Monday, July 27, 2009

Civil Disobedience

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament
JMW Turner
1834

In 1834 the Houses of Parliament in Great Britain caught fire and burnt to the ground. The cause of the fire was wooden tally sticks used by the Exchequer for the collection of taxes from local farmers by local sheriffs. It was an accident, but Charles Dicksens, speaking at a conference on governmental reform, told how counting devices destroyed "the halls of government". In 1849 the House of Parliament in Canada was burnt down by a group of angry Canadian citizens. They destroyed everything.

What is my point, you ask? Well my point is this: if you don't like your government -- change it. I mean, really change it. Don't just say you're going to change it -- actually change it. During the 1960s and 1970s, people took to the streets in violent mass demonstrations. People not only changed laws and government, they changed the culture and the social order -- forever -- and I might add, for the better. The call was "Power to the People!" As a result, in the last three or four decades unacceptable laws, rules and practices that were once taken for granted, are no longer acceptable. These things were changed in a major way, not by the government but by the people.

In his famous Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln referred to "government of the people, by the people, for the people." This concept can be applied to any democratic country where the government representatives are elected. In Canada, we go through an election process, which is essentially a job interview. We interview the candidates -- thoroughly -- and we hire the person who we think is the right one for the job. And then we send that person to represent us. Every person in our House of Parliament is someone who has been hired -- by us. And they had better do a good job, or they're out.

Some of the greatest changes in laws and government have taken place through civil disobedience, or nonviolent resistance. Civil disobedience is one of the many ways people have rebelled against unfair laws. It has been used in many well-documented nonviolent resistance movements in India (Gandhi's campaigns for independence from the British Empire), in Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution and in East Germany to oust their communist dictatorships, in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American Civil Rights Movement, in the Singing Revolution to bring independence to the Baltic countries from the Soviet Union, and recently in the 2004 Orange Revolution and 2005 Rose Revolution, among other various movements worldwide. ... Wikipedia

I am not a student of political science, so to those folks out there who understand this more than I do, the premise of my blog will seem very naïve, which in fact it is. However, lately I have been hearing so many people whining complaining about their governments. Henry David Thoreau wrote an essay called "Resistance to Civil Government" in which he said people do not have to support a government with which they do not agree. People have the right to protest anything with which they disagree. In other words, if you don't like something your government is doing -- or not doing -- get off your butts and change it. Stop being complacent. The power is in your hands; you are the government.

31 comments:

Katy said...

I think most people my age (born in 1982) look at the people who were on the front line of all that social change "hippies" and see how they all became "yuppies". Yes, they protested against the government and fought for social and political change, but at the end of the day they all went to work for big corporations, many of them started big corproations of their very own. They became the system they fought against. Did society change for the better? Yes, but our political system is just as bad, if not worse than it was before.

Russell said...

With all due respect to Katy, not all us sold out - heh! I worked for many years in a Legal Aid office, though I could have taken my law degree and worked for a lot more money in a glass tower.

Today I work at a community college -- not a university or private four year college. Some of us, I think a lot of us, kept true to our ideals.

Now, let me get back to counting all my ill-gotten money and seeing who I can bribe today! You know, we are all the same - right?! Heh!!

Take care.

pranksygang said...

you are right!! they work for us! we should hire the best!!

Jo said...

Katy, but they did change things for all sorts of people -- women, racial minorities, gays... They changed things in a big way. There was a time not so long ago when Blacks and Jews were considered on the same level as dogs. I am ashamed to even write that sentence, the thought of it is so awful, but it's true. That is incomprehensible now. People have the power to change those things.

Russell, you're right -- not everyone sold out. I know how smart you are and you indeed could have gone to the top of any law corporation. You chose instead to work with indigent people. That is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

Pranksygang, yes, it is up to us to hire the best, and fire them if they are no good.

Leslie: said...

Again with all due respect to Katy, I have two daughters who were born in 1976 and 1980 and they don't understand just how recent all these changes were, especially for women. I was the first female in my family to go to university; however, it was to become a teacher because at that time a young woman could be a teacher, nurse, secretary, or clerk UNTIL she got married. Then she was expected to stay home and raise children. However, that all changed with the liberation movement and because of that young women of your generation (and my daughters) can do anything they want in life...don't be a nurse, be a doctor!...don't be a teacher, be a researcher, writer, professor!...don't be a secretary, be a CEO of your own company! But beware that with this freedom comes a lot of responsibilty AND, as my older daughter is finding out now, the lack of time for family and children. OR be a teacher, nurse, secretary IF that's what you want to be and be the best you can be whatever path you choose.

PhilipH said...

In the 1950s we had massive civil disobedience marches to "Ban the Bomb". It made not the slightest difference.

The store of nuclear bombs grew like Topsy.

Most people (i.e. over half) think that murderers should be executed or that "life" should mean life. It matters not: the people in power will not change the system.

Vast numbers of voters no longer believe our political masters. Do we have a way of showing our disillusionment? Don't vote? So nothing changes. Vote? But who for?

There has been a swing to the far right in many countries. In the UK the British National Party (BNP) has gained great support. But who would want this mob of fascists in power?

It's a growing problem, made worse by the thieving, greedy bankers and money men.

We need a revolution! Power to the people, as you say Jo. Easier said than done I'm afraid.

Land of shimp said...

Katy, I'm really not trying to dogpile on you here or anything, but that simply isn't true. It's all not exactly related to the issue. The people involved in the Civil Rights and Feminist movements were not Hippies. Hippies, Woodstock, anti-establisment, free love, etc.

Civil Rights protesters, the people who brought about change, came from every known walk of life. Many were affluent, and had no desire to be anything else. Even if they eventually worked for corporations, that is not at odds with what they fought to bring about. They fought for equality.

You've got some apples in your oranges there.

In terms of protests, it's a difficult thing. The views in the United States are highly divisive and potentially volatile.

We also have the problem of the kind of individual that is attracted to politics because of the trial by media fire they must endure. Sarah Palin, of whom I am no fan at all, did have her family and children dragged through the mud. I can't help but ask myself, What if she been worth a damn? (in my eyes, she was not)

Obama was put through the wringer also.

One of the things we have to change is the crap we allow the media to get away with at the present time. Our entire electoral process has cancer, essentially.

In Canada you interview you candidates, in the U.S. we subject them to a horrifically invasive smear campaign and think that it actually belongs in politics.

It's encouraged by the media, and both sides of the political divide.

Also, throughout history it is not that protest have brought about a great change. Protests happen when a structure is about to collapse. Look at the Velvet Revolution, the jingling of keys accomplished nothing in and of itself. It was a symptom of an entire society's desire for a change.

In other words, the complaining (whining, whatever you wish to call it) is a key part of the actual process of change. Unrest, dissatisfaction is best expressed through sharing opinions, not taking to the streets.

We all look back fondly on the Civil Rights movements, and tend to forget the bodies of the slain, leader, workers. Fire hoses used against protesters, tear gas, the list goes on.

Taking to the streets is a measure of last resort. Although it seems to happen fairly frequently in the UK, here it does have a history tied to violence, abuse of power.

We're supposed to speak with our vote. We've been too often lied to.

Sorry, I don't think you're naive, at all. I do think you are advocating something because you are considering the positive impact, without counting the incredibly negative cost.

There were bodies, lives taken in the fight for civil rights. Look back over the history of suffrage, acid down mail slots, etc.

Sooner or later we must evolve beyond mobs. Form a mob, someone will get hurt when things are this volatile.

Land of shimp said...

You know, I've been thinking about this ever since I posted earlier, trying to figure out exactly why I found the thought of protests alarming.

I think it's because, at least in the United States, at the present time the actual citizenry is extremely divided. Online the liberal side (of which I am a part) is most often encountered, but partially because of where I live, I encounter people from the extreme right in real life.

I think I need to remember that it is a factor of the area in which I live, and that in most parts of the country perhaps the divide is not as extreme.

Basically what I'm saying is that I had a fear based reaction. I've studied a fair amount of history, and I do worry that we are actually moving towards another civil war as it is. Hopefully that's an entirely baseless fear.

Anyway just apologizing for the "No! Doom! Disaster would result!" tone above.

Kathy's Klothesline said...

I tend to agree with you that we should quit griping if we aren't willing to provide a solution.....I grew up hearing these words "If you don't vote, you have no right to complain". I always thought that to be a fair statement, but have since changed my opinion. Our votes seem to matter little, being referred to as the "popular" vote. It is the the vote of a chosen few that actually decides the election. It makes it seem like the voters are voting in a popularity contest that has nothing to do with the issues and more intelligent people have been brought in to decide. I know I am stating this in simple terms that don't cover all the process............ I think we need to reconsider how this should be done and if a little display of civil disobedience will accomplish this....I am in!

Leah Fry said...

In theory, what you say is true. Am I the only one who feels powerless and like I don't matter? YES, I vote.

Maureen said...

Whenever this topic comes up, I think it's time to move to Canada.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I was a civil rights activist in the 60's, registering voters in Harlem, NY, who had never voted before. I also participated in the peace movement, and I still believe in the principles we fought for (peacefully) so many years ago.

When government fails to meet the needs of the people, it needs to be challenged and brought to its knees, if necessary. Majority rule must prevail in a democracy. When it does not, the system of government is some kind of dictatorship.

Mahmood said...

India is a fine example of non-violent movement's success. Your blog is very nice. The images are very beautiful. God is Great. Best wishes.

http://www.thedynamicnature.com

The Promiscuous Reader said...

Jo, you wrote: "During the 1960s and 1970s, people took to the streets in violent mass demonstrations." Which demonstrations, exactly, did you have in mind? There was some violence, I'll grant you, but all the mass demonstrations I can think of from that period were not very violent. Generally you'd have a huge crowd, with some violence at the fringes, usually as a result of police provocation or attacks by right-wing opponents. (Chicago 1968 is a good example of just that; so was Detroit 1998.) We now know that much of the violence that did occur in 60s protests was the work of FBI agents provocateurs, who were trying to give their bosses an excuse for repression. But the biggest mass demonstrations of the period were explicitly nonviolent -- the March on Washington 1963, the antiwar rallies in Washington a few years later. Since the Stonewall Riots, the gay movement has mostly been nonviolent in its mass manifestations; as far as I know, so has Second Wave feminism. (First Wave feminism both suffered and committed violence, but that was long before the 60s.)

I saw somewhere, once, that most Americans consider any mass demonstration to be violent by definition, just because it's critical of the proper authorities. So now we're seeing the Teabaggers in the US, rioting in the streets, screaming their hatred of America. They should take a bath, get a job, go to Russia if they don't like it here. ;)

Not that I mean to say that violent protest is a bad thing. But if you want to look at violence, look at the history of the labor movement in the US, which was violent in terms of the workers and of the government/corporate sector. But I think there is a tendency to depict the protest movements of the US in the 60s as violent in order to discredit them, and that's as bogus as the claim that all of the 60s activists became yuppies. (And don't forget that the New Right was also a 60s product.)

The Promiscuous Reader said...

"Detroit 1998"? I meant Seattle 1998. I need to sleep. But Detroit reminds me, that I suppose by "violent mass demonstrations" you may have meant Watts and other racial upheavals.

Firefly said...

Over here the people are also very unhappy with the government and when we had our elections a couple of months ago we thought that the ruling party won't get such a big win as in the past. WRONG! All the unhappy people just voted in the same party and three months down the line they are demonstrating against poor servive delivery again.. It seems that the people vote with their hearts for the party that fought for freedom but don't seem to be able to deliver on the essensials.

the walking man said...

Born in 1954. I am sorry but I saw the civil rights movement and the mass marches of the 60's and tell me again how things are better or different?

The pot, and chemical, fueled outrage was perpetrated by a bunch of college kids who thought it great fun to stick it in the nose of the pigs. Not in my opinion giving a shit less about Viet Nam as long as they didn't have to go and fight there. That was for the poor, non college student class of people.

American consciousness as a collective is better now in what way? Discrimination is better again how?

I personally think the boomer generation was for the most part a self serving, fun before work, birthers of the greed is good philosophy and if there is any fortunate aspect to it is that my generation only was able to have two presidents instead of five.

All of them who are still of a mind to protest think of it, and remember the good old days then go back to their societal developed adult apathy.

Sure there are some who carried the ideal forward to a professional life of service but there were many more who liked the taste of money and what it could buy.

Carl said...

I am not sure what holds people back now from forcing change. Is it apathy? Was this caused by television and the internet? Are people affraid because of just how vocal the "other side' is on the issues. I think it is a lot of things. The sleeping giant should be woken. People should involve themselves in local government and have their voices heard. This would be a step in the right direction.

Carl

Katy said...

The fight for equality has a long history and I have great respect for the tradition our country has had of people willing to stand up for their rights and the rights of others. As a single mom, I have great respect for the opportunities I have today.

The world we have today is vastly different than the ones my parents grew up in. We will only get as much reform as the lobbyist will allow us. The most I'm expecting out of any push for "change" is that things will be slightly less awful.

The USA is owned by wallstreet. Their paid employees in Washington will do all they can to see to it that as little as possible of real change happens, and that the very profitable status quo continues. Just look at the fight over health care! We can throw trillions of dollars to not fix multi-billion dollar financial institutions, we can write blank checks to fight wars we have no business fighting, but we can't spend a trillion dollars to save poor people's lives.

We are just suppose to be glad we still have a job. If we still have a job). We live in an amazing country where people can say and do whatever they want. But I'm not sure that it matters that much anymore.

I know, blasphemous, but you wonder why people don't protest the way they used to and I gave you my answer.

Deb said...

yes, those were the days. protesters, racial riots, archaney in the streets...perhaps things were carreid a bit too far. I firmly remember the riots in our high school and the bottles being thrown at me from a speeding bus while I waited at the bus stop.
what was actually accomplished?

Jo said...

Leslie, yes, I always told my daughter that very thing, if you can be a nurse, you can be a doctor... Reach for the top. Women can do anything they want to do.

Philip, yes, you make my point exactly. The 1960s and early 1970s were violent, but things did change. I think we all have short memories, and we forget how much did change.

Land of Shimp, "We all look back fondly on the Civil Rights movements, and tend to forget the bodies of the slain, leader, workers. Fire hoses used against protesters, tear gas, the list goes on." At the time, we all thought those were violent times, but in retrospect, the violence was the only thing that brought about the change. Stonewall was another example. I am not advocating violence. Not at all. But I do detect a certain amount of apathy that did not exist before. And I do understand how divided your country is, and your fear of civil war. But the apathy seems to be global, not just confined to your country. I think perhaps we have become so politically correct, that we are afraid to voice opinions about anything at all, and that has made us apathetic.

Kathy, "It is the the vote of a chosen few that actually decides the election. It makes it seem like the voters are voting in a popularity contest that has nothing to do with the issues and more intelligent people have been brought in to decide." Yes, in your country that seems to be the case. What happened in 2000 seemed unbelievable to the rest of the world.

Leah, I'm sure there are many people who feel the way you do, and unfortunately they don't vote because of that reason.

Maureen, oh, trust me, we have problems in Canada too. LOTS of them.

Hearts, dictatorship can come from other places than just the government, as well. As I mentioned above, we are all at the mercy of the PC (thought) police. We are moving more surely towards 1984 because people are becoming apathetic. Whatever happened to the "fire in the belly". What you did in the 60s was amazing!

Mahmood, Gandhi is a perfect example of someone who brought about huge social change, because of his convictions.

The Promiscuous Reader, the civil rights movement was violent, Stonewall was violent, there was rioting after Martin Luther King's assassination. In 1968 there was mass student rioting in France. These were not peaceful. Ireland, South Africa, so many other countries. I'm not just speaking of the US in my post. The discontent was worldwide. It reminds me very much of today, except today everyone is apathetic.

Firefly, your country is a perfect example. You folks fought to change, but you didn't get what you wanted. And now South Africans have the opportunity to bring about change again, but they fail to do it.

Mark, "I am sorry but I saw the civil rights movement and the mass marches of the 60's and tell me again how things are better or different?" In the very year you were born, the wonderful actress Dorothy Dandridge was not allowed to swim in the same Las Vegas pool as white people, nor stay at the same hotel. That is inconceivable now. Country clubs were allowed to post signs "No Jews, dogs or coloreds". That is inconceivable now. Homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment. That is inconceivable now. In Canada, aboriginal children were kidnapped from their parents, put into residential schools, and their culture and language beaten out of them. And don't even get me started on what is was like, being a single mother, trying to raise a child in a society that could tell me my child was "not allowed" to live in this apartment building, or I could not be hired for this job because I was a single mother, etc., etc.... These things are against the law now, because people rose up and said "enough is enough". That is how things are different now. And these are just some of the things that have been changed by people getting angry and actively changing things.

Jo said...

Carl, "I am not sure what holds people back now from forcing change. Is it apathy? Was this caused by television and the internet?" I think you have nailed it!

Katy, my post does not specifically refer to the US, but to all countries where people can make a difference, by losing their apathy and getting angry. The USA has always been owned by Wallstreet. That is the premise of capitalism, which is almost a religion in the US. "We can throw trillions of dollars to not fix multi-billion dollar financial institutions, we can write blank checks to fight wars we have no business fighting, but we can't spend a trillion dollars to save poor people's lives." Those are the things you should protest against, just as they did in the 1960s and 1970s against the war in Vietnam.

Deb, for what was accomplished, see my reply to Mark. A lot was accomplished, but it is all stuff we take for granted now.

A human kind of human said...

I just have to add my pinch of salt to Firefly's stew. As I sit here typing this comment, my beautiful little town is littered with rubbish because the very people who voted in the current government is demonstrating against poor service delivery, ruining and wrecking (I might add) everything that comes in their way. In the near future we will be having municipal elections and even now there is no doubt in anybody's mind that the very same political party will be voted in again simply because people historically associate this particular party with the "Struggle". Yet very little has changed for the "downtrodden masses" of the "Apartheid"-era, except for the very few who now sit in government posts, earn huge salaries and have the attitude that "I am okay Jack". I often feel that I, who are seen as one of the previously-privileged few, have more sympathy for the poor, sick and disadvantaged members of my community than those "activists for social change" of the "Struggle". Do not get me wrong, I am very happy that the needed change came, and I am quite comfortable with the changes, but still, I get so angry when I see what many of the present day "leaders" do with what was won for them by people who truly scrificed all in their lives (sometimes their very lives)to bring about the change.

(Soapbox again... sorry!}

Jo said...

A Human Kind of Human, I think most people are not surprised at how things turned out. The whole world helped your country with the necessary change that has come about, but as soon as that happened, the world forgot you. Now is the time when you need assistance from everyone, but it is no longer a "popular cause" and you have been forgotten. It's very sad.

Marguerite said...

I only wish that the younger generation would want to protest, like we did. I burned my bra in a college rally, protesting the Vietnam War, and I walked in civil rights marches, at a time when it was not popular for me to do so, in the deep south, etc. The only thing that most of this generation, including my own children, want to do is to have a good time and let someone else worry about all of this government
stuff. They've become numb to the
greed and news of the day. Great post, Jo! Cheers!

Jo said...

Marguerite, "They've become numb to the greed and news of the day." Oh, yes -- apathetic. It's kind of sad. They want someone else to "change" things...

Land of shimp said...

I'm still thinking about this days later.

In the U.S. something needs to change. I do understand that you weren't directly addressing the U.S., it's just an issue that touches on a lot going on here. The biggest needs for change are taking their slow steps towards becoming. Health care reform may actually get off the ground. Gays in the military have yet to be addressed, but I have hope on that too, all of our soldiers deserve to be able to live honest lives, without any phobic need for concealment. That's just to name two areas of concern. Alternate energy is starting to get the attention it needs also.

We are inching towards change, and I wish it could happen at a more rapid pace.

I feel like the U.S. is making progress towards healing the division that exists. Maybe that's just pie-eyed optimism at play.

The other part of the equation is that we are not well-informed by our press. Two thirds of the American public does not support the war in Iraq, but the press would have us believe that we are split down the middle on that. Polls indicate that 70% of citizens support health care reform.

We very much live in a culture of fear at present. Some of those fears are drummed up by the press, but are not an accurate reflection. We need to find out as much as we can about the actual process taking place. Protests can help, but they can also derail a process in progress.

Thoreau did advocate Civil Disobedience, actively questioning the government. In fact, there's a copy of his essays two feet from where I'm sitting, I'm a huge fan.

I just think that right now is the time to become educated on issues, to not fall for the medias depictions, shoving forth the Birthers as they are (a small, delusional group that is getting a lot press, making them seem like a huge force, when they are not), and trying to divide us more.

Write to our leaders, voice our concerns, and try to have the patience to find out if we are going to be able to change things.

Here's an example of how we are often not told the truth: The subject of Canada's health system is brought up by our politicians frequently. As discussed in your post on the topic, the depiction isn't accurate, and many of us cringe each time it is portrayed so negatively, and in such an inaccurate manner.

However, the proposed health care reform is not actually related to Canada (or any other socialized medicine system), at all. The plan isn't to eradicate private health insurance, or to mirror another socialized system.

We need to be better informed. One area that really needs it? Our media representation of issues is currently terrible. Despicably so. I wouldn't keep harping on that if it wasn't for that fact that most people are determining their take on issues from very slanted press.

Before we take to the streets, we need to inform ourselves. Then maybe the first place to start with the marches would be in front of our local media outlets, who are stirring up a division, and putting it forth as a defining element.

Government for the people, and by the people starts with truly understanding the issues. We are too content to be ignorant about the inner workings of the actual issues at hand.

I think we need to start by committing to learning about them.

Jo, I'm so sorry to go on so in your blog. I think you raise fascinating issues, and I also think protest have their place. If we're going to have them, we need to be well informed first.

Land of shimp said...

And I just actually took the time to actually look at the little cartoon you have with this post!

Oh my goodness, that was a long, loud laugh. Thank you so much for it!

the walking man said...

yes the codification of all that you mentioned has been removed from the books but...the minds of the majority have not been changed one wit. We have replaced those laws with a more subtle form of oppression. You did I am sure read of the recent Philadelphia Pool incident where 26 young black children from a day camp had paid for the use of that camp but as they came down the hill to go in the pool a majority of white parents pulled their kids out of the water.

We may say that education rights are equal but here in Detroit we graduate only 25% of the students, so no we do not snatch them and beat culture from them we simply refuse tot each them.

Single mothers may not have a stigma attached like back in the day but there is still an underlying resentment when they apply for and receive entitlement benefits paid for with tax dollars.

Sorry kiddo the colors on the portrait are all that have changed. I am not saying apathy is good either all I am saying is that there will never be mass demonstrations in America because the people over the last 50 years have been enslaved by their fear. Fear of losing job, house and mobility because they may say or do something that brings them to the attention of the government or their employer. And that is truth.

Mariana Soffer said...

Great post jo, those are the kind of things I like to write, a little history, some art, and tighting all trying to make sense of the facts.
But my favourite thing here is the turner painting, he is amazing
did you know that that painting:
The Great Western Railway (GWR) was one of a number of private British railway companies created to develop the new means of transport. GWR’s aim was initially to connect Bristol with London

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