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March 17, 2003

This never happens. I agree with the overall thrust of a piece by right-wing antiwar libertarian Justin Raimondo about once in a blue moon. Color the moon blue tonight. Jim Henley links to an outstanding Raimondo piece warning against the temptations of antiwar “direct action.” Understand that Raimondo has been an absolutely relentless critic of this drive to war. But, addressing various calls for invading Air Force bases, stopping traffic, “general strikes,” and other theatrical acts, he observes:
The “direct action” faction would put the broad antiwar movement directly in the crosshairs of the state apparatus. Their suicidal actions could be the catalyst that unleashes a tsunami of repression unlike any seen in this country since World War I. Open authoritarians like David Horowitz, who accused the hundreds of thousands of antiwar marchers in this country of being “Communists guilty of “sedition” are licking their chops, gleeful at the opportunity to call for jailing their political opponents—all in the name of defending “freedom,” of course.

Secondly, the direct-actionist approach will alienate most everyone. From an antiwar point of view, it was utterly pointless to go into downtown San Francisco and tie up traffic for hours, making everyone late. Working class people, stuck in traffic, had plenty of time to brood on the question of what makes people behave like total jerks. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the most antiwar region of the country, most didn’t mistake the antiwar cause for its ostensible representatives. Elsewhere, however, enraged commuters may perhaps be forgiven if their support for the war is emboldened.

Another big problem with the direct-actionist panacea is that it is bound to be a complete flop. The plan is, essentially, to call for a general strike that will bring the country to a screeching halt. As the [Washington] Post reports:

“The day—or days—after war begins could see the largest coordinated displays of civil disobedience in the United States since the civil rights era. Protesters around the country plan on blockading avenues, stopping traffic and generally disrupting business as usual.”

Generals are always fighting the last war, and that goes for the direct-actionists in the peace camp as well. But the grandiose comparison to the civil rights movement is absurd. The position of the antiwar movement in this country is in no way analogous to that of blacks in the South who had to live under Jim Crow. In the latter case, what Americans saw on television were searing images of African-Americans being humiliated and spat upon for trying to get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. In the case of the former, however, they will see a bunch of spoiled children sitting down in the middle of traffic and throwing a public tantrum.

As David Neiwert keeps documenting, several of the preconditions for a distinctly American fascism have in fact been put in place—but by no means all of them, and there are still a lot more of us than there are of them. (“Us” meaning “people who basically believe in pluralism and fair play,” a larger group than “people who suspect this war is nuts.”) Let’s not make it easy for the authoritarians.

PS: Raimondo’s advice is specifically for antiwar Americans at this historical moment. He has nothing to say to, for instance, Brits contemplating a “general strike,” nor do I. Different country, different context. One of the besetting sins of American progressives is a tendency to wish for a more European politics, rather than buckling down to deal with the country we’ve got. [09:46 PM]

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Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on This never happens.:

Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 04:14 AM:

Yes, different country, different situation. Stopping the trains carrying military material has astonishingly had a wide popular support in Italy. Passengers stopped at stations, the kind that would rant and rave at a regular strike, were uniformly supportive.

And yet, one cannot avoid struggle because repression would follow. Time it was when people knew they risked jail or even death by striking, and they were called scum and subversives, and they did it anyway, and they gained much that we now enjoy in the way of rights. I understand the need not to alienate public opinion, it's serious and reasonable, but one has to think carefully were to set the bar. Even marching can alienate some people. And those in favor usually don't speak up.

Doing nothing, on the other hand, will leave all the timid opposers, those who think they are alone in being discontent, isolated and demoralized. I can testify that the display of the peace flags here in Italy has been incredibly emboldening, allowing everybody to see directely and evidently all around them in their towns that they are indeed not alone. But yes, it is a different situation.

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 07:03 AM:

The only reason for any political action, particularly direct or mass action, is because you think it will help your cause, either by building support or making it difficult for your opponents to do what they wish to do with the powers at their command.

At least in the US, most of the direct action that people are contemplating won't accomplish the former: Raimondo is right, I think. And it certainly can't do the latter.

It's all about persuasion, and my gut sense of it right now is that large, peaceful gatherings would be much more persuasive to the undecided than a lot of showily theatrical, ultimately egotistical circus stunts. Most of the contemplated ones I'm hearing about aren't being designed with persuasive effectiveness in mind: they're designed to act as public affirmations of the moral virtue that the protester confers upon himself.

Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 07:14 AM:

Anna, "direct action" that alienates people currently opposed to or doubtful about the war and gives Ashcroft & Co. the excuse they want for repression, and timidly doing nothing, are not the only options. Raimondo suggests a number of possibilities--such as challenging the pro-war folks to a series of town hall debates, a 21st-century version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Confront them with the unanswered questions about this war, and do it in the full view of the American people.

Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 08:29 AM:

"Town hall debates" won't work with people that are opposed to the very concept of polite rational discourse. Just listen to talk radio.

(And, no, I don't have a better idea.)

Timothy Burke ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 08:59 AM:

It's not the dittoheads and talk radio ranters we're trying to move. It's the fearful soccer mom, the apolitical but nervous investor, the pragmatist independent, the anxious libertarian, all the people who might have some sense of "swing" on the war. The surest way to get them to swing solidly to Bush is to make the antiwar movement the issue instead of the war, and the surest way to do that is the kind of narcissistic direct action that Raimondo rightfully criticizes.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 10:15 AM:

I've long thought that what the anti-administration cause needs is someone who can come across like Mr. Rogers - nicely dressed, neatly groomed, obviously part of the middle class, able to speak with sincere love of America, and speaking in a language familiar to the middle and working classes. My parents remark that while they didn't need the visual lessons of the civil rights protests of hte '50s and '60 - both come from families with anti-racist heritages - among their neighbors and colleagues, the fact that these obviously nice-looking young black men and women were out in their Sunday best contrasted sharply with the sweaty violent cops attacking them.

There's tremendous tactical advantage in presenting yourself as someone who shares the aspirations of the audience, who clearly agrees that they are right to value their country and its mythology, and presenting your case in terms of that. It's not the only thing that must be done, but these days it seems to be seldom done at all.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 12:19 PM:

Another agreement with Raimondo. Libertarians, assholes though they often are, can be very right-on on civil rights issues, and the civil right at issue here is my right not to participate in protests.

I may agree with the protesters about the substantive issue. (In fact I do.) We can discuss whether it's important enough to interrupt my regular life for. But whether I do so or not should be my decision, not theirs. If they block my path, or my car's path, they're not letting me decide.

By the same token I oppose sit-ins and building occupations and other such jolly techniques of the Vietnam days. (I agreed with the protesters about that war, too.)

Boycotts and picket lines are an entirely different matter. There, bystanders have a free choice of whether to participate and abide. I often do.

1960s civil rights lunch-counter sit-ins were, I think, also a different matter. If I understand the purpose of these correctly, if the management had been willing to serve the sitters-in, they would have eaten up, paid, and gone away, and only returned individually when they felt like having lunch. It was the refusal to serve customers that generated the sit-in.

Scott B ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 01:51 PM:

My idea of direct action: Vote the bastards out in '04. Don't vote Green, vote anti-GOP.

Debbie Notkin ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 01:59 PM:

Without taking a position either way on Raimondo's article and the role of direct action (I'm conflicted here), I do want to say that the Civil Rights movement is neither the appropriate analogy nor the most recent comparison.

What should be used as a standard of comparison is the direct action component of the anti-Vietnam War movement. All the things that Raimondo is saying here were said then, and they were all valid: most direct action _does_ alienate the people who are inconvenienced; it _does_ give the government more power to use against legal demonstrators; etc.

However, it is my personal historical sense that the direct action component of the anti-Vietnam War movement was, in the end, a significant positive factor in ending the war and redirecting (some) national policies, as well as terminating the Nixon presidency.

Once again, I'm the voice for valuing a variety of voices, approaches, and perspectives, and for not dismissing approaches simply because some of their consequences will be negative.

Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 03:03 PM:

Debbie Notkin states Once again, I'm the voice for valuing a variety of voices, approaches, and perspectives, and for not dismissing approaches simply because some of their consequences will be negative.

Personally, I'm all for dismissing actions whose conseqences will be negative.

If my goal is to open up a discussion with undecided parties, and convince them of my viewpoint, and somebody who is allegedly from my party smashes the windows of their shop, or vandalizes their property, or makes them late for work, that yahoo's exercising of their right to dissent has just made my job that much more difficult. If the person I'm trying to engage is even willing to talk to me after that, I'm going to have to convince them that 1) we're not all like that, 2) the cause isn't about that, and 3) they still want to help us.

Back in the nineties, when I was attending university, and the provincial government cut transfer payments to the universities, the various student representative bodies participated in a number of protests outside the provincial legislature, and at Conservative Party functions. On one memorable occaision, all the student governments organised busses so that students could cut classes, head to Toronto, and protest. Many did. When the then Minister of Education came out to address the protesters, he was booed (understandably, given the crowd) and pelted with boxes of Kraft Dinner. The student papers reported on this approvingly. The student governments said little. I remember wondering how the minister could possibly take seriously students' claims to be hard done by when those students clearly had excess grocery money, and how a dialogue could be initiated when our side was so apparently ready to behave in such a juvenile fashion. If I'd been in student government, I'd have been livid.

These days, when a protest turns violent, when dialogue degenerates to invective, and when people seem to lose sight of their objectives for the sake of gratifying their need to "do something", it still bothers me, and I find myself wishing that they'd go find some other cause to impede, rather than making my job that much more difficult.

Sure, voice your dissent. Sure, differ in opinion from me. Sure, bring all your creativity and energy to an approach I wouldn't necessarily use (I don't like protests -- they scare me; I don't much like parades either, come to that.) Go ahead and tell me how you see things, and lend me the benefit of your perspective. But don't expect me to be happy if your tactics annoy people enough to close their ears to our message.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 04:13 PM:

As the person who brought up the Civil Rights movement, I confess myself puzzled by Debbie Notkin's statement that it "is neither the appropriate analogy nor the most recent comparison."

I was not using it as an analogy, but drawing a contrast; and I used it as an illustration because it was a good example to make my point, and not through chronological priority. If I were writing a scholarly essay on the ethics of the matter, I would be more thorough, but who would want to read it?

Debbie writes, "it is my personal historical sense that the direct action component of the anti-Vietnam War movement was, in the end, a significant positive factor" in various good things of the time.

I'm sure she is correct about this, though nobody could have known that beforehand. Even if they could have, it still doesn't make it right.

Comparison: Invading Iraq may make it safe for democracy; torturing suspects may save us from terrorism; capital punishment may reduce the murder rate. Whether they actually will or not, is in all these cases debated. But those who argue against invasion, torture, capital punishment, all say: even if these practices did accomplish their intended goals, they would still be wrong.

"Direct action" (lovely euphemism) is nowhere near as noxious as any of the preceding. But the principle holds: even if it accomplishes its goals, it's still wrong.

Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 04:47 PM:

I think perhaps the place to start is not tactics, but objectives.

The objective, or so it seems to me, is to raise moral doubts about the conduct of the present administration. (The practical doubts, while plentiful, are all concerned with the uncertain future.)

Moral suaision *demands* dignity, an impecable conduct which cannot be lightly dismissed.

Or, put differently, if they can dismiss the concerns of the protestors as those of freaks and wierds, they will, and the thing that makes that the most difficult is to have lots and lots of sober, respectable, middle class people standing there, not necessarily saying anything other than by their presence, because there is nothing in that to attack or dismiss.

It is an action which requires a thoughtful answer, the very thing which the present administration cannot provide.

Anything else can be held to be answered with a dismissive act or a violent response, precisely what this administration would prefer to do, and which it should not be given the least narrow shape of an excuse to do.

Doug ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 04:49 PM:

How about this folks? We live in a democratic state. We democratically elected our members of our various current government(s). We are morally obligated then to obey the relatively modest set of rules these governments establish to ensure a free, healthy , functioning society. Those who arrogate the right to disobey those individual rules with which they disagree are anti-democratic or worse. Lots of us didn't like what Bill Clinton did in Haiti and the Balkans or to Middle Eastern milk plants, but we did not try to destroy a democratic society in response. You leftists need to get a grip. Before you try to destroy the democratic fabric of this country, look around and tell us who is doing it better. Feel free to ignore this friendly advice and further marginalize yourselves in the modern world. History is heading away from totalitarianism. Maybe President Jeb Bush in 2008 will sober you up.
Now go take on the day.

LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 05:47 PM:

Um, exactly what modest set of rules are you talking about, Doug? How does protest against policies we don't like constitute anti-democratic behavior? Your post, in my view, generates a lot of smoke but not much light.

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 06:45 PM:

Just to make things more complicated: there are two things that haven't been mentioned that I think are important parts of the equation of what use direct action can be to the anti-war movement.

The first is an aspect of "rallying the troups." You can get a lot more people out for a march than you can for a letter-writing campaign. Marching in a cause makes the marchers feel like they are part of something important. Properly used, it can be both a fund-raiser and a recruitment tool. For grass roots organizing, rallies and marches and demonstrations are important parts of recruitment, just like door knocking and letter writing, etc. Think of it as a gateway drug to activism. The target audience there is actually the people who showed up for the march. The additional moral suasion the pictures on the news may offer is gravy.

The second issue when it comes to direct action is how to keep control. Many of the nastiest demonstrations were caused by the police, not the protesters. (Not quite tangentially, my favorite quote from the 20th century: "The police are not here to create disorder, the police are here to preserve disorder.") One of the things that the Civil Rights movement understood very well was discipline. They stayed peaceful even when the cops turned violent. That won them huge moral suasion points. It was also practical, of course. Doing elsewise might well have been deadly.

Raimondo does mention this in his article, briefly, but I think it's worth highlighting. Emotions run high during demonstrations. It's easy for them to slip over the line from enthusiastic energy to angry response to threats. The organizers need to find ways to keep their own people cool. Many cool heads liberally distributed throught the crowd is one way to help. The fewer cops actually in sight during the rally, the better. One of the best ways to turn a demonstration sour is to put the demonstrators in a position where they feel threatened and trapped.

The demonstration on Feb. 14 here was bitterly cold. I'm told that the Police Chief is sympathetic. For whatever reason, the only time you saw the cops was when they were diverting traffic to make room for the marchers. It was such a cold day. Passing by one of them, I yelled, "Thank you, officer." A whole bunch of people behind me did, too. I obviously surprised some of the people near me. Tough. He was doing a good job, and in incredibly trying circumstances.

Strikes don't work in the US. They just don't. Labor unions get no respect, here. Strikes get no respect. There are historical reasons for this, but trying to organize a general strike in the US is shooting yourself in the foot. Not only will you piss people off, but the actual numbers involved will be so pitifully small that you'll look like an idiot. Mind, if one of my students calls in politically ill the day after the war starts, I'm not going to give her a hard time. But it's still a dumb idea.

Neil Rest ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 10:09 PM:

1) Ghandian / American Civil Rights tactics are specificly appropriate to an opponent who can be shamed.

2) "You can't blow up a social relationship."

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 11:06 PM:

Graydon has the essence of the problem -- that a moral debate requires taking the moral high ground (remember "Clean for Gene"?) -- but there's an emotional dimension here that makes a controlled response even more important. Bush's lies have convinced most of the people in the U.S. that Iraq is dangerous to them. (Examples: the belief of half the people polled that Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers, the claims of "weapons of mass destruction" with no demonstration of a 6,000-mile delivery system (or even a 500-mile one, cf the "long-range drone" that looks like a last-minute junior-high science project), the warheads that were half rust, the "bomb-fuel filtering tubes" that were bodies for short-range missiles,....) People who look or act dangerous will not persuade the rest of the country that someone else is not dangerous. (Yes, congresscritters should have been calling Bush on these lies -- but if they aren't, replaying the messier student demonstrations is even less likely to get the facts across.)

Debbie: what effect public action had on Vietnam is guesswork at best. (And for a contrast, consider what might have happened if 1968 in Chicago hadn't been a riot and Humphrey had gotten elected; certainly we wouldn't have had as raw a dose of Kissinger's realpolitik.) If I could get one trip on a crosstime vehicle, I might look for the nearest alternate world where students (both demonstrators and bystanders, remember) weren't killed at Kent State -- but with the country in this mood, I doubt even martyrdom will sway public opinion. Tens of thousands of body bags coming back might, but that's not something to wish for -- the people who have been put out there to support the fantasies of Cheney, Wolfowitz et al. don't deserve that.

Invisible Adjunct ::: (view all by) ::: March 18, 2003, 11:20 PM:

I agree with these criticisms of the Republic of Virtue tactics. They do strike me as self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing, more about affirming "the moral virtue that the protestor confers upon himself," as Timothy Burke puts it, than about persuading those who do not already belong to the self-appointed moral elect.

As Bruce Baugh suggests, a Mr. Rogers would be great: someone mild-mannered and quietly decent who would make an appeal not by antagonizing but by engaging the sensibilities of the middle classes. But where is this Mr. Rogers to be found?

The larger problem, I think, is that there isn't enough of a space for political dissent and debate and opposition. In terms of "respectable" political speech (ie, speech which really will speak to rather than alienate its intended audience) the spectrum is actually quite narrow. So instead of a public sphere that is large enough to accomodate a range of positions and perspectives, we see the attempt to create various counter-cultural counter-public spheres which will only ever exist on the margins.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 01:29 AM:

Invisible Adjunct, credible protest is a lot like Gandhi's comment about Western civilization. ("I think it would be a very good idea.") Precious few people with substantial quarrel with the status quo ever try to address the public at large with the sympathetic engagement of the Populists or Progressives, or their 19th century predecessors in England and elsewhere, or the civil rights movements a bit later, or any of a fair number of other examples. I think that the presence of folks willing to use mainstream notions of respectability in presentation and manner could widen the field of discourse a lot, by demonstrating that one can see the world differently without abandoning cultural values that matter to a lot of folks more than specific political points.

Doug Rivers ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 09:25 AM:


Federal, state and local laws. We do not live in a libertarian society, but we have a hell of a lot of personal freedom. Freedom for Tom Daschle to be saddened constantly (poor Tom), freedom for the Dixie Chicks to dis the CINC abroad, freedom for OJ to murder etc. So with all of these freedoms, why can't leftists (or anybody for that matter) obey our laws and abide by the honorable principals of a democratic state - which means you don't break laws (selectively) because you disagree with them. You vote the person out next time or he/she gets relected bacause that's what the democratic majority wanted. If you can't abide by the rules of a democratic nation, the honorable thing to do is what your Hollywood buddy Alec Baldwin said he was going to do - leave the country. Go someplace where leftists are allowed to break any law they disagree with.

Joel Rosenberg ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 10:17 AM:

Me, I reject the "love it or leave it" argument, particularly when "love" is construed to mean "agree with present Administration policy." That said, everybody who can't stand up against a rain of rhetorical excess should stay out of discussion.

And while I usually don't comment on typoes -- self-defeating precedent -- I like of like Lydy's, although I wish it had been "rally the tropes."

jennie ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 10:31 AM:

I think perhaps the place to start is not tactics, but objectives.

Thanks, Graydon, for saying what I meant much more succinctly than I could manage.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 10:42 AM:

Doug: Surrendering one's conscience to authority is, precisely, the Nuremberg defense - "I was just following orders" - and it has been explicitly rejected on many fronts. Modern militaries teach soldiers that they have a duty to disregard orders which violate certain general principles, and we have a long intellectual heritage of recognizing that the law may indeed be wrong and that it may then be one's duty to violate it. The key insight of the non-violence movement was that one can do this in a way likely to rouse the consciences of others...but it is built on violating unjust laws as explicitly as possible.

And that's much moral justification than most lawbreaking gets. Doug, do you always abide by the speed limits? Never jaywalk? Did you never violate the minimum drinking age? Are you sure that you are in complete compliance with your tax liability, and that your home and office are altogether up to standards for safety? And are you aware of ongoing violations of law and regulation by others that you choose not to report? In practical terms, essentially everyone who isn't a mindless drone accepts that we may violate the law for lots of reasons great and small, because the fact that it became law does not in fact end the burden on each of us to act in a manner we regard as moral and desirable.

We are as a society in fact more tolerant of a lot of law-breaking for pragmatic reasons like "I wanted to get there faster" than moral ones like "I wanted to disrupt the operations of the military machine, even if only in a small way". To say as Justin Raimondo does (and I agree with him) that it is unwise to do these things is implicitly reaffirm that in the end it must always be a matter of judgment. I take it from your tone that you are not a leftist. :) During the Clinton administration, should all of us who had objections to Clinton policy have kept quiet, because the democratic majority elected that man and he therefore had the right to do whatever he wanted? When that administration prohibited a desirable action or mandated an undeisrable one, should no one have resisted it? If there is an extra burden on leftists in this regard, then I'll have to ask where to get an objectivometer or rectitudoscope so as to have something besides your word about who gets to use the "because I'm right" defense.

Democratic - and republican - government does not free us from our consciences.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 10:56 AM:

If you can't abide by the rules of a democratic nation, the honorable thing to do is what your Hollywood buddy Alec Baldwin said he was going to do - leave the country

My immediate knee-jerk reaction is to say I'll start abiding by the rules of a democratic nation when the so-called leaders do. When they stop re-writing the constitution and allow fair elections. But I stop and think, shouldn't I try to be better than the people I'm objecting to? Then I stop and think again, If I play by the rules and they don't, how can I win?

It is a moral dilemna I have not yet resolved.


Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 12:22 PM:

The subject seems to have metamorphized, perhaps without the change being fully clear? It seems to me that what we're discussing now is two very different things.

Deliberately breaking a law you consider immoral is, of course, what's called "civil disobedience". It seems to me that this is an honorable action, so long as the actor is prepared to take the legally-prescribed punishment, and not whine and pout about the unfairness of it. You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.

What Raimondo was criticizing, and what I likewise find offensive and dishonorable, resembles civil disobedience only in that it involves deliberately breaking laws in the name of a higher moral cause. But it differs in two important ways:

First, it's not about the laws that are being broken; second, it attempts to use physical force, not moral suasion, to involve bystanders.

When Thoreau refused to pay his taxes during the Mexican War, he was protesting what his taxes would be spent on. He didn't prevent anyone else from paying taxes; he only hoped to shame them into acting likewise. (Remember his comment to Emerson: "What are you doing out there?" i.e. out of jail)

When Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, she was protesting a law that required her to sit in the back of the bus. Anybody else on that bus could sit wherever they wanted to, as far as she was concerned: that was in fact the whole point.

But when anti-war protesters lie down in intersections in downtown San Francisco, they're not protesting the law that forbids them from blocking streets. And passersby, people who have decided, for whatever selfish reasons of their own, that going home from work is more important to them than lying in streets to show how wrong George Bush is, are being physically prevented from going about their business.

To force someone to run you over in order to pass through an intersection is as immoral, if less cosmically so, as forcing someone to fight in an immoral war.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 12:38 PM:

Oh, yes, very much in agreement, Simon. I just wanted to pull out the idea that "one must obey the laws of a representative government" and poke at it some, on the grounds that we neither do nor should always do that. The question of what's desirable to do in an effort to register dissent and build support for opposition to a law or policy is very different, and I think that Mr. Raimondo was right on with his comments there. Good last paragraph, too.

Doug Rivers ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 12:42 PM:

Joel/Bruce/Mary Kay. Its not "love it or leave it" at all. Its about moral rectitude. You live in a democratic state, enjoy the privileges, etc. I don't think there's a better way out there, but there will always be decisions made/actions taken by our democratic leaders with which we disagree. Isn't it imcumbent upon the citizens of a democracy then to obey the rules of that society, even if they don't like them - unless they are grotesquely immoral (say, like what Hitler did or even worse, Stalin). Oppose them if you will, but by lawful democratic means. Is anybody seriously equating the democratically 'arrived at" decision to take action against Iraq with what Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany did? Are the left wing zealots who are now advocating breaking the law in response to the actions of multiple democratic governments and who were virually invisible during Bill Clinton's foreign adventures, saying that there is that magnitude of difference between what he did and what today's democracies are doing. I still say, if you are going to disobey the laws and rules you don't like, you are not a fit citizen for a democratic state. On the other hand, why not argue against, persuade but be mature and moral enough to accept the putative will of the majority. When your turn comes, which it will in all likelihood, the same argument applies when your President Kucinich or whoever, does things the opposition does not like. Democratic government, will of the majority, economic freedom - name a better alternative.

Alex Steffen ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 01:59 PM:

I find Raimondo's argument morally suspect and of questionable practicality - that in order to avoid losing our rights, we should refuse to exercise them. There is a long, long tradition of political thought that says the threat of oppression should always be challenged.

That said, I too think direct action is not the path here, and agree with Burke and Baugh above that what we need is calm, respectble, convincing counter-arguments, made by people with whom many americans will agree, made in ways they can hear. The goal here is not merely protest but persuasion - a goal that some protest-adicted direct-action-types seem sometimes to have completely lost sight of.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 02:38 PM:

Doug: Obviously a substantial fraction of the public does regard Bush's administration as basically suspect, or outright illicit. I have conflicted views on that myself.

But you didn't answer the question. Have you never broken the speed limit? Never jaywalked? Are you entirely sure you've met all your tax liabilities, and that your home and office fully comply with safety and other standards set in law? As a young adult, did you never break the legal limit on drinking age? Have you never engaged in an act that can be punished in your jurisdiction as sodomy (and do you know what the standards for your jurisdiction are)? The list goes on and on.

Nobody - and I do mean nobody - actually lives an entirely law-abiding life. Nor should they. While most laws have good intentions, darned few are universally applicable, and in some goes good intentions can't excuse just plain wretched implementation. As a society we condone a huge quantity of law-breaking for pragmatic reasons. This bugs me only when people who break laws for reasons of convenience criticize breaking laws for reasons of morality. If you do not turn yourself in for speeding and other crimes, then you do not have standing to say that law-breaking by protestors is necessarily bad. It's a matter for discussion: which laws, where, for what reasons, with what consequences. Judgment, that is.

Mark Shawhan ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 02:58 PM:

Doug: one other point. Who here is advocating the kind of actions that you are criticizing, exactly? As far as I can tell, there is nobody on this thread who is calling for any kind of widescale direct action w/regard to Iraq; entirely the opposite, in fact. So who, exactly, are you criticizing? Oh, and it should probably be noted that calling Justin Raimondo and Bruce Baugh leftists verges on the ridiculous. But your post does raise one question for me: in your opinion, is civil disobedience (in the sense of violating a law to protest the law, and accepting punishment for the violation) ever justified?

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 03:23 PM:

Well, I am kind of a pinko at the moment, but that's because I accidentally put a couple of red towels in with the white load.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 03:54 PM:

Here's a good example of the problem:

Global Exchange spokeswoman Andrea Buffa has said of planned protests, "People decide what's appropriate to them and for some people that's lighting a candle ... and for other people, that's going to mean walking out of their workplace, sitting down in the street and refusing to move."

Except that, when you sit down in the street, you're unilaterally deciding what's appropriate for other people, those who might wish to use that street for its intended purpose, i.e. travel.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 04:10 PM:

Okay, just read all the above in one swoop.

Doug Rivers is clearly determined to discuss something other than the actual subject of this thread, which is the merits and drawbacks of "direct action" tactics. It's a free country, but it's my weblog, and I look with suspicion upon attempts by right-wing provocateurs to disrupt their opponents' productive discussions of political tactics. Future off-topic posts of this sort will be handled unsympathetically. Anyone who thinks this is an outrageous violation of free speech is cordially invited to go soak their head.

Doug Rivers ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 05:14 PM:

I'm certainly not a provocateur. My points have been an honest attempt to cross political boundaries with a dialogue. That's my real name. I know Raimondo is not a leftist and have not assumed any respondents are either way. I did assume some were arguing for the necessity for extra-legal action in a democratic society. Thats what I have been talking about. And Mr. Hayden, if you were to not "publish" this probable last comment, as a good conservative, I would say thats your right. You set this up, you run it and should be able to govern it. Thanks for the conversation.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 05:20 PM:

That weedy little git Doug Rivers only has his vowels because Patrick insisted.

(Stalks off in medium dudgeon.)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 05:52 PM:

You were making an honest attempt, Mr. Rivers? Would you address your friends in the same language you've used here?

Whether or not you put a high value on tolerance, peaceable discourse, and listening to what others have to say, you're getting the benefit of people who do.

Try saying that out loud: "I am being politely tolerated."

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 07:57 PM:

If Doug Rivers cares, I haven't addressed his points before, because his first post, the one about "History is heading away from totalitarianism" (no serious historian would make such a sweeping claim, and considering that modern totalitarianism was invented less than 150 years ago, it's hard to say we're heading away from it on the long term) and a future "President Jeb Bush" read to me like a parody of right wing-nut rantings.

I also disagree with his initial premises: "We democratically elected our members of our various current government(s)" (not in the U.S., we didn't) and "We are morally obligated then to obey the relatively modest set of rules these governments establish to ensure a free, healthy, functioning society" (which sounds like something Number Two would say in The Prisoner, and which does not take into account civil disobedience, let alone - as Bruce Baugh pointed out - jaywalking).

I also wonder where he was during the Clinton administration, if he thinks that "the left wing zealots who are now advocating breaking the law in response to the actions of multiple democratic governments ... were virtually invisible during Bill Clinton's foreign adventures."

People who write "Go someplace where leftists are allowed to break any law they disagree with" don't deserve a serious answer.

Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: March 19, 2003, 08:15 PM:

Mr Rivers:

Apparently you have not been reading carefully; exactly one person here, that I've seen, has argued that "direct action" might be useful, sometimes, even though its effects are negative. That person did so in response to general agreement to the proposition that "direct action" is bad in both moral and practical, and got a chorus of further criticism of "direct action" in response.

As for not assuming any respondents here are "leftists", was that post further up, that includes the sentence, "You leftists need to get a grip.", not from you? It certainly appears to be from someone using your email address. You might want to check into that.

I note that you continue to slide right over the any differences between different kinds of "extra-legal action". Is it your position that it was morally wrong of Rosa Parks to sit in the front of that bus, or for quiet, polite black people to sit at a legally segregated whites-only lunch counter? Were these actions morally equivalent to blocking traffic for hours, at great inconvenience and possible endangerment for others, to protest something completely unrelated to the roads or the traffic laws?

And you still have not answered Bruce's question: have you never exceeded the speed limit, or jaywalked, or had an alcoholic drink even a few days before reaching whatever the legal age was in your state at the time? Are you quite certain you've never violated your state's sodomy laws (have you even exerted yourself to find out in detail what they are, so that you can comply?) Are you now and have you always been in 100% compliance with all federal, state, and local tax laws?

Or is just completely different, and obviously moral and correct, and in keeping with the principles of a democratic society, when you violate the law for your own convenience and comfort, and a moral outrage when Rosa Parks does so because the law, that particular law, was morally unacceptable in a free and democratic society?

Doug Rivers ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 10:40 AM:

Not sure if I'm allowed to post here, but since I've had a couple of questions, I'll try. If by direct action, you mean lawful direct action, fine - my point doesn't matter. If you mean unlawful, to include even classic Thoreau-like civil disobedience, it stands. As to arguments about jaywalking, etc., I have, and I have broken the speed limit and probably more. I concede the (personal minor hypocrisy) point, but is that really important (my or anybody's personal foibles? I'm suggesting the broad moral and philosophical point that to decide to break the law as a policy, to impact and disrupt as some left wing zealots are now talking about doing (of course, it would be equally wrong if say right wing anti-abortionists did similar), in a democratic state is morally wrong - unless you have a situation on parallel with Stalinist Russia or say the pre-Brown vs. Board of Education south. You may believe I'm wrong and probably do, but where do you personally draw the line? Have you though about it? Do you believe that individuals should be able selectively obey and disobey laws in a democratic state? Can a state thus function?
Ms. Carey I think you caught me with a couple of good left hooks, but what about the larger point? Who decides which laws can be broken? Is it fair for you to decide for me or me for you, or do each of us as individuals have the "right" to pick and choose? Can I just yell Nuremberg and go rob my neighbor, for instance? Don't you at least concede that this is a very troubling moral issue and that there at least should be a clear, consistent philosophical basis for deciding, as a policy, to break the laws in a "democracy"?
Simon, I actually am a historian (although I probably do not meet your criteria for seriousness) and I believe there is no doubt the world is headed away from totalitarianism (the roots go back further than 150 years), and I believe our governments, even the ones I dislike, were democratically elected. The Jeb Bush remark was to indicate that if the Democratic Party moves to the perceived extreme left (like during the McGovern era) you will (again) get somebody as president who would be totally unpalatable for you - like President Kunich would be for me.
Ms. Hayden, I really don't know what a weedy little git is - but I somehow didn't feel the love coming through. Nevertheless, I enjoy the conversation and thank you and Patrick for permitting it.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 11:53 AM:

Doug, I started asking questions about your own lawlessness, and I did so with this point: you treat the willingness to break laws out of moral disagreement as a very serious matter - you told those inclined to such that they ought to leave the country. But clearly you do not treat lawbreaking out of carelessness, laziness, and the like with anything like the same fervor. Why is it that having a moral motivation rather than a casual or neglectful one makes the crime one that warrants the shape-up-or-ship-out response?

It can't be numbers, and it can't be overall impact on the health, safety, and personal choice of others in the area - traffic offenders kill and maim a great many of their fellow citizens every day, but I'm not seeing a hue and cry to deport drunk drivers, speeders, and the like. It can't be hypothetical quanta of human misery - rapists, child molesters, and perpetrators of domestic violence aren't told they have to or even ought to leave the country.

And if it's that you find crimes born out of dissent particularly offensive...well, that's precisely why we have the structure of laws we do, including the First Amendment to protect the speech around the crime. Those who violate the law should be just as punished for it as any others who do, but part of America is exactly that we learn to live with people saying things we hate to hear.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 12:33 PM:


The roots of totalitarianism have been with us as long as there have been human beings; but a modern totalitarian state was not a practical possibility until the 19th century: I think Metternich was the first person seriously to try to establish one. (I'm not counting brief reigns of terror.)

I'm curious as to what time scale you think the world is moving away from totalitarianism. Eastern Europe is obviously better off in that respect than it was before 1989; China's regime seems to be cracking slightly, but that's what we thought was happening there before 1989 too, and then they had Tianenmen Square.

But this is on the time scale of a decade or two, a movement that could easily reverse itself in very short order, has done so before (see the growth of totalitarianism in Europe in the 1920s and 30s after a brief post-WW1 false dawn), and seems even to be showing signs of doing so (civic disruption in Poland and Russia, not to mention the highly alarming developments in Belarus, Ukraine, and the Central Asian republics).

Meanwhile, Islamic totalitarianism seems only to be growing, except when forcibly ejected by US troops.

Latin America had a very bad time in the 1970s and 80s; during the 90s, there was much cheer about the spread of democracy there; now things seem to be worsening again - it would hardly be the first cycle there.

Over the century scale, the 20th was notable as the age of the dictators. Nothing that's happened in the last 15 years has yet shown the lasting quality to allow us to say with any confidence that the 21st won't be another such age. (Surely no-one before 1914, studying the rise of democracy in Europe, would have guessed what governmental systems were in store in the near future there.)

Doug Rivers ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 02:35 PM:

Bruce, You are correct that I do believe it is more serious when you adopt a stated, conscious philosophical position that you are going to break laws or, more significantly, when you broadly advocate and promulgate breaking the law. Do you not agree there is a difference? The moral factor has to do with deciding to consciously be anti-democratic; to be anti-democratic by philosophy and action. The jaywalker is not jaywalking to undermine the legitimacy of democratically undertaken actions. As you say, he's lazy, indifferent, whatever. yes traffic deaths are bad. And he/she is technically wrong, but wrong on a much reduced scale as compared to the anti-democrat. Dissent is fine, even vital, but breaking the law to express dissent or to get your way (which is really the purpose of the whole thing isn't it, not dissent for dissent's sake), especially when you haven't been able to win via free elections or persuasion, is another thing. One would have to be very careful about the latter (breaking the law) in a democratic state (I used the Stalinist Russia, pre 1954 south as examples where unlawful dissent is moral). And I'm being careful here, right wing, left wing whatever, if you believe in the efficacy and practice of breaking the law when you don't get your way, and advocate others do likewise, then , yes, I do believe that any democratic state would be better off w/o you (not you personally, of course). Keep in mind I didn't and don't say that you/we shouldn't be free to say whatever you want, even and most especially those things others sometimes hate to hear.
I know I didn't address all of your good arguments (it isn't easy answering why casual, accidental mini-crime is not the moral problem that, I believe, conscious, systematic accomplishment and advocacy of even low impact law breaking, even in support of political dissent, is), and I fully acknowledge there are gray areas. But I also have not heard anyone answer the basic question of how we determine which laws are breakable and which causes are sufficiently moral to warrant breaking the laws. You know, of course, extreme anti-abortionists fully believe in the Nuremberg defense regarding the murder of abortion providers. They believe with as much fervor as anybody on this board believes anything that they are stopping or thwarting genocide. So how do we decide which laws are OK to break? Which cause give you a legal blank check? Only left wing causes? Or are you prepared to allow David Duke his moral discretion as to which laws to obey? Who gets to be national moral cause judge. Mr. Duke? Ramsay Clarke? There is a hellacious slippery slope here and I say a democratic state has to a structure of laws and that the citizens have a moral obligation to abide by those laws.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 03:31 PM:

It may be worth noting that as a libertarian of "right" anarchist inclination, I don't regard democracy as a good in itself, but as a generally worthwhile means to the things I do hold as ends. But just as one person may be wrong, so a bunch may be, and it may at any time be our responsibility to say this and to act accordingly. I would not seek to expel abolitionists before the Civil War, nor pacifists during World War I (or WW2), and so on.

Who decides? Each of us does. And then each of us acts and bears the consequences of what happens. When one violates the law as an act of protest, that's the whole point - show the law's response where people can see it.

I think that things like obstructing traffic to protest war are immensely stupid and counter-productive. But this is a matter of evaluating particular acts and their consequences, not saying that I think no one should ever break the laws merely because they are the laws. (Now if it were up to me, I'd like to see a revival of a colonial tradition that when officials get too uppity, a mob goes to burn the tax rolls. That hinders the operations of authority without inconveniencing others. That's good "direct action".)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 04:30 PM:

Well done, Mr. Rivers. Now if only you'll double-space between your paragraphs, I shall profess myself entirely content.

Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 04:30 PM:

Mr Rivers:

If you had actually been reading the posts in this thread, it might have caught your attention that everyone here has described direct action as a _bad_ thing, on both moral and practical grounds.

Of course, by "direct action" we have been referring to, not every single form and method of expressing protest, but a specific category of protest: the kind that involves disrupting the lives of other people without their consent. Property destruction is not a valid, moral form of protest, nor is blocking streets, or denial-of-service attacks.

There's another kind of civil disobedience, though, the kind Thoreau advocated and engaged in: saying "this law is morally wrong", disobeying it in a way that is visible but _not_ disruptive or destructive, and being willing to take the legal and practical consequences of that decision.

Thoreau went to jail for not paying the taxes that supported the Mexican War. Rosa Parks, and the young men who sat at the legally segregated lunch counters and asked to be served, likewise accepted responsibility for choosing to break immoral laws. Do you seriously mean to say that what Thoreau, and Rosa Parks, and lunch counter protesters, was _immoral_, and anti-democratic? If so, I think you're deeply confused about what democracy is.

In a democracy, it's not enough to say "that's the law, so even if it's wrong, that's what I have to do." We are _responsible_ for the laws, and for the actions of our government, because sovereignty resides in We The People, not in whoever happens to currently occupy the White House, the Capitol Building, and state houses and city and town halls all over the country.

If we believe a law is wrong--not just that we happen to disagree with it, but that it's really wrong, morally or in terms of serious, practical negative effects, we have a responsibility to say so, and to attempt persuade our fellow citizens, including the ones currently serving as "the government" that it's wrong, and needs to be changed.

And very serious wrongs merit extra attention and effort.

Seeing what happened when well-dressed, obviously respectable people did inherently reasonable things, like sitting in an available seat on the bus, or sitting down at a lunch counter and asking to be served lunch, played a big role in making visible to people how innately brutal segregation was. Do you believe that--not that segregation should have been left in place, I know you don't believe that--but that it would have been better to let it remain in place, than to have Rosa Parks illegally sit in a seat at the front of the bus? Are you quite sure of that?

Yes, breaking the law is a serious matter, not to be done lightly. Obeying an immoral law is also a serious matter, and not to be done lightly. "It's the law" is not a defense to be dismissed lightly, but it's not always sufficient, either.

As citizens in a democratic society, we are responsible for our choices--whichever way we decide. We cannot evade that responsibility.

Who decides? Each of us, every day--and our fellow citizens also make their choices. Segregation laws ended in this country when enough Americans decided that that was the correct response to what they were seeing in the places where segregation laws were most heavily enacted and enforced--and they only _saw_ that because the civil disobedience of the civil rights activists showed it to them. Without that, it was far too easy to simply not see what the laws were doing, to blandly assume that separation was natural and was doing no harm.

Who's responsible? We are. Who decides? We do.

No way out of that; even deciding that you'll never break a law except for your own personal convenience is making a choice, for which you bear responsibility.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 05:55 PM:

I was going to write some follow-up, but under the circumstances I'll just point at that very fine post by Lis and say:


The only thing I'd add is that in a republic, no issue is ever necessarily finally laid to rest. Someone could seek to revive chattel slavery, and if they carried the day in public opinion, they could get the laws changed and the Constitution amended to make it allowed again. Conversely, the fact that the administration has settled on a policy some of us dislike and others support is a fact in the ongoing stream of facts that is public and private debate about it, but not the last word. Nothing ever ends, in that sense, until nobody ever chooses to speak of it again.

Doug Rivers ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 05:56 PM:

Ms. Carey,

I actually believe what Rosa Parks did was moral -a point I have made before.

Most of the rest of your argument seems reasonable to me. I just believe that its not OK to disobey laws in a democracy unless it is clearly a dire case and that is where we disagree. It seems to me that you are saying if an individual thinks it/a law is immoral and you accept the consequences of breaking it, its OK. The problem is that that ground rule has to be OK for everybody, not just smart people, not just you, not just rich people. Everybody. You've then got millions of people saying paying taxes is immoral, killing babies in immoral, George Bush stole the election I will obey none of his laws, etc. Under those conditions, you no longer have democracy, you have anarchy.

I don't know that democracy is aboslutely good either (though we technically are not a democracy here) but I see no better alternative anyplace, at any time in history and I would sure be hesitant to live under any other system.

Lis Carey ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 07:03 PM:

Mr Rivers,

Show me where I said it's only okay for people I agree with, or for smart people, or for rich people.

_Everyone_ has responsibility, in a democracy.

(Side note; of _course_ we're a democracy--a representative democracy. I get almighty tired of people claiming "we're not a democracy", usually in response some argument that draws directly on the fact of the US being a democracy. If I may borrow from a former overnight talkhost here in Boston: The UK is a democracy, but not republic; Iraq is a republic, but not a democracy; the US is both, a democratic republic.)

I know it hasn't escaped your attention that people have demonstrations in favor of viewpoints I don't like, such as the KKK marching for segregation, and anti-abortion activists picketing women's health clinics, and, currently, people who support the Iraq war marching in favor of that.

Where the anti-abortion activists cross over the line is when they do more than picket, when they block access, try to force women to stop and listen to them, invade clinics, damage the clinics. That's some of that "direct action" everyone here was disapproving of.

Do you see the difference?

In a democracy, everyone has responsibility, and we trust to the people to, _eventually_, reach the best decision if open debate and discussion and the free flow of information prevails. (Allowing, of course, that sometimes, eventually will be a long time coming.)

And, as Bruce says, no question is finally settled until people aren't interested in changing it anymore. Merely having lost an election doesn't require anyone to shut up--and having won one doesn't entitle anyone to tell people they're obliged to drop the subject.

Is this messy? Of course it is. But consider the alternatives.

Simon ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 08:32 PM:

Well, they can say you're obliged to drop the subject (free speech, and all that), but you're not actually obliged to follow that.

Otherwise, bravo Lis, and I'm pleased to see some of the examples I brought up being used in renewed currency.

I do not like seeing anti-abortion activists picketing clinics, but as long as they limit their action to picketing, and do not block or threaten, they do have the right to be there, sigh. That's democracy.

Gary Farber ::: (view all by) ::: March 20, 2003, 11:24 PM:

It would be sufficiently tangential to not mention, were it not for Patrick's comment that the "preconditions for a distinctly American fascism have in fact been put in place," that one of those people who has busily devoted time to setting up theose pre-conditions is a guy named "Justin Raimondo" who gave the nominating speech for Patrick Buchanan for the Reform Party nomination for President. I've quoted some of the other chipper quotations from these "anti-war" (unless it's in defense of Serbian fascists) paleo-conservatives. Pay attention, or not, as you wish.

I have no disagreement with what Raimondo said that Patrick quoted, of course; far from it. But it's good of Raimondo to take time off from writing his book about how Israel is responsible for September 11th. This, too, seems possibly worth mentioning while commending his words. Or possibly not.