During the Bush era, a lot of Progressives engaged in faux civil disobedience. They marched and screamed, periodically hanged or burned Bush effigies, and even allowed gay marriage, secure in the knowledge that they’d suffer virtually no consequences. Actual vandalism might get imprisonment or a fine, but everything else allowed them to sleep in the beds at night, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow’s papers and news magazines would applaud their “heroic” histrionics. Real civil disobedience is a little different, because it contemplates willingly accepting the real consequences meted about by a manifestly unjust government.
In the middle of the 19th Century, Henry David Thoreau articulated the notion of civil disobedience. He didn’t create it, because people have always engaged in it, but it was he who most clearly stated what constitutes civil disobedience.
Thoreau’s landmark treatise on civil disobedience was rooted in his opposition to both the Mexican-American War and slavery. When the taxman came to collect his unpaid taxes, Thoreau refused to pay on the ground that he would not financially support a government that engaged in illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional activity. He was eventually jailed — a risk he knew he ran — although he spent only one night in jail before a relative paid the taxes so as to get him released. Upon his release, Thoreau penned his magnum opus, which was finally published in 1849.
I had forgotten until I re-read it today how turgid and unstructured Thoreau’s essay is but, if one has patience, it still offers a perfect definition of true civil disobedience. Here are a few choice paragraphs:
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it. For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State.
Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live?
The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
The primary principle animating civil disobedience is that it’s not just about violating a law because you’re a law-breaker (e.g, an armed robber) or because you think you can get away without punishment. Indeed, civil disobedience demands punishment as a way of making the point that the law you are disobeying is an unjust or unconstitutional law. As Thoreau said in one of his few flights of pithiness, “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Although I doubt Gandhi studied Thoreau, he too understood that the only way to fight injustice was for the just man willingly to violate the law so as to expose that injustice to the world.
But…. (And there’s always a but.)
Many people will contemplate civil disobedience when the price is imprisonment or loss of worldly goods. In its purest form, though, civil disobedience demands that those opposing injustice willingly throw themselves into the flames to make their point. Gandhi understood this. He didn’t personally have to face those flames, but he was perfectly willing to advise the Jews under Nazi control to do so:
Can the Jews resist this organised and shameless persecution? Is there a way to preserve their self-respect, and not to feel helpless, neglected and forlorn? I submit there is. No person who has faith in a living God need feel helpless or forlorn. Jehovah of the Jews is a God more personal than the God of the Christians, the Mussalmans or the Hindus, though as a matter of fact in essence, He is common to all and one without a second and beyond description. But as the Jews attribute personality to God and believe that He rules every action of theirs, they ought not to feel helpless. If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest gentile German may, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this, I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance but would have confidence that in the end the rest are bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can. Indeed, even if Britain, France and America were to declare hostilities against Germany, they can bring no inner joy, no inner strength. The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.
(Interestingly, in the same letter, Gandhi says that it was reasonable for the Arabs who resist the Jews in Palestine to use violence against them. Why Arabs got to resist and Jews didn’t is a distinction he kept to himself. Gandhi also claimed, essentially, that some of his best friends from South Africa were Jews, a statement that make a lot of sense when one considers that the love of his life was a Jewish man he met in South Africa. But back to the main point.)
The just principle at issue now is the Second Amendment. Although Progressives view the Constitution as an ugly relic that should be destroyed, it hasn’t yet been destroyed. Unlike the various federal statutes which impose laws on the people of this land, the Constitution imposes its restrictions on the federal government itself.
Pertinent to this post, the Second Amendment is still in effect and it bans the federal government from seizing citizens’ guns:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
As I well know, having used the argument myself in my Leftist past, Progressives contend that the right to bear arms is predicated upon a well-regulated militia. That is, they think that the militia must first be formally created and that only those who actively participate in the militia may then bear arms. That chronology is bass ackwards. The Founders understood that a militia can only exist in the second instance if the citizens are armed in the first. The Second Amendment should rightly be read to mean that, in order that a militia may instantly be assembled at times of need, citizens must be armed so that, when duty calls, they can assemble. The proper order, then, is arms first, then a militia as needed; rather than (as Progressives try to argue) a militia first, then arms as needed.
The above isn’t just me speaking. The Founders and their generation were extremely clear about the Second Amendment’s purpose:
The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government. -Thomas Jefferson
Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth and keystone under independence … From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences, and tendencies prove that to insure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable . . . the very atmosphere of firearms everywhere restrains evil interference – they deserve a place of honor with all that is good. -George Washington
The Constitution shall never be construed….to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms. -Samuel Adams
Right now, the Obama administration is actively contemplating ways and means to undercut or circumvent the Second Amendment. This is what has people thinking about civil disobedience.
When any branch of American government seeks to act in a way that exceeds its powers, its actions are void ab initio. That is, at no time is it acting under color of law, and nothing it does in pursuit of its wrongful conduct has any validity. This is where civil disobedience comes in: we as citizens cannot be constrained to follow laws that aren’t laws at all but are, instead, illegal or unconstitutional exercises of government power. Americans have always understood this notion, as it is a predicate to America’s very existence as an independent nation:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The principle of civil disobedience is clear. The reality is hard. Even a government in the wrong — indeed, especially a government in the wrong — has power, vast power. This means that the citizen who opposes the government’s wrongful acts will find himself facing fines, imprisonment, or even death. Only if sufficient numbers of citizens gather together to oppose government overreach — or to shock the conscience of those who didn’t care or who agreed with the government — will government be forced to back down.
The number of citizens willing to engage in civil disobedience is going to decrease dramatically when life and death are on the line. A lot of us are sheeple — we approve of things in principle, but prefer other people to do the dirty work. Still, when people are pushed too far, they will act, even if death awaits. Significantly, people are willing to risk death if they have a fighting chance, rather like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis. Those fighters died, but they died with their boots on and they took a lot of Nazis with them. Indeed, those ragged, starved, under-armed Jews forced the Nazis into some of the hardest fighter they experienced during the war. It took the Nazis almost a month to defeat the uprising, and they did so only by systematically destroying the ghetto itself.
On the internet, more and more Americans are expressing a belief that they have the right — indeed, the obligation — to “just say no” when the government gun collector comes knocking at their door. The most carefully thought out expression that I’ve seen of this belief comes from the D.C. Clothesline. I include a short excerpt here, but you should read the whole thing:
Our founders did not want a “democracy” for they feared a true democracy was just as dangerous as a monarchy. The founders were highly educated people who were experienced in defending themselves against tyranny. They understood that the constitution could protect the people by limiting the power of anyone to work outside of it much better than a pure system of popularity. A system of checks and balances was set up to help limit corruption of government and also the potential for an “immoral majority” developing within the American People. We have forgotten in this country that we are ultimately ruled by a constitution.
Just because a majority of people may support certain ideas it does not mean that those ideas are just. In simple terms, just because most Americans love our president and voted for him, it does not mean that he has the power to go against our constitutional rights.
Next I’d like to review the text of the second amendment. It is very clear. This is the law of this land. So when Senator Feinstein or President Obama talk about taking your guns, you need to think about something. Are they honoring their sworn oath to uphold the constitution?
I could find hundreds of quotes like these. This country was built on the right to bear arms. It was built on the rights of an individual to bear arms, regardless of what his government or neighbor happened to think. This is crystal clear. Ironically the people who voice their opinions against this right have their free speech protected by your guns. Without guns in this country, all other amendments become null and void, simply because “We the People” will lose our power of enforcement./strong>
We need to keep this in mind as our “representatives” try to push gun bans. I don’t care if 99% of people are in support of gun bans (which is far from the case), it is a violation of our constitutional rights, plain and simple.
Bob Owens is a man with whom I’ve had the pleasure corresponding for several years in the context of an internet group. I can therefore tell you that he’s extremely level-headed, averse to conspiracy thinking, knowledgeable, and very, very smart. He too believes, as does D.C. Clothesline, that Americans will not easily give up their weapons. More than that, he envisions a frightening scenario of armed insurrection sweeping across vast swathes of the United States:
Tens of millions of Americans will refuse to comply with an order that is clearly a violation of the explicit intent of the Second Amendment. Among the most ardent opposing these measures will be military veterans, active duty servicemen, and local law enforcement officers. Many of these individuals will refuse to carry out what they view as Constitutionally illegal orders. Perhaps 40-50 million citizens will view such a law as treason. Perhaps ten percent of those, 4-5 million, would support a rebellion in some way, and maybe 40,000-100,000 Americans will form small independently-functioning active resistance cells, or become lone-wolves.
They will be leaderless, stateless, difficult to track, and considering the number of military veterans that would likely be among their number, extremely skilled at sabotage, assassination, and ambush.
After a number of carefully-planned, highly-publicized, and successful raids by the government, one or more will invariably end “badly.” Whether innocents are gunned down, a city block is burned to ash, or especially fierce resistance leads to a disastrously failed raid doesn’t particularly matter. What matters is that when illusion of the government’s invincibility and infallibility is broken, the hunters will become the hunted.
(Read the rest here.) In other words, America will have her own Warsaw Ghetto uprising, except this time the freedom fighters will start off well-armed. I suspect, too, that many in the National Guard, Police force, and even the military will be more sympathetic to those defending the Constitution than to fighting for a government seeking to destroy that unique contract between government and citizen.
Everything that I’ve written above boils down to a few very simple concepts: The Constitution is still a binding document putting limitations on government power. The Second Amendment mandates that the government may not disarm its citizens. If the Obama administration succeeds in enacting legislation that authorizes government agencies to disarm its citizens, we can expect to see civil disobedience in the form of armed resistance to any confiscatory acts on the government’s part. Unlike the German Jews who were unarmed (the Nazis instantly confiscated people’s guns upon assuming power), these Americans are armed and are willing to take on a fight that sees them winning or dying with their boots on.
I wonder if the Progressives in the Obama administration, in Congress, and in the media fully understand that those American citizens who believe in the Constitution and, specifically, in the rights granted to them under the Second Amendment, will not go quietly into the night. The government, which currently has the biggest guns of all, would probably win this fight but it’s not a fight it should willingly pick as it could well destroy America completely.
Thinking about it, I think what will happen is peaceful civil disobedience. People will simply hide their guns or, when confronted, refuse to turn them over. In other words, they’ll do what Thoreau did: go to jail. Enough people doing that and (a) the system will become dysfunctional and (b) people, especially Progressives and other media types, will have to take a long, hard look at the Second Amendment and what it means. My sincere, devout hope is that armed resistance is the very, very last resort, not the first resort.
I’ll leave you with the letter a former Marine corporal wrote to Dianne Feinstein when he heard about her plans to disarm Americans (h/t The Mellow Jihadi):
Senator Dianne Feinstein,
I will not register my weapons should this bill be passed, as I do not believe it is the government’s right to know what I own. Nor do I think it prudent to tell you what I own so that it may be taken from me by a group of people who enjoy armed protection yet decry me having the same a crime. You ma’am have overstepped a line that is not your domain. I am a Marine Corps Veteran of 8 years, and I will not have some woman who proclaims the evil of an inanimate object, yet carries one, tell me I may not have one.
I am not your subject. I am the man who keeps you free. I am not your servant. I am the person whom you serve. I am not your peasant. I am the flesh and blood of America.
I am the man who fought for my country. I am the man who learned. I am an American. You will not tell me that I must register my semi-automatic AR-15 because of the actions of some evil man.
I will not be disarmed to suit the fear that has been established by the media and your misinformation campaign against the American public.
We, the people, deserve better than you.
Cpl, United States Marine Corps