Loud Mouths in Quiet Times

Protest in the age of contentment

In December, just as we were beginning this issue, the U.S. began bombing Iraq. Nationwide, the bombing of a country we thought we had already defeated -- for reasons that turn out to be ever more murky -- led to little visible outrage. Perhaps it didn't help that, before many of us even became used to the idea, the networks told us 75 percent of Americans believed the attacks were warranted. Like so much else in modern life, the bombings seemed to have been focus-group tested and preapproved for public consumption.

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What had promised to be the most celebrated protest of the year -- before it was pre-empted by the Iraq bombings -- was the Rev. Jesse Jackson's vigil in Washington, D.C., meant to remind members of the House of Representatives who were on the verge of impeaching Clinton that they were acting against the will of the people. Then again, Jackson also had the polls behind him.

It's a message echoed in much of society, from the zealous celebration of the stock market's rise (which benefits only the country's richest 10 percent) to what President Clinton brags is "the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history...and the lowest peacetime unemployment since 1957." Never mind the slowly but steadily growing gap between rich and poor and a minimum wage that, to have its 1968 purchasing power, would need to be at least $7.45 per hour, instead of the current $5.15. A Gallup Poll reports that 78 percent of us are satisfied with our standard of living; 84 percent with the opportunities we have had to succeed. The message to any dissenter seems pretty clear: Times are good -- what are you complaining about?

Fundamental to the American identity, however, is the right to speak out, to dissent, and in the past year there were protests that both captured public attention and challenged public opinion. We've given a few of them a close look, asking what made them stand out and what that says about the protesters and about us (and the media).

We look at whether throwing pies will set us free; decipher the complex factors that transformed death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal into a cultural icon; consider the Rev. Fred Phelps' crusade against gays; and try to figure out what turned "bunny huggers" into arsonists. We also analyze how the Internet has (and has not) proved useful for the disenfranchised. And if you feel inspired to start your own protest, we offer budding rabble-rousers a few pointers.

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