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Cheryl Saban Ph.D. Headshot

Protest or Witch Hunt?

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OCCUPY CITY HALL
AP

Though it's not fresh, hot-off-the-press news that demonstrations similar to Occupy Wall Street are occurring all over the world, I was recently traveling in Asia, and was literally watching the news from the other side of the world, and there is no doubt that this movement has taken on a life of its own. How this movement matures, is yet to be seen. Some of the news clips featured abroad had the flavor of a renaissance faire, or an all-day concert - complete with painted faces, peace signs, funny hats, and drum circles. Perhaps this kind of "street theater" is what is needed to shake up the system, to send a "call to action" to the powers that be, which can then eventually lead to substantive change. Perhaps. For sure, the movement is attracting attention, garnering headlines. Clearly the various protests are giving a voice to many people who are disgruntled with systems and governments that aren't working.

I am sympathetic to the underlying angst that has fomented the Occupy Wall Street protest, i.e., the dysfunction of our economy, bonuses paid out to bankers after the bailout, and the apparent inequity in the tax code. I get it, and I'm not surprised. But those being interviewed on the street have given a plethora of reasons for protesting -- there doesn't seem to be a coherent theme or tag line other than to bash Wall Street and the millionaires. I understand being angry with Wall Street, particularly when it comes down to bonuses paid out, after the massive bail-out fueled by tax-payer dollars. But to picket millionaires in general? Really? I didn't hear any of the protesters question our Senators or Congressmen, and the tax laws that allowed such a mess in the first place. Raging against "the millionaires" as a group seems a bit misguided, especially when one considers that we Americans are all raised with the idea that if you work hard enough, and dream big enough, you can succeed at anything.

The protesters shouting about taxes and Wall Street, and then throwing in the rage about millionaires -- and by the way, all the iPhones they're waving, and the Google search engines they're using, and the Tweets they're sending, wouldn't have been possible without the millionaires who created them -- confuse me. Just how much money would be considered appropriate to earn? Is there a cap? Are some of these protesters suggesting a socialist system, or is democracy still okay for some? Is there an age limit?

The system is apparently broken. It isn't working for people at a fundamental level, and it must be fixed. Someone needs to listen. We ALL need to listen. Mostly, our lawmakers need to listen, okay? And not just when they're campaigning.

But my sympathy and support for such a protest abruptly ends when the protest becomes "group think" and starts looking like a Witch Hunt. I was in Jakarta, watching stunned as several news reporters featured a young lady standing in front of News Corps' Rupert Murdoch's private home in New York City with a megaphone in her hand, shouting to the crowd and the news camera about how much he paid for his home, and what an extravagant lifestyle he had, while she and the gang standing with her didn't get to live so high. She and her megaphone went on a rampage about other details of Mr. Murdoch's private life, singling him out as if he personally affected her negatively in some way. It was disgusting.

Okay, Mr. Murdoch is a wealthy man. And, okay, perhaps his company takes corporate tax breaks. I have no idea. It's not my business. I assume he pays his taxes along the lines of the current tax code as written into law, and he should. We all should, and we should do so proudly. As a side note, we're lucky to live in America -- with all our problems, it's still one of the greatest places on earth to be. At any rate, Mr. Murdoch certainly doesn't need me to vouch for him one way or the other. What I am particularly concerned about was that the protesters were harassing one segment of our population, and in particular, one individual. They were targeting and blaming that one individual for all the current ills of society. It is dangerous and wrong.

I don't know if Mr. Murdoch's company takes unfair tax breaks or not. What I DO know, is that Mr. Murdoch, like many of those in the so-called 1% bracket, employs thousands of people, and I'll bet none of those people wants to lose their jobs or their pensions or their insurance or their homes or the nest eggs they've saved at the jobs they've secured in one of the many companies owned by Mr. Murdoch -- especially during these testy and turbulent economic times.

If the protesters seriously want to make changes, wagging a finger at successful people and vilifying them isn't the way. The young lady I spoke of, and the colorful mob of drummers and shouters around her were on the verge of turning a viable, serious protest into a Witch Hunt, and we all know how violent and deadly Witch Hunts are. We've seen what happens when society targets individuals or groups of people as their "Scape goats" -- think the Salem Witch trials, the Inquisition, the Holocaust. No happy endings.

Our country is a democracy, and we've got the right to protest. Hurrah. And we should continue to do so, because often, that's what it takes to shake up the system. But remember, we've also got the right to start businesses, make money, lose money, get an education, flounder with our student loans, gripe about our government, and protest when we're upset about it.

As vital citizens of this country, we need to remain part of the process, and not just onlookers. We have a fundamental duty to thoughtfully change our laws to benefit society. If we don't like our tax laws -- if they don't serve the public interest, we should alter them. If we don't like the way our government is handling things, then we had better get our lawmakers to do something about it, or at the end of the day, vote them out. And that means we need to show up to vote. I hope the protesters know who their Senators and Congressmen are, because those are the people who will ultimately be making the changes we all seek.

Hopefully, something viable will come of all this. As the protest organizers become more organized, they will hone their message, maintain their peaceful stance, use the law, and change it, if need be. One can only hope that the violence that erupted in Rome was an anomaly, not to be repeated.

Protesters can learn from some of the most courageous, beloved leaders of the past, who knew that to bring about lasting change, the movement is best served if it refrains from using violence, and violent rhetoric. And, humankind would be best served if we never again allow another Witch Hunt.