Civil disobedience is a tried-and-true, potent, and ethical way to make your grievances known. Anything from handing out pamphlets to self-immolation can be considered civil disobedience, but the quintessential method is probably group protest that commits a nominal or minor legal infraction. Common would be disrupting traffic during a march, occupying a building during business hours, and picketing that goes beyond the garden-variety. I am not sure if taking a knee at a sports event during the national anthem truly counts – that might just be innocuous free speech. However, since Trump chooses to demagogue about that, instead of letting things take their natural course, it ends up functioning like civil disobedience because of the magnitude of the disruption it engenders. This blog is about the latest trend in left-wing protesting against the powers that be: harassing conservatives during times when these bad actors aren’t working to feather their own nests and undermine the fabric of our society, but simply eating in a restaurant or some such activity.
Here is one of my biases: Republicans in office (and highly-placed in the media and in the corporate world) cause a lot of damage with their self-dealing, incompetent, “revolving-door” tendencies, and “swampy” behavior. They are, in a word, bad actors. Their values tend to be heavy on the “looking out for #1” and low on virtue and character. Donald Trump is the next logical step in a progression that includes the corporate leadership at BP (the “Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill”), Enron, Dennis Hastert, Fox News, Tom DeLay, and Bill O’Reilly, Anne Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, Scott Pruitt, and William Bennett. This claim I am making is not completely sound, but it does seem justified to say that moral misfits and conservative creeps tend to seek out political office, media mogul status, and powerful corporate boss positions. You just don’t find this level of chicanery and unscrupulousness combined with power and prestige in careers such as school teachers, firefighters, and dog walkers. Take me to task on this claim if you wish, but I think it is correct.
Consider this if you are skeptical. Even with something as subtle and hard to classify as how often a judge votes with his or her tribe, evidence is available that the powerful typically do not act with sufficient honor, class, and scruples. As this report shows, deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was indeed a partisan. The fact that he was recently awarded the Medal of Freedom by Trump is highly questionable. I won’t say Orwellian or repugnant, but I think it raises questions about the legitimacy of this act. In regard to one’s tribe, here is a piece on tribalism.
Democracy is not just a counting up of votes – it is a counting up of actions. Without those on the bottom acting out there desires for justice – as the government acts out its needs, and those with power and privilege act out theirs – the scales of democracy will be off. That is why civil disobedience is not just to be tolerated – if we are to have a truly democratic society it is a necessity.
So, Republicans in office and in positions of high power doing bad things that negatively affect the commons. But what does a good American do about that? Vote them out of office you say? With the power of money in politics, gerrymandered districts, and voter suppression, it is easier said than done. Shoot them? No, not acceptable. Don’t buy their gasoline or watch their station? Innocuous but largely ineffective. As George Carlin once said, “The assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. showed that all of the wishing and hoping and holding hands and humming and signing petitions and licking envelopes is a bit futile.”
One of the actions that have recently been tried with significant success and great controversy is harassing conservatives in public. You might have seen the videos; Ted Cruz does evil stuff by day, and then at night wants to go to a restaurant and have some downtime. You know, relax and recover so that he can get back to the job of feathering his own nest at the expense of the rest of the populace the next day.
Peter Beinart wrote a piece that raises questions about when civil disobedience becomes wanton incivility here. It’s an issue that I think is worth thinking about. We should get clear on how we feel about behaving badly in order to accomplish some wider instrumental goal.
Do I think it is nice to bother Scott Pruitt while he is out and about, or trying to relax at home? I am ambivalent. On the one hand, it can be difficult to justify the ends using immoral means. It coarsens the whole debate and furthers the partisanship that these folks peddle.
When I was growing up in rural Alabama, my mother, my father, my grandparents, and great-grandparents told us, “Don’t get in trouble. Don’t get in the way.” In Selma [the site of a racial conflagration] I was getting in the way, I was getting in trouble, but it was good trouble, necessary trouble.
One has to ask whether we the people are supposed to behave and be quiet while these folks do unethical stuff. How many examples of corporate social irresponsibility, self-dealing, and obnoxious greed are we supposed to put up with? Are we really supposed to be bound by social norms while the foxes are in the henhouse?
One also has to ask what is in it for the harasser, and whether they have a pure heart about the incident. Typically they are taping the episode or being taped. This stunning incident where Jeff Flake was taken to task for his position on the latest Supreme Court nominating process is almost epic and will go down in history as the consummate act of speaking truth to power. Whether the speaker was morally clean and above reproach is a question. It is also true, however, that taping something doesn’t make it dishonorable, and the Right stays awake at night trying to find ways to discredit its detractors and cover its flank.
As well, we must be careful and be willing to take responsibility for our actions. Each of us is either tearing or repairing our social fabric every day. These powermongers might have started the fight, but it is incumbent upon the Left to remember that we must have certain rules we willingly obey, lest we are claimed by “the dark side”, to use a Star Wars metaphor. There is a serious question about the wisdom and the utility of muckraking, rabble-rousing, and taking the powerful to task. Here is what my friend Robert L. Lloyd wisely counsels on this topic: “We must be careful to maintain ourselves as a country of laws or we become a country of men, and will be forced to survive the whims of men.” That sounds like something J. R. R. Tolkien would have written!
Typically, civil disobedience is meant to stymie government officials from either enforcing socially or economically unjust laws, or running interference for their corporate benefactors. Sometimes police officers who kill without justification are just being assholes; from a sociological perspective, however, shooting an unarmed person or beating a suspect is merely an example of an array of institutional actions that function to keep the two lower social classes in line so that the crony capitalists and the moneyed class can proceed unabated in their self-serving goals.
We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.
But perhaps civil disobedience can also serve to put government officials and powerful corporate/religious movers and shakers that their behavior is noticed, and that we the people are untying our hands and are cracking our knuckles, willing to fight for a more politically and economically just society. I am heartened by the fact that these left-wing wingnuts (as they are called) never bother plumbers, writers, and pilots while they are out eating, why? Because those folks don’t create ire and outrage in citizens the way a Ted Cruz, Betsy DeVos, or Sarah Huckabee Sanders do.
The Republicans in power and the rich and powerful (who are 80% conservative) often play dirty pool. It needs to be considered, because how the citizens (individually and collectively) respond is made more or less morally right in relation to that fact. Those on the Left have been taking shit, to use a colloquialism, from the Right for quite some time. Reagan began to dish out comeuppance (or political aggression, depending on how you view him) and Newt Gingrich took it to a new level. We endured George W. Bush and all that cronyism, incompetence, and power mongering. Catholic Priests have been abusing children for centuries and we still don’t have a grasp on it. Now we are faced with the world’s biggest asshole as POTUS.
In the face of this assault on good values such as civility, honor, respect, and equality, to do nothing, to feel no resentment or rage, to fail to stand and be counted might be worse than overreacting. We don’t want to dance to Trump’s tune, but we don’t necessarily want to be afraid to call a spade a spade, and stand up to powerful actors when their guard is down. Perhaps no place in the country should be safe zone for someone like Ted Cruz, whose stock in trade is lying, self-dealing, and manipulating, or Sarah Sanders, who is Donald Trump’s attack dog. Whether harassing the rich and powerful is fair or off-limits is an open question. Be careful of falling into the trap that those on the right side of the political/religious/economic spectrum often set: “I do this because I can, and if you call me on it, I raise my voice and claim that you are out of line.”
Whatever you do, do it with mindfulness and responsibility; life is not a series of opportunities for 15 minutes of fame. Keep your character and act with class while you are trying to do social and economic justice in society. Ω
Here are a few quotes about civil discourse, civil disobedience, and civic responsibility:
“Protests like these, that target people’s private lives, are wrong. They violate fundamental principles of civil disobedience, as understood by its most eminent practitioners and theorists. And they threaten the very norms of human decency that Trump and his supporters have done so much to erode.” ~ Peter Beinart
“Civil disobedience takes two forms. In one, the demonstrators disobey a law which they hold to be basically unjust or even unconstitutional, for example, civil rights demonstrators’ violation of southern segregation statutes. When the demonstrators were arrested for such violations they appealed their cases to higher courts in the hope of obtaining a declaration of unconstitutionality. This technique was very successful in eliminating legalized segregation throughout the United States.”
“Noam Chomsky, a most distinguished intellectual and moral dissident, once wrote the old motto about speaking truth to power is overrated. Power, he points out, quite probably knows the truth already, and is mainly interested in suppressing or limiting or distorting it.”
Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.
“One should ask oneself, is obedience a goal to which one strives? Is being quiet while being oppressed actually a virtue? Is speaking truth to power something that can be done successfully in a restaurant? What are we willing to let these guys get away with? Is the fact that the law is protective for those who hold institutional and individual power enough to justify copping a holier than thou attitude and taking one to task? What are those doing the harassing getting out of all this? These are significant questions that must be answered when deciding about the morality of harassing bad actors during a “time out.” ~ Jason Merchey
“Every actual state is corrupt. Good men must not obey laws too well.”
“America’s revolution was an intellectual one. It overthrew existing modes of thought, existing ideas about the way the world can look. Franklin, Adams, Paine, Jefferson, Madison: America was founded by intellectuals, by thinkers, by readers – by people who risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in order to build a better society by speaking truth to power. Independence, impoliteness, disagreement, dissent: these values are encoded in our national genetics.”
“Not only is disobedience to bad laws the right thing to do, but it is also your obligation.”
Paul Wellstone’s greatest contribution to the progressive cause wasn’t what he accomplished in the Senate, although he accomplished a lot. It’s the way he inspired others to take action, and taught them to be effective, and gave them the confidence to stand up and shout about what they believed in.
“Underlying the process that King called “self-purification” is a recognition—which King may have gleaned from Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian he admired—that everyone is corrupted by self-interest and the lust for power. People aren’t as morally pure as they believe themselves to be. Acknowledging that means accepting limits on the power we assume over others. It means resisting the seductive claim that because our motives are virtuous, we can take liberties we would never grant our adversaries. Because King took pains to ensure that his methods were consistent with his goals, he didn’t have to fear that others might employ those methods as well.” ~ Peter Beinart
“Moral courage: not afraid to say or do what you believe to be right.”
“There must be civil disobedience of laws which are contrary to human welfare. But there must be also an uncompromising practice of treating everyone, including the worst of our opponents, with all the respect and decency that he merits as a fellow human being. We can expect to face tear gas, clubs, and bullets. But we must refuse to hate, punish or kill in return.”
“There are times when we are called to duty;
Necessity dictates revolutionary action.
The time comes when we must stand and be counted;
Proactivity arises from the place of reaction.”
Here is another blog on a similar topic you might be interested in: “Americans Aren’t Stupid, We’re Lazy and Misled”
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32401725@N00/7222279764