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False Parallels

I’m on the left, and I’ll admit that it’s easier for me to get annoyed at mistaken or dishonest reasoning from people I disagree with. I’m more likely to yell at the screen when it’s Bill O’Reilly than when it’s Chris Matthews. It’s a character flaw. But sometimes even the arguments on my own side are so bad that I can’t sit still for them.

That happened yesterday, when I saw a video juxtaposing U.S. criticism of the treatment of protesters in the Middle East to actual treatment of Occupy movement protesters in the U.S. The video accused — well, someone; it wasn’t clear whom — of “hypocrisy.”

There are so many things wrong with this argument (if it is an argument) that I hardly know where to start. I just sat there with my mouth hanging open. But let me try to break the analysis into steps:

1. Obama ≠ UCDavis Campus Police.
The videos juxtapose official statements by President Obama and Secretary Clinton decrying the denial of the rights of protesters in Libya, Egypt, Syria etc., on the one hand, with images of law enforcement denying speech rights (to some extent, anyway) to protesters in the U.S. The reason this doesn’t work as a demonstration of hypocrisy is that we’re talking about two different sets of people. Hypocrisy means holding or acting on two contradictory views. Most often it is used to refer to one person saying one thing while doing its opposite. But no one has suggested that Obama or Clinton approve of the actions of the NYPD or the UCDavis Campus Police. Nor can we say, “Well, the government is hypocritical”, because we’re talking about two different governments — the federal government , which is what Obama and Clinton work for, hasn’t been involved in any of the actions against OWS protesters and, so far as I know, doesn’t approve of those actions. Nor can we say something as nebulous as “The U.S. is hypocritical,” because I don’t think the contradictory views described represent the views of a majority (or even a major plurality) of Americans. You can’t say that A is a hypocrite for doing what B condemns.

2. Pepper Spray ≠ Bullets.
While I detest what has been done to some Occupy protesters in some cities by some police forces (not the majority of the protesters, and not in the majority of cities), I don’t think it’s fair to compare that sort of police brutality to the premeditated murder of protesters by governments in Syria and Libya. One could easily condemn the latter without condemning the former, without any fear of being a hypocrite. I hate both forms of official action, but to treat them as the same thing is irresponsible.

3. Location ≠ Message.
In Egypt, Libya, Iran, Syria, the government acted to stop protesters from delivering their message at all. In the case of OWS, for the most part the government officials have repeatedly indicated that the protesters have a right to deliver their message, and not infrequently have expressed outright agreement with that message. The objection has been to the time and place where the message is delivered — failures to get permits, failures to recognize the rights of others to use the space, etc. In the majority of cases the protesters would have encountered no official sanctions at all had they moved their protest to a different location each day, making arrangements to do so in advance. Again, you may reasonably object to those restrictions (I think I object to them), but it is silly to compare them to the action of stopping any expression of disagreement with the government.

4. Camping ≠ Speaking.
Most of the actions taken against Occupy protesters have been against the campsites that have been set up on public land, not to the delivery of the message. Again, I don’t particularly like actions against the campsites, and I kinda wish they’d been allowed to stay, but it is simply wrong to say that stopping someone from camping in a public place is the same thing as stopping them from speaking in that public place. I know of no message that can be delivered only by camping out.

5. Bank of America ≠ Gaddafi
I agree with the Occupy movement that corporations have too much power in American politics, and that the wealthiest and most powerful are benefiting at the expense of the majority. It is something worthy of protest. However, it is dangerous to compare that issue with what protesters in the Middle East were up against — autocratic, theocratic or oligarchic regimes which had been in power for 30+ years without any real ability for their opponents to challenge them, because opponents were imprisoned or killed. In the U.S. (and I don’t mean to be self-congratulatory here), the political party in charge of the Executive Branch has changed five times since 1975, and the Houses of Congress have changed hands several times in that same period. You may argue, Ralph Nader style, that this isn’t really a change because there is no real distinction between the two parties because they are both beholden to corporate interests, and to an extent that is true. But to imagine that a McCain Administration would have behaved the same way the Obama Administration has behaved with regard to corporate interests, or that a Gore Administration would have behaved the same way as the Bush Administration on, say, environmental policy or Iraq, is absurd. A protest movement in the U.S. is trying to change the outcome of the next election in order to get better policies in place — the protest movement in Libya was trying to get any elections at all.

For all these reasons, the video and attendant arguments charging Obama, Clinton or anybody with hypocrisy in this context are badly mistaken.

Meanwhile, I hope that the Occupy movement is successful in its attempts to change American policy concerning corporate power.

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