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The Syntax of Resistance

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, March 11, 2002

Sometimes a social change can announce itself in the dropping of a preposition. It used to be that when you used the verb "protest" to mean "object to" you had to add "against" -- "She protested against her mistreatment." Then in the early years of the twentieth century, Americans began to drop the preposition and say things like "He protested the government's policy." 1

As it happens, it was around the time that people started using "protest" with a direct object that they also started to think of protest as a kind of direct political action, aimed at mobilizing public opinion against a particular policy. That's when you begin to see phrases like "protest demonstration," "protest strike," and "protest movement." 2

Or take "protest march." I had always assumed that the phrase originated with the ban-the-bomb movement of the 1950's. But actually it was first used in 1913 to describe the march that Gandhi organized to protest the restrictions that had been imposed on the Indian population of South Africa -- the first massive civil disobedience campaign.

Over the following decades, "protest" would be intimately linked with those new techniques of political resistance. By the 1930's, people were using phrases like "the literature of protest" and "social protest" to suggest the whole range of progressive agitation.

But it wasn't until the sixties that the notion of "protest" entered the mainstream of the American vocabulary. That was the moment when songs with political messages began to make their way out of the coffee houses and hootenannies and onto the airwaves.

For some people, "protest music" evokes the folk-inspired topical songs of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Country Joe McDonald, and the early Dylan. But by the mid-sixties people were using the phrase for songs like "Blowin' in the Wind" and Barry McGuire's 1965 "Eve of Destruction," which was the first protest song to became a number one hit. "Eve of Destruction"'s lyrics were mostly a generic plea for peace and understanding, a pretty far cry from Phil Ochs' "The War is Over" or the Fugs' "Kill for Peace." Even so, a lot of AM stations refused to play the song, and conservatives complained to the FCC that the song violated the equal time provision, back before they learned they could live nicely without it.

By then, people had begun to use the noun "protest" as shorthand for a clamorous rally. That gave rise to the word "PROtester" in place of the older form "proTESTer," which was derived from the verb. The shift in stress corresponded to a difference in emphasis. "ProTESTer" suggests an individual with a specific beef in mind. When you hear "PROtester" you think of a bunch of angry people kicking up a row. The new noun gave rise to a new way of pronouncing the verb, as well.
By now, there's a marked semantic difference between saying "The lady doth proTEST too much" and "The lady doth PROtest too much"  -- the latter sounds like Bill O'Reilly talking about Janeane Garofalo. 

By the time the Vietnam War ended, the notion of "protests" was losing its connection with the old tradition of social protest. There's a revealing use of the word in the 1982 film "First Blood," the first and by far the best of the Rambo movies. It comes when Rambo is describing his return from Vietnam: "And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer. . . Who are they to protest me?" Granted, Rambo was supposed to be a little unhinged, but by then a lot of people wouldn't have seen anything odd in the notion of a "protest" aimed at individual soldiers -- it was becoming just another name for a demonstration.

That's apparently all the word means to some people now, as protests are back in the streets. The other day I saw the influential conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds referring to "the growing pro-war protest movement." That took me aback, but when I hunted around, I found a number of other conservatives using the word that way. The web site of the Young Americans for Freedom boasts about the pro-war protests that the group organized at the University of Michigan. Even the press is starting to pick this up -- an article in the Seattle Times last week talked about the "protestors" at a pro-Bush demonstration who were waving signs saying "Support Our Troops."

There's a clueless even-handedness in those uses of "protest." I don't mean that the word can only be used of the left. There's nothing odd in talking about a conservative campus group holding a protest over the university president's support of affirmative action. That may not conjure up the old notion of Protest with a capital P., but it's clearly a form of resistance to the established order.

But it sounds a little weird to talk about a protest in support of a war that's about to be initiated by the Administration in power. Maybe that's just semantic sloppiness, as if "protesting" nowadays were just a question of getting together to yell slogans -- why should the other side have all the fun? Or maybe it's a strategic blurring of historical memory. It's hard to keep this stuff straight in an age when the oldies stations are apt to play Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" back-to-back with Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets," which was a number one hit a few months later.

But you'd hope that "protest" would retain some of the sense of resistance that it acquired at the beginning of the last century. Up to now, after all, protest has been the only political action that power can't engage in.

Notes for the philologically scrupulous:

1. "Protest" has always been subcategorized for a direct object when it means "aver" or "declare," as in "She protested her innocence."

2. The OED gives much later dates for the first citations for a lot of these items, but then they didn't have the advantage of all the databases that are now 

Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.