COLUMN: From Here and Back again

James Coufal

Dissent, Protest and Patriotism

Many Americans proudly wave the flag of patriotism when they see dissent or protest they don’t agree with. This unthinking response often cuts off further discussion because it is considered the “show stopper,” the end, finé. Any perceived slight of our flag has this effect.

What follows are some thoughts on this situation; accept them, disagree with them, but please don’t dismiss them as unpatriotic—think about them.

First, and foremost, a person’s right to publicly dissent or protest—without fear of retribution— is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, covering freedom of speech, religion, the press and of assembly. Yes, there are limits; especially that they are to be “peaceful” and sometimes regulated. But there are no limits because they are disturbing, don’t agree with your viewpoint or they threaten the status quo.

The United States had its beginning in dissent and protest, from letters, editorials and speeches, to the Tea Party, to Bunker Hill. Would we better off without this? Would we be better off without the protests of anti-slavers, suffragettes, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela or – before them – Ghandi? Perhaps the most famous and influential protester of all time is Jesus Christ.

Without them, we would have been stuck with the status quo of their times, until a different protestor came along.

Arnold Schopenhauer said “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” I suggest the second stage starts with non-violent protest, which only moves to violent protest as a last resort. Further, dissent and protest come from all sides, such as those progressive protestors listed above and from rightists such as the Klu Klux Klan and the white nationalists at Charlottesville or anti-abortionists murdering doctors who provide abortions.

Liberals contribute to the problems we face, as well, such as championing the “politically correct” movement that flies in the face of free speech and serious discussion. Still, most violent protests come from the right.

In looking at any protest, it is necessary to clearly identify and understand what is being protested before reacting to the protest. In the case of the flag, Koepernick is not protesting the flag itself; it is only a symbol, not the thing. He is protesting the failure of America to live up to its stated and venerated values as found in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, particularly the racism being licensed by President Trump.

As Dwight Eisenhower said, “As the heirs of our founding fathers and mothers, we should not confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.” Nor should we confuse honest patriotism with nationalism; patriotism is love of country and its peoples—all its peoples—and the land that provides it home. Nationalism is hate, especially of peoples that are perceived as “other” … other skin colors, other places of birth, other religions, other traditions and other ways of life.

In today’s world of the internet, it is easy to look up sound studies of whether such “others” are truly other, and whether the bad things attributed to them are true. But studies have found that exploratory research is minimal and that when just one item is found that supports your viewpoint, in-depth research is abandoned, the victim of “confirmation bias,” something we ALL have but many don’t recognize. Other studies have found that fear is a big motivator of nationals. Two major fears are those of loss of jobs (the economy) and even worse, fear of losing status. History shows how demagogues thrive on whipping up such fear.

Current disparagement of science by Trump and his minions calls for dissent – stifling reports, banning phrases like “climate change,” dismantling environmental protection, and more; stifling science and creating distrust in it. Should we stand by and let this happen? Absolutely not, John Polanyi, scientist and philosopher, said.

“Science exists, moreover, only as a journey toward truth,” he said. “Stifle dissent, and you end that journey.”

Bottom line, patriotism is not my country right or wrong with blind obedience to government. It is obedience to the principles, the values for which government and each of us purport to stand.

It is action taken to call the government—and WE the PEOPLE—to task.

Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is a part-time philosopher and full-time observer of global trends. He can be reached at

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