A Time for Civil Disobedience


I am a strong believer in civil disobedience, my heroes in that vein are:  Thoreau, Ghandi and King (but there are many others in history that espoused the inalienable right of dissent and civil disobedience).  Hell, I came of age in the 1960s:  the Vietnam war (hell no we won’t go), civil rights and the environment.  We had protestors in the streets and on college campuses for years.

Like Thoreau, Ghandi and King I believe in non-violent protest.  Break the law if you must, but try not to hurt anyone.  Timothy McVeigh and the Uni-bomber, on the other hand, thought that violent protest was the only way to go (the only option), and they acted accordingly. And they each paid the price, one was tried, convicted and executed, and the other is spending life in prison without the possibility of parole.

So here’s the crux of civil disobedience in my humble opinion:  you must be willing to take personal responsibility for your protest, and be willing to face the consequences and pay the price (and there are always consequences and prices to be paid), both overt and covert.  I will cite the Vietnam war in the following example.

At the outbreak of declared hostilities in Vietnam in 1965 I was a believer, I drank the government dispensed Kool-aid.  Based upon government bungling, manipulation and outright falsehoods I enlisted in the Marine Corps.  I did my time in Vietnam, and fought honorably and with distinction.  I never let my fellow Marines down, or retreated in cowardice (and I am proud of those things even today).

Within months, however, after returning home I had completely reversed myself.  The facts were starting to emerge surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the resolution that followed, the pretext for going to war in Southeast Asia.  Also the grim story of the My Lai massacre (where hundreds of unarmed old men, women and children were slaughtered) was coming to the attention of the American public.  So by 1969 I was a very disillusioned Vietnam combat veteran, anti-war and very distrustful of the government that lied to us to get us into a conflict with no exit strategy.

Flip to the protestors perspective, the anti-war perspective.  Why were they against the war? Was it based on moral, ethical or religious grounds and beliefs, or were they simply afraid of getting killed (a very real possibility given my experience in Vietnam)?  In the first case I can really admire their stand, and I would defend their right to dissent and protest.  In the second case it reeked of a self-serving agenda (I don’t want to get killed), a survival agenda wrapped in a noble cause (I have nothing against survival per se, but lets be honest about our motives).

The first group was willing to go to jail for their beliefs, a one or two-year sentence was the usual sentence back then. The second group often fled to Canada to avoid the draft and military service.  Both groups paid a price for their dissent.  I have tremendous respect for the first group (they walked the talk), but the second group didn’t impress me much.  One dissented from principal, and the other dissented from fear (I won’t use the word cowardice here).

Headline news today announced that the organization Planned Parenthood was exonerated of all charges levelled against it by the state of Texas (a so-called red state) and the conservative Pro-lifers (mostly conservative Republicans).  Additionally, the Grand Jury has indicted the plaintiffs on pre-meditated criminal charges, thus severely damaging the Pro-life platform in general.  The right-wing activists are now crying foul, totally disregarding the fact that this verdict was rendered in a decidedly right-wing, conservative state.

I am politically independent (fiscally conservative and socially libertarian), and I understand and even sympathize (and empathize) with the feelings of the Pro-lifers.  I hate the notion of abortion, and I am disgusted that people all too frequently use it as a form of birth control (accidents will happen is not an excuse for laziness and ignorance).  Having said all of that, however, I come down on the side of the Pro-choice people:  basically that it is a decision a woman must ultimately make with her doctor.  Religion, moral and ethical imperatives do not automatically trump a woman’s right to choose (no matter how distasteful her choice might be to us).

I support the Pro-lifers right to dissent and protest, and if their conviction is so strong as to break existing laws then so be it (as long as it’s non-violent).  But don’t whine about injustice when you are called to account, and then required to pay the price for your dissent.  Walk the talk.  I can respect that, and I fully support your right to do it.  But if you’re all show and no go I’m not too impressed.  I refer back to Thoreau, Ghandi and King, they all walked the talk (and look at what they accomplished in their lifetimes).

We have big issues in our country now.  It’s up to us as citizens to fully inform ourselves of the facts.  This is increasingly difficult to do, because so much so-called hard news is fiction based on untruths and opinion.  On the left you have MSNBC and on the right you have FOX News, there is no room for this kind of partisan, biased reporting masquerading as hard news.  It really is nothing more than video blogging, very little fact, mostly opinion.  That would be okay if they advertized themselves as OpEd (Opinion Editorial) venues, but they don’t.  And the written blogosphere is every bit as bad, if not worse (both on the right and the left).

I try to get my news from more mainstream sources, so-called hard news venues like:  AP, Reuters, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the BBC, NBC, ABC and CBS.  But it’s not easy.  The blogosphere, though titillating and provocative, is mostly opinion based and I don’t trust it for factual information.  But as difficult as it is we owe it to ourselves to become informed citizens, and to vote our conscience.  Educate yourself, try to vet your sources (shy away from opinion), speak to the issues:  the sin-of-silence only leads to abuse and tyranny.

Issues of personal importance to me include:  personal end-of-life decisions (physician assisted suicide); the Second Amendment and gun ownership and regulation; Pro-life versus Pro-choice; the environment; judicial and political reform (term limits and government oversight); privacy versus national security and banking reform.  Controversial issues each and every one.  Not easy to discuss, much less resolve.  Will I be happy with all the decisions surrounding these issues?  Doubtful.  I reserve my inalienable right, as an American citizen, to:  dissent, protest and engage in civil disobedience when I am in opposition.  I am also willing to pay the price if my conviction is strong enough, that includes going to jail.  Are you?  Really?

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

(and sometimes half-ass political commentator)

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2 responses to “A Time for Civil Disobedience

  1. Nice viewpoint. I’m a child of the early 60’s but most of my formative years were during the excesses of the 70’s and the tight-assed Reagan years. I’ve found myself becoming more fiscally conservative and socially libertarian with age. Keep up the civil disobedience (peacefully)

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