Withholding Consent

During last week’s Fourth of July festivities, it occurred to me that the celebration of our nation’s founding commemorates a political act. We could reasonably date the founding of the United States to the battle of Lexington and Concord or the battle of Saratoga or the battle of Yorktown. It’s true America was born in a clash of arms and shedding of blood.

There are many people today, some of them the governor of Alaska for the next two weeks, who spit the word “Congress” out of their mouths as if it was a piece of burnt toast. They should remember that the first words of the Declaration of Independence are “In Congress, July 4, 1776.”

That’s right, a bunch of guys sitting around in a room, talking, but talking on behalf of people ranged up and down the east coast. As the document says, governments derive their just powers from consent of the governed. (And to be honest, in those days “the governed” was defined as white men who owned property.)

All this comes to mind as we see the governed around the world withholding their consent in recent days. In the Xinjiang region of China, native Uighurs are battling in the streets with Han Chinese, imported by the government as settlers from the east. Uighurs are ethnically Turkic and Muslim. The government in Beijing doesn’t trust them and so sends Han Chinese to Xinjiang, in hopes of making the region more loyal.

This is nothing like the American Revolution. This is more like the various wars Native Americans fought against European settlers for the first 400 years after the white folks arrived. To the south of Xinjiang, the Tibetan people are subjected to the same influx of Han Chinese – who in both situations, tend to be favored by the government over the natives.

Still, these are the governed, withholding their consent. On one face, it looks nothing like our revolution, but at its heart, it’s the same.

In Iran, the people gave their consent in June’s election and it was ignored, so they took to the streets. The government there is doing its best to repress the spontaneous demonstrations on behalf of liberty with violence and threats of even greater violence, but I don’t think it will work.

Just this morning I received an email about protest marches in Iranian provinces. The Iranian government wants the world to think it’s only a couple thousand people in Tehran who are dissatisfied, that the people in the provinces are quiescent and pro-Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, but that’s not true.

I’ve been reading histories of the 1979 Iranian revolution. One of the shah’s great tactical errors was letting his secret police kill protesters. (Of course, we should never forget that killing is a moral error.) If you want to stay in power in Iran, don’t kill protesters. In Islam, a deceased person is remembered on the 40th day after his or her death. In 1979, the police killed protesters. Forty days later, huge crowds turned out to remember the killings and at those events, police killed more citizens. The process repeated itself and commemorations grew exponentially, until the shah left his country behind.

The mullahs’ police and Basij militia began killing protesters on 15 June, which means we can expect a new round of protests beginning 25 July. The ayatollahs, all veterans of 1979, know this and that’s why they’re trying so hard to cram the lid on now. It won’t work.

In the summer of 1776, we the people sent those guys to sit around a room in Philadelphia and talk. They weren’t perfect, the principles they represented weren’t perfect, what they created wasn’t perfect. Two hundred and thirty-three years and five days later, it’s still not perfect. It is an improvement over what came before.

So it is in western China and Iran. The people know they are not well governed and so they withhold their consent, sometimes violently. My hope for them is the same as for us: fuller enjoyment of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

© Mark Floegel, 2009

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