“To Sir, With Love”?: On Grounding Protests in Skeptical Politics

by Brianne Donaldson

The duty of tolerance is our finite homage to the abundance of inexhaustible novelty which is awaiting the future, and to the complexity of accomplished fact which exceeds our stretch of insight.

Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 65

As visitors filled Discovery Green in Downtown Houston on Sunday for pre-Super Bowl festivities, I joined several hundred fellow Houstonians to protest Trump’s recent Muslim travel ban. Chants of “No Ban, No Wall,” and “Say it Loud, Say it Clear, Refugees are Welcome Here,” competed with speaker systems pumping out Super Bowl anthems.

The trick, it seems to me, as these meaningful and necessary protests evolve in the face of tangible policies, is to remember that, over time, the presidency has steadily taken more power for itself over the legislature and the court. Presidential overreach is nothing new.

To that end, I think it essential to participate in actions against tangible policy brought forth by Trump that overrides constitutional rights and the “abundance of inexhaustible novelty” that makes the U.S. unique and innovative. Simultaneously, I also feel it is very important to be critical of Obama’s legacy—a version of Whitehead’s “complexity of accomplished fact”—in this regard. Obama propped open the door for this kind of executive action when he, for example, forced through military action in Libya against the wishes of Congress, or when he authorized the killing of a Denver-born 16-year old US citizen without trial, or when he enabled law enforcement to access un-redacted surveillance data on citizens, or when his “look forward, not backward” policy resulted in absolutely no punishment for the egregious law-breaking in the Bush regime that treated torture, surveillance without warrants, and detention without trial as mere policy disputes rather than the fracture of law that opens the door for the next executive to do more of the same.

I was shocked last week to see Saturday Night Live end their episode with a song—the classic “To Sir, With Love”—sung to Obama with effusive thanks. If our protests against Trump are to be ethically or legally grounded, they must also apply to presidential overreaches at the hand of one deemed likable or a “good person.” Public vigilance is perhaps most important precisely when one thinks the president is a good person or when one agrees with their philosophy and values. This perpetual vigilance is required wherever one falls on the political spectrum. We should be united in our dogged skepticism of those who wield great power, whoever they are.

The purpose of Constitutional law in the US is to constrain power, and I certainly hope that these checks and balances will hold now, and that Congress will play by the law rather than ride the winds of politics. But Congress should have resisted these overreaches much earlier, and we should have been in the streets for the wars currently going on in five countries, for Obama’s authorization to kill a US citizen without trial, for the expansion of surveillance programs, and the “look the other way” politics in the post-Bush era that eroded the purpose of the Constitution and leave a space for exactly the kind of executive actions that Trump is taking now.

There is no question of the historic significance of Obama’s presidency, and specifically because he is a significant figure we should scrutinize his actions. No one is above criticism. Even Obama, in his last press conference, remarked to the press, “You’re not supposed to be sycophants, you’re supposed to be skeptics, you’re supposed to ask me tough questions. You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here . . . “

As people rightly gather to protest these executive actions against friends, fellow citizens, and strangers, I hope there will be a sharp eye on history, and that none of us will accept uncritical songs of praise to presidents’ past at whose signatures lives and liberties have also been lost.

Photo Caption: Protests of “Muslim Ban” at Discovery Green in Downtown Houston on Sunday, January 29, taken by B. Donaldson