Civil Disobedience is powerful because those engaged it in willingly accept the penalties the law imposes. That’s not how Proggies play the game, though.
About a year into my “career” as a blogger, the debate about the Solomon Amendment got me thinking about civil disobedience and the Proggie habit of eating its cake and having it. I think it’s worth quoting that old post in full:
The current debate [current, that is, in December 2005] about the Solomon Amendment, which is now being played out in the Supreme Court in the case of Rumsfeld v. F.A.I.R., had me thinking about modern civil disobedience. To catch you up, the Solomon Amendment, which was passed in the early 1990s, states that in order to receive Federal funding universities must allow military recruiters to have equal access to their campuses, along with other recruiters. If one branch of the campus refuses this access, the Federal government, in theory, is supposed to pull the entire financial plug on the University.
In recent years, certain law schools, dismayed by the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy — which, I hasten to add, is the law of the land — have refused to allow military recruiters equal and convenient access to their student populations. Having allowed their law schools to take this stand, the relevant universities are now quite upset that the government wants to deny funding, and they have attacked the Solomon Amendment. In other words, the Universities find it just horrible that, having taken a stand against a valid law with which they disagree (the “Don’t Ask” policy), they’re now being forced to take the consequence (giving up money).
This scenario made me think about civil disobedience, which used to mean something very specific. Although civil disobedience has always been around, it was Henry David Thoreau, in the mid-19th Century, who best articulated the doctrine we now recognize.
Thoreau objected to a poll tax, because he felt the money was being improperly spent to support slavery and the war with Mexico. Rather than paying the tax, he took a principled stand, refused to pay the tax, and went to prison. His single night in jail [before his friends bailed him out] inspired him to write an essay about a citizen’s obligation to strike out against unjust laws — and to demonstrate the law’s invalidity through each citizen’s personal martyrdom.
In his essay, Thoreau ruminated about irritating laws versus unjust laws, and about vehicles for protesting the latter (e.g., the ballot box or a refusal to comply with an unjust law or a tax that supports something unjust). Significantly, Thoreau felt that such a principled stand gained weight from an attendant sacrifice, which is usually imprisonment:
Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less despondent spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her–the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor. [Emphasis mine.]
The Twentieth Century saw two men, on different continents, who understood that, when a government acts unjustly, the strongest protest is to put yourself in the path of that unjust law, and have yourself punished: Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Had each not been willing to accept imprisonment, thereby demonstrating the manifest unfairness and immorality of the laws against which each struggled, neither would have even appeared as a footnote in the history books.
Nowadays, though, people break laws with impunity and to applause. I was most strongly reminded of this when San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, in February 2004, suddenly announced that he was going to ignore California’s laws against same sex marriage, and have the City issue marriage licenses to all gay couples desiring them.
Newsom was a fifteen minute wonder. The Press oooh’ed and aaah’ed about his bravery. But, really, what was so brave? He wasn’t running any risks politically in San Francisco, where a critical mass of voters approve his step. He wasn’t running any risk of humiliation or ostracism, because he became the media’s darling. No one even mentioned prosecuting him for breaking the law, or impeaching him for violating his official obligations. It was a media stunt, but it wasn’t civil disobedience, because we didn’t get the spectacle of a righteous man felled by an unjust government.
The situation is the same with the various universities’ stand on the Solomon Amendment. If the Universities (and their faculty and staff) really wanted to draw attention to the problems with Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, they’d take the financial hit, and make themselves martyrs to the cause. Indeed, those liberal university professors could sacrifice their six digit salaries and three day work weeks to help the universities run without help from the federal trough.
That kind of public spectacle, that martyrdom to “tyranny,” would be effective, and would put umph behind the current preening. As it is, though, they want it all: they want to violate a U.S. law, but God forbid they should be denied access to U.S. money. This isn’t principled at all. This is sheer opportunism, without either moral and practical weight.
That’s what I wrote back in 2005. It’s relevant today because of the Proggie’s horrified reaction to the fact that a Missouri school district marked as truant those students who skipped class to attend an anti-gun protest: [Read more…]