speech were excerpted in Life magazine that year.

Rohe won't have the same impact. But her speech was useful just the same. Protests are useful for shattering consensus, but student marchers are ignored because protesting appears to be their consensus. Rohe quietly slipped out of the second box, and comfortably returned to the form's roots. So far as the media is concerned, McCain is universally beloved, a hero to one and all. Central to this narrative is his ability to seamlessly transition from a speech at Falwell's Liberty College to an address at Kerrey's New School. Indeed, central to this narrative is his ability to give the same speech at both. Had the event been unremarkable, had it passed without polite applause, without punishment for his appearance at Liberty, the storyline would have been affirmed. Rohe intercepted it, effectively locking his door to the left. He may be welcome at Liberty, but he was not welcome at New School. Speaking for the left, or at least the school McCain was using to represent the left, she put the lie to his tale. In doing, she shattered the consensus, and so mounted that rarest of all acts: an effective protest.

May 22, 2006 | Permalink

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Publius argues that Jane Rohe didn't really dissent when she used her New School convocation address to rebuke John McCain:To be true dissent, it must be more than disagreement. It needs to expose and undermine the very foundations and assumptions [Read More]

Tracked on May 22, 2006 4:18:24 PM

Comments

Ezra's right. McCain has two audienced to communicate with. The first is the base. They may have eaten this up, or they might have shared my reactions: The boy got pwned by a girl and was reduced to having his staff shout "POW." (I find it unremarkable that she's a girl, but wonder if the base does).

The second audience is people who do worry that he went to Liberty College and saw Stewart push him on "crazy baseland" on the The Daily Show. I don't know that he put them at ease with this. I think we don't know.

Moreover, our narrative, which has the virtue of being true, is that McCain's become an opportunist. Whatever he does now is not for its own sake, but for his own sake. He wanted to make these kids into his foils, so they could balance Liberty or make him otherwise seem reasonable and open minded. He didn't want to celebrate their graduation or advance a conversation about issues facing them. The students wanted to graduate without the ceremony being a nationally televised McCain pseudo event. But he and Bob Kerrey didn't give them that choice. What he was doing was a violation. And Rohe told him so. If he was still eating authentic breakfast cereal, none of this would have happened.

Posted by: benton | May 22, 2006 11:38:05 AM

Ezra's right. McCain has two audienced to communicate with. The first is the base. They may have eaten this up, or they might have shared my reactions: The boy got pwned by a girl and was reduced to having his staff shout "POW." (I find it unremarkable that she's a girl, but wonder if the base does).

The second audience is people who do worry that he went to Liberty College and saw Stewart push him on "crazy baseland" on the The Daily Show. I don't know that he put them at ease with this. I think we don't know.

Moreover, our narrative, which has the virtue of being true, is that McCain's become an opportunist. Whatever he does now is not for its own sake, but for his own sake. He wanted to make these kids into his foils, so they could balance Liberty or make him otherwise seem reasonable and open minded. He didn't want to celebrate their graduation or advance a conversation about issues facing them. The students wanted to graduate without the ceremony being a nationally televised McCain pseudo event. But he and Bob Kerrey didn't give them that choice. What he was doing was a violation. And Rohe told him so. If he was still eating authentic breakfast cereal, none of this would have happened.

Posted by: benton | May 22, 2006 11:38:07 AM

Ezra's wrong. People like Rohe kill us (not her fault), because they fit the built-in narrative. Worth noting that one of the problems that HRC-as-candidate has is that everyone assumes that she is a radical leftist (well to the left of her husband). And one of the things they're going to point to when making this point is her speech at graduation.

When people say, "Pick your battles," they mean pick the ones you can win.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 22, 2006 12:03:18 PM

I'm with SCMT on this one, sadly. On the merits, Benton is precisely right - McCain got pwn3d. But since when do 'objective merits' matter that much in national politics? And I certainly don't agree with Ezra that this was an 'effective protest' - "Straight Talk heckled by hippie, film at 11!" is, as Publius points out, a narrative 180 degrees from that intended. Even to many who pay attention, Rohe's 'pre-buttal' was largely 'pre-butted' by portions of McCain's speech itself: "Yes, missy, it's easy to be all-fired certain when you're 22. Back in my day, when I was your age..." and anyone over the age of thirty thinks back to all the kegstands they did in college and thinks "the old man has a point there..."

Posted by: Pooh | May 22, 2006 12:19:35 PM

I'm much less concerned about the general effects of Rohe's takedown of McCain, or whether he benefits with the wingnut base that doesn't love him much. Nor do I care if her speech fits the 'radical student being irresponsible' characterization.

When it is needed to speak truth to power, then all who care about truth should be supportive of speaking truth to power.

Letting McCain get a pass at the New School by just being boo'ed or sign-heckled doesn't face up to the need to speak out about a once-heroic figure that has fallen to two-faced pandering to get power without real principle.

McCain is powerful because the media make him powerful, not because of the depth and consistency of his ideas and actions in recent years. Pissing on his parade seems barely adequate to what is really needed. But I do applaud when that parade is made to detour around the horsehit they have pre-seeded on the parade route.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 22, 2006 1:17:56 PM

Ezra, Jim, Benton, quite right.

Let's review the way we liberals are treated, shall we?

According to the right wing propaganda machine:

-We lost Vietnam
-We spit on the troops coming home from Vietnam
-We like to kill babies
-We caused the gas crunch in the 70's
-We caused the Iranian hostage crisis
-We cheer when Americans are killed
-We want the terrorists to attack
-We think America is the worst nation in history
-We want the economy to tank and our armies to be defeated in order to bring about a communist revolution
-Our criticism of Bush is not based on policy or philosophy, but a seething, irrational hatred that we freely, joyfully apply to everyone who has ever supported Bush or has disagreed with us.

Hardly an exhaustive list, but representative.

No protest will be seen as effective, then, if our criteria is acceptance among people who have been taught to believe the preceding.

Shall we take an unscientific poll? How many of us have family members who do not fully trust us because of our political beliefs? How about close friends? How many of us have to hold our tongues at work, at church, in social gatherings because the people who so freely and loudly demonize "liberals" in our presence would not be able to stand the knowledge of one actually in their midst?

Oh, but let's not protest, and let's criticize those who do, because some dumbfuck in Iowa isn't going to be swayed by it. They aren't going to magically overcome decades of misinformation and demonization in a moment because of this protest.

Why try anything, then? If we can't protest, if we can't speak truth to power, if we can't support those who are willing to take a stand - rightly or wrongly - then let's stop writing, stop volunteering, stop campaign contributions, stop caring. Just vote for whoever showed the last commercial you saw, and just accept whatever legislation comes down from on high. Accept whatever the president wants to do, whatever changes they want to make to the Constitution, because standing up and protesting might make some racist, homophobic asshole in Bumfuck, Georgia think "badly" about liberals.

It's often said that liberals shoot their wounded. I think that many of us wound the healthy. Rohe is a hero. She's a kid whose beliefs and principles would not let her be quiet. As I read her speech and her essay at Kos, I was reminded of another great liberal rabble-rouser who said, "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Luther did not wish to fight the Pope. But he could not remain silent any longer, and he changed the face of Europe and the world's largest religion, forever.

Godspeed, Ms. Rohe. Keep it up. You've got a bright future, and if we can just get enough people like you, so do we.

Posted by: Stephen | May 22, 2006 2:14:48 PM

Stephen, I think you are confusing my disagreement with Ezra on the effectiveness of the critique with the propriety. I mean she's right, we all know she's right, and we applaud her for being right. But so what? The press isn't reporting this as "McCain Pwn3d." That would have been an effective dissent.

And the fact that it isn't effective now doesn't mean it will never be. The "Liberal Media" thing was out there forever before it gained traction within the media itself (thanks, Bernie!) So, yes, the Jean Rohe's of the world should continue to stand up, but the continuation, not the commencement, is where victory lies.

Posted by: Pooh | May 22, 2006 6:11:34 PM

The press isn't reporting this as "McCain Pwn3d." That would have been an effective dissent.

"McCaine Pwn3d" also would have been the Best. Headline. Ever.

Posted by: Cassandra | May 22, 2006 10:57:33 PM

Seems like a Catch22: can she really not do anything?

It is unclear how a supportive reception would have hurt him. It is possible that he wanted to be booed so that it would please the base. But, is he not in a bind too? His independence and support by those who usually would not support the Right is part of his charm. If the left suddenly booes, what is his value?

And, what about the left? If the left does not show what is McCain doing, where is their cred? The problem is not the protest, it is the spin. The other side acts badly and too often gets away with it or worse benefits. Can't the left do that too?

In fact, as noted elsewhere, McCain is starting to get some bad press from the commentariat. His true colors seem to be showing. I wonder, you know, if the left not buying his "straight talk express" bit sorta of is part of it.

Posted by: Joe | May 23, 2006 12:48:06 AM

Rohe spoke truth to power. Spoke it very effectively. I can't see a single negative there.

R.

Posted by: Rain Bo | May 23, 2006 7:22:23 AM

"Oddly enough, a roaring reception would have been more “subversive” to his campaign than the heckling."

This is completely wrong. McCain's strength is that conservatives know he is one of them, but liberals and many journalists do not. When Rove needed to eliminate McCain, he didn't paint him as liberal, he painted him as crazy. All of the voters in the Republican primary knew McCain was significantly to the right of Bush. It is important that Democrats and journalists be made to realize this as well.

Posted by: Njorl | May 23, 2006 8:54:49 AM

This is completely wrong. McCain's strength is that conservatives know he is one of them, but liberals and many journalists do not.

Bingo! Njorl has it right. McCain is speaking to the base while trying to keep his friendly, likeable, moderate image alive.

This is exactly what GWB did in 2000, very effectively. Anyone who actually listened to what he said could hear that he was a hard-core fundamentalist conservative. But the rest of the nation heard "uniter, not a divider", "compassionate conservative", "It's your money" .... etc. He was portrayed as the guy you'd like to have a beer with. Not too smart, but smart enough.
The right wing was listening and they knew what they were getting. Everyone else was left scratching their heads.

As long as McCain can deliver his spiel to friendly crowds, he wins. Rohe challenged him, and it doesn't matter if his base likes her or not. She's speaking to the rest of us.

Posted by: Mike | May 23, 2006 9:48:47 AM

You know, I've got a post I've been kicking around for a while, and basically it boils down to this: not only is it vital that the left stand up for itself.

What's the biggest fear the public has of liberals? That we're pro-Osama? Gonna raise taxes? Gut the military? No, the public fears that we don't know what we stand for. This is viewed, rightly, as "weakness."

If we act afraid and try not to alienate anyone, we refuse to define ourselves. And if we refuse to define ourselves, we let our opponents define us. The public won't agree with everything--so what? Better we be honest, up front, and proud than weak and cowed.

In short, we need more Rohes. Will some call her shrill or angry or "unhinged?" Of course. But guess what? They'd do that no matter what, or how, she said it. Indeed, they'll do it to us no matter what we do. So better we stand proud than run away.

Posted by: Jeff Fecke | May 23, 2006 12:24:51 PM

Yeah, he was welcomed at Liberty -- which only proves that the kids at Liberty have more decency and tolerance than the New School does. Believe me, there are kids at Liberty who vigorously disagree with McCain on the First Amendment, immigration, or his opposition to the gay marriage constitutional amendment. But they -- unlike the liberal kids -- were willing to sit respectfully without jeering and catcalling like they were at a pro wrestling match.

Posted by: Thurmond | May 23, 2006 12:33:23 PM

More like, the kids at Liberty have been more thoroughly brainwashed into blind obedience to authority. Thinking too much is what made America deserve 9/11, as Jerry bin Falwell says.

Posted by: TTT | May 23, 2006 1:10:56 PM

It’s one thing to tell the Emperor he has no clothes on…. It’s another to boo him for being naked. Ms. R vented her pent up political frustrations, the booers and hecklers made their feelings known, the stoical back-turners symbolically made their positions clear – but how does that translates into votes for other-than-Republican candidates in the coming elections – and more specifically, in the next presidential election?
JJ

Posted by: Jay Jerome | May 23, 2006 3:35:18 PM

It’s one thing to tell the Emperor he has no clothes on…. It’s another to boo him for being naked.

Have you even read the story this comes from? At what point is the moral of this story anything but that the emperor, his courtiers and the people deserve to be roundly booed, derided and mocked for being so utterly, utterly stupid.

It is far more "civil" to boo in front of an opponent than to silently listen while making plans to smear him with lies and false scandals. "Civil discourse" has come to mean, for many people, holding one's tongue in front of someone in order to more freely attempt to destroy them with one's words at another time. Hiding in the shadows, shaking a person's right hand while your left holds a dagger - this is not civil discourse. This is cowardice, hypocrisy - all the things that the modern conservative movement excells at.

And honest men and women on the Left have been fooled into agreeing with them.

Posted by: Stephen | May 23, 2006 8:30:52 PM

Ugh. Forgot about the no html thing. Great. 1st paragraph in the preceding is a quote.

Posted by: Stephen | May 23, 2006 8:31:41 PM

Now that Jean Rohe and her supporters have announced that they will not listen to anyone else's opinions and will try to shout out and intimidate anyone who disagrees with them, I wonder when they plan to register for membership in the Republican Party.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 12, 2006 5:16:24 PM

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