Dissent is The Mother of Democracy
by Steve Greaves
April 21, 2003
"Those who profess to favor freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
-- Frederick Douglass, African-American abolitionist
Last month a friend (I’ll call her L) and I sat in a Berkeley café discussing anti-war demonstrations in the city. She claimed opposition to war on Iraq, yet was offended by protestors blocking traffic or building entrances. “This doesn’t help make me an ally. I mean people have a right to get to where they’re going, be it to work, shopping, or taking their kid to a hospital.”
Do they have a greater right to these things than the Iraqi people have to not being bombed? I asked. I strained to link her SUV drivers to history.
“Not a greater right,” she said, but protest strategists “ought to avoid alienating potential allies.”
“Movement tactics aren’t designed to comfort potential supporters,” I tried to say, unable to dislodge her from her uneasy mood of conflicting loyalties.
So, L, this is for you. History 1A: How Democracy Emerges -- which (you maybe noticed) has yet to emerge much for most Americans. (In fact, it’s sinking backward lately, with growing nastiness, into the sludge of Euro-Americentrism)
Democracy evolves in the teeth of official violence, and over the angry roars of the inconvenienced. Fed up with immoral laws and rulers with vicious policies, courageous and reasonable people band together to demand change. Sometimes this requires in-your-face confrontations, even breaking unjust laws or other laws that may or may not pertain directly to the cause being advocated. Sometimes protestors know they may lose their lives, but they make the sacrifice with open eyes and hearts and free minds.
This is, in part, how the United States was formed. It’s why the Bill of Rights and the Amendment process were enshrined in the Constitution, affirming our multiplicity of unalienable rights. (Let’s not forget the Iroquois Confederation of Nations showed the so-called Founding Fathers a working democratic federation with balance of powers within and among nations, for which ideas the white patriarchs thanked the aboriginal geniuses by slaughtering them and hiding their history, including the central leadership of women and the rights of children and animals -- too many paradigm shifts. . .)
It’s how slavery was overcome, through millions of kidnapped Africans enduring then breaking out of the systematic race-purist sadism of European-American gentility -- resisting, for the sake of future generations, and daring to incarnate the ideal, the truth of equality, with or without whites.
It is how labor unions were forged, in the crucible of state terrorism against men, women and children pressing the U.S. and state governments for decent treatment at the hands of employers. It’s how the right to safe working conditions and the 40-hour work-week were gradually, painstakingly secured. Through decades of arbitrary governmental violence meted on brave souls intent on justice and equal protection of the laws, facing heavily-armed private armies of thugs and state and federal troops under the command of ethically-challenged politicians.
It’s how child labor was ended, how deadly practices of meat-packing and other industries were outlawed (which – by the way -- are again becoming deadly, due to corporate lying and regulatory cutbacks).
It is how women got the vote. Not because men one day woke up and all agreed, hey wouldn’t it be swell if the ladies voted with us, maybe brought along fresh-baked pies to the polls? No, but because women as a class had been ideologically and politically crushed for centuries, yet a slowly growing minority of bold, articulate women risked public calumny and police nightsticks by gathering, organizing, marching, AND DISRUPTING city hall meetings, downtown traffic, patriarchal households, churches and other habitual comfort zones of elitist arrogance and deceit.
The American Indian Movement, the Civil Rights movement, the gay and lesbian and transgender rights movement, the women’s “take back the night” movement, the movements for the rights of the physically handicapped and the mentally ill – all risked much to secure unalienable rights that the federal government had denied them. Many liberals sweetly assert support of such “disadvantaged minorities,” but too few understand what members of these communities have had to live through – not only before finally winning public legitimacy, but even now, today, in our yet-unrealized democracy.
Disruptive dissent is the foundation of modern democracy. This fact should be emblazoned on every high school’s front doors. But teachers are seldom taught how, or permitted, to “teach” in non-authoritarian ways. And curricula are designed increasingly by big corporations.
Strikes, blockades, sit-ins, union organizing, boycotts, rallies – these are basic tools of democracy. Democracy is a process. It is democratizing, a collective, active verb. As long as injustice is perpetrated by governments, democracy is in the making, a struggle. It is people combining to compel government to serve fundamental needs and to protect fundamental rights. Government in the hands of tyrants is why the “rule of law” was invented. The invention is no magic. It’s a painful medicine for a pernicious sickness.
We can drive to jobs where we are treated decently, we can take our kids to hospitals where hygiene and kindness are expected, only because generations of ancestors fought for our rights to these things.
They weren’t comfortable fighting, so others’ comfort wasn’t foremost in their minds. But generally they adopted nonviolent tactics, which, as we saw in the South, didn’t stop authorities from violently attacking them. The view on television of police beating nonviolent demonstrators, setting vicious dogs and fire hoses on them, shocked the nation. Public opinion shamed Southern leaders, along with President Eisenhower sending federal troops against the Jim Crow Southern state leaders. Television coverage of the Vietnam War, and of growing protests, plus 58,000 American soldiers killed for no clear national security purpose equaled the war’s end, the pullout, “the defeat” as reactionaries put it.
Protestors occupied streets, corporate and governmental buildings and administration offices to force serious negotiation by officials. Some selectively destroyed property, from weapons of mass destruction to draft cards. Many citizens complained about all these forms of blatant, public disruption of customary patterns of social, political, economic and cultural norms, relations and roles, blaming protestors for the civil unrest. But the protestors were pointing to profound inequities and systems of deceit and self-delusion by which society had been run for decades, even centuries. And, with widespread media coverage, such protests exposed the undemocratic nature of granting legitimacy only to those with harsher weapons at their beck and call. More people witnessing the protests on TV began identifying with the ordinary lives and humbler ambitions of the protestors, who simply insisted on everyone’s right to live decently amid a variety of communities of interest and passion without exploiting others. But Civil Rights and Vietnam taught the plutocrats Leni Riefenstahl’s lesson, media power.
From the divine right of kings to the sovereignty of the people. From empires and coliseums run by brutal dictators – with circuses of slaves and gladiators from conquered masses to serve and mesmerize the middle classes -- to democracies, in which all people see and are seen with unalienable human rights – a history of moral, intellectual and political progress that has, every step of the way, demanded civil disobedience against cruel laws privileging the few. Tamerlane made pyramids of dismembered bodies. The Pentagon hides its atrocities in secret graves fogged with media lies about “exporting democracy.”
Persistent sacrifice on the part of millions of unsung heroes in every arena, through committed struggle of nonviolent resistance to tyranny, has led, again and again, to shifts in public opinion that shame rulers into conceding rights to those demonstrating or to those on whose behalf demonstrators risk jail, scorn, police brutality and disrespect of their lives as cheaper than property.
It is no coincidence that the “war on terrorism” was declared by the one government most expert in training state terrorists. One by one, Third World nations whose dictators were U.S. puppets have been declaring independence. The real terror the U.S. government most fears – especially the executive branch – is the active participation of its citizens in taking firm hold of the machinery of government. It is the “terror” of an informed and free citizenry dismantling the “secret government” of mega-corporate plutocrats who have perverted the legislative and regulatory processes into “guaranteed socialism for the rich,” and the economy into capitalism for the poor. Indecent lawyers make indecent laws.
Knowing the power of informed citizens cooperating across ideological borders, the feds (really, unelected plutocrats behind them) suppressed coverage of the Persian Gulf War, and today have reporters all in bed with generals. If we don’t know what’s really going on, then we can’t build democracy, which is open government and equitable sharing of resources and power, across borders.
Dissent is a cultural necessity for humankind to survive. Otherwise, the ruthlessly acquisitive elite, with its DemoPublican Emperor, will trick us into giving up our rights for the televised circus of safety. After the 1950s they gave white, upward-mobile America COINTELPRO. It didn’t make America safer, because it not only targeted black leaders for assassination and defamation, but also siphoned drugs and violence into American inner cities. Now they’ve handed us, USA PATRIOT Act. Déjà vu.
Democracy is carved out of protests that terrify the abusively rich and inconvenience those who’ve grown complacent about our relatively privileged lives by ignoring how our liberties are enjoyed, in part, due to others’ oppression, here and abroad.
In recent decades, we have heard, and it’s been documented, that the rich have been getting obscenely richer increasingly at the expense of all of us.
The World Trade Center massacre was a direct result of this fact of late capitalism that is no longer capitalism but e-mobile finance gangsterism. The massacre -- 3,000 plus Americans (measured against millions in Latin America, Asia, Africa?) -- was a long time coming. American domination of Third World nations -- how many invasions, how many overthrows of legitimate democracies, how many installations of U.S.-trained sadists, how many ecological disasters, how many billions extracted with cagey IMF/World Bank loans since 1945? -- American racist contempt of “underdeveloped”, then “developing”, then “Third World” nations, “the South,” and Islam and Arab alike – built up years of festering resentments. Even our allies shake their heads at our mono-lingual tunnel vision.
So, we got the wake-up call to stop assuming our liberties can stand in any way apart from the rights to dignity and freedom of our brothers and sisters in other nations. In a global economy we have ethical duties to everyone on Earth. If the messengers delivering the call were insane, it’s only because they were answering the call of those who brought the world Hiroshima and agent orange.
We all must protest our government’s openly imperialist bullying of weaker nations and flouting of international laws. In Iraq and Palestine (by proxy) it is stealing safety from their children by stealing health and education from ours, burying their respective futures in a calculated manufacture of ignorance and despair. One couldn’t breed suicide bombers any faster if one tried.
CIA researchers last year drew a similar conclusion, implying that invading Iraq would multiply enlistees for Osama bin Laden. Bush ignored the CIA.
It’s almost as if the stolen presidency were designed to draw terrorist attacks upon U.S. citizens – to let Bush declare martial law with public approval and fully suspend the Constitution. The insidiously totalitarian bills, executive orders and directives streaming from the White House and Justice Department since mere weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, trigger such fantasies repeatedly.
Yes, it’s a dark vision. But it is irresponsible to turn away from it in favor of a lighter future. “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Freethinkers in the vastly creative and promising Weimar Republic ignored the signs of their times. And look where it got them. Sixty million dead for what. Lately the U.S. presidency has been mimicking Hitler’s constitutional dictatorship.
“The end justifies the means.” If the end is domination of finite resources in a world of increasingly autonomous states and an increasingly aware citizenry, then the means must be to install the opposite – subordinate regimes abroad and a passively, and aggressively righteously, compliant populace at home. The means has been in the works for years, since World War II, when the U.S. secret service enlisted Nazi Holocaust terrorists to serve its Cold War ends. Could Bush’s cabinet be actively preparing for such an option? The “anti-terrorist” legislation under Clinton’s regime certainly helped soften Americans for the Patriot Act, etc.
It’s up to protestors to not let this happen, by annoying as many people as possible. Hopefully, the smart ones will get the point and spread the word.
Well, thanks, L, for your reasonable questions nagging at my conscience. It’s way too late now for cozy chats in neighborhood cafes about demonstrations across the Bay. I should have known better.
Thirty-six years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared (“Beyond Vietnam”): “These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
Exactly one year later, on April 4, 1968, King was murdered.
Coincidence? Fear works.
But love is the greater power. That’s what dissent means.
Like Douglass, King knew this.
Steve Greaves is a single dad, school teacher, counselor, poet and volunteer at the Social Justice Center of Marin (Marin County, California). He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to David Glick for editorial suggestions. – SG