Sunday, November 22, 2009

Civil Disobedience: A Principled Stand

When I was in high school, during my "neo-hippie" phase (i.e., the '90's), I did a few things to rile the establishment and question authority: underground newspapers, anti-war signs, infiltrating student government. One day, a few friends and I instigated a "sit-out" to protest the school's dress code, which prohibited shorts before a certain date, regardless of temperature (South Jersey can be pretty swampy early in the spring.)

I was well-meaning, but not learned in the ways of civil disobedience. Not all of the students who took part (and there were many; the police were called out at one point) were so principled; most saw it as an excuse to get out of class (which resulted in many "0" grades from teachers who decided to have "pop quizzes" during that time.) Anyway, instead of a principled fight, the students decided to use the restrooms, vending machines, etc., rendering the event less than meaningful, and we acted without honor and more like spoiled children. I could accept the failing grade, I could accept the posturing of the police...what I couldn't bear was the shame when a teacher pointed out my hypocrisy for utilizing the school's resources for personal gain. That day, I learned that civil disobedience is not supposed to be comfortable, or at least the comfort is not supposed to come from the opposition. More importantly, I learned that a principled stand is not possible to a parasite.

Fast forward to 2009. School protests have given way to the big time, tea parties, End-the-Fed rallies, and calls for civil disobedience. It's been a long time since Thoreau offered his resistance to Civil Government, but have we learned his lessons? Unlike the protesters of the WTO, or even the original Boston Tea Party, the current protesters are anything but disobedient, and plenty civil. Some even go so far as to...gosh...ask permission? Get permits? Why not just ask "please pretty please with sprinkles on top?" (That might be more effective than voting, at least...) At the tea party I attended, I was passing out fliers with information about the REAL Boston Tea Party, and asked a fellow Objectivist to help. He would not, saying that it sounded too "anarchistic." When I explained that it was not, but instead about civil disobedience, he still balked. He's not alone; there were many among the colonists who also thought that the original Party was an act of anarchy.

But as the saying goes, "well behaved women seldom make history."

That said, there is a flip side to civil disobedience, if one is going to make a principled stance. I present the following* posted in The Christian Science Monitor by Jim Sollisch, the creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising in Cleveland:


The author of this call-to-arms is lighting a brushfire under those with credit-card debt to STOP paying. Is it because the banks received taxpayer bailouts? Is it the bonuses? No. the reason is because the banks are "unscrupulous." Why? Because they arbitrarily raise their rates and charge late fees; in short, they're "loan sharks." Nevermind that these borrowers took on the loans, and the risk, voluntarily. The plan is offered as "our bailout."

Who is this guy to say this? "Full disclosure: As you might have guessed, I'm not a lawyer. I don't know what kind of trouble you can get in for refusing to pay your credit-card bill. I do know that the idea of consumers revolting over unfair practices is as old as America itself."

This is the reason one needs to be mindful of their allies...This is NOT an example of a principled Civil Disobedience. The issue is clouded somewhat here, being that the banks long-involvement with the Fed, which was manipulated by the government from the start. And, of course, the banks being nationalized by Big Brother threatens the sanctity of the original loans. This is not the way to do it, however. There is a difference between making a legitimate stand and becoming just another thug in a gang war. Because of the "coercion" involved in our economy, there is the possibility that even honorable people will be forced to do unscrupulous things; "morality ends where a gun begins." This was illustrated by the secret deals Hank Reardon had to make in Atlas Shrugged. It's was led a philosopher to become a pirate. However, that's not the whole story.

It needs to be remembered that Reardon and Ragnar both stayed true to their principles. They only claimed what was wrongfully taken; even Ragnar took pains not to kill or take anything that wasn't originally stolen, he was a principled "Robin Hood." The point of civil disobedience is to not do harm to the innocent, or "pass the buck." As stated on the current wiki page, "the driving idea behind the essay was that of self-reliance, and also how one is in morally good standing as long as one can "get off another man's back"; so one does not necessarily have to physically fight the government, but one must not support it or have it support one (if one is against it)." Or, as another commentator puts it, "advocating individuals to not pay their legally incurred credit card debts, Jim, is nothing other than advocating being a deadbeat, a credit risk, and a fool. I recommend you re-read Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience and then apply Thoreau’s recommendations regarding civil disobedience where they should be applied, against the government, not private companies which deemed you a creditworthy risk when you needed some extra cash."
(This blogger maybe should have added that though the banks are not "private" businesses anymore, they were when the loans were taken out.)

A call to action like this is a wake-up call to anyone considering engaging in acts of civil disobedience today, especially when the problems today involve a financial crisis. Our money and sense of self-worth are so tied up together, it can be easy to be tempted to rationalize our situations in ways that are less than honorable. I know the temptation, believe me. I'm as angry about the bailouts as everyone else, and struggling as well. But my experience in high school keeps me in check. Unfortunately, guys like Jim Sollisch are making their voices available, and we have to compete with that.

Sollisch says, "I do know that the idea of consumers revolting over unfair practices is as old as America itself." THIS, I submit, is WHY we need to know the details of our country's history, such as Shays's Rebellion, The Whiskey Rebellion, The Boston Tea Party, the Stamp Act, etc. Sollisch is right; revolts ARE as old as America itself. But it's not being concrete-bound to say the "devil's in the details," not when the slopes are this slippery.

*Hat tip to Billy Beck.

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