These protests tend to come in waves, don't they? First we had the teabaggers. Now it's the birthers and other town-hall disrupters.
The left is criticizing the latter group in particular for its attempts to stifle discussion in town halls by means of shouting down representatives, attempts which have on occasion grown violent. You can watch video here of a town hall in Austin where Rep. Lloyd Doggett was shouted down; here, of one in Tampa where Rep. Kathy Castor was unable even to get through her opening remarks; here, of one in Syracuse where Rep. Timothy Burton eventually had to be escorted to his car by police.
It's not hard to find conservatives complaining about this criticism and oh-so-cleverly commenting that dissent was patriotic when it was liberals doing it. It's also not hard to find those same conservatives, one or two or four years earlier, saying that people like Michael Moore should be tried for treason.
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Even putting aside the contradictions (and all the death threats), this draws a false equivalence between the current batch of protesters and former liberal protests. The event being protested in these videos is one with the point of bringing a representative to her constituents to discuss the issues. The town hall meeting, by its nature, is intended to accommodate the positions of both sides. But that's not what the "dissenters" are doing when they shout so loudly and so continuously that even people who agree with them cannot make their voices heard, or cause congresspeople to stop holding meetings out of fear for their lives. Nor are they merely bringing an alternate opinion to a venue that is meant to propagate only one. They are derailing discussion in an open forum. They are Internet trolls in real life and in large numbers.
This is not a speech. This is not a photo-op. This is a question-and-answer session, but the protesters are not interested in asking questions, nor receiving answers.
Returning to "dissent is the highest form of patriotism." We've covered the right's position on this before; they obviously don't believe it. What, then, to make of what they're saying now?
It's easy enough to dismiss this as hypocrisy, and that's certainly part of it. But we're dealing with a particular brand of intellectual dishonesty here: specifically, that only one message should dominate, whether by being in power and stifling dissent or by being out of power and stifling discussion, and that this message should dominate because it is "American" and the opposing message is "un-American" or "anti-American."
This is, to some degree, only a step or two up from normal political rationalization; if someone's arguing a position in good faith, it's because they think it's the better position for America and Americans. To argue that the position opposite yours is anti-American, all you need to do is believe that your opponent is arguing in bad faith and does not honestly think that their position is better for America and Americans. Both sides use the terms; they're a part of common parlance in this country. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer just had an op-ed in USA Today calling the town hall protesters un-American for their tactics of suppressing debate. What they didn't do is call for their views to be silenced.
This is that step or two up. Because, whether or not the left thinks a position is un-American, our belief in free speech means that we support the right to express it. Conservative commenters are taking advantage of this now when they whine that "liberals are hypocrites!" - they are intentionally conflating the message and the medium.
When you read about and watch these protests and town halls, the protesters don't say they're speaking for "Americans who don't want the public option," or "Americans who don't think Barack Obama is a citizen," or "Americans who want lower taxes." They say they're speaking for "Americans." And it makes sense when you realize that to these people, America is the Republican Party. As I commented during the election, "Country First" is a much more logical slogan if you exclude all the parts of the country that you don't agree with. Suppressing dissent just lends the illusion of reality to the total identification of the country with the party.
The Rachel Maddow Show has been covering the protests regularly; you can watch at http://rachel.msnbc.com, at http://www.youtube.com/meggion, and at http://www.youtube.com/newspoliticsnews along with other reports, or hunt around for blogs that have embedded clips.