Sunday, August 29, 2004

Solidarity With The Protesters

I can't be there, but they have my moral support.

In honour of those who will inevitably be arrested, I copy out this letter:

To The Editor:
There is no one in public life for whose integrity and wisdom I have greater respect than George Kennan but in his otherwise excellent article occurs a passage which, coming from him, alarms be considerably: "These observations reflect a serious doubt whether civil disobedience has any place in a democratic society... Some people, who accept our political system, believe that they have a right to disregard it and violate the laws that have flowed from it so long as they are prepared, as a matter of conscience, to accept the penalties established for such behavior. I am sorry, I cannot agree... It would then be all right for a man to create false fire alarms or frivolously to pull the emergency cord on a train.. provided he was prepared to accept the penalties of so doing."

Mr. Kennan is far too intelligent to know that his example is a red herring. Who ever heard of a man going to the police and saying: "I have just turned in a false fire-alarm. Please arrest me?"

I commit an act of civil disobedience if I deliberately break a law because I believe it to be unjust, either negatively or positively. A negatively unjust law--the Prohibition law of the Twenties, for example (passed, by the way, "democratically")-- is one which forbids an action which should be a matter of private, not public, judgement. A man who went to a speakeasy or dealt with a bootlegger did not say to himself: "It is my moral duty to drink whiskey." He said: "I have as much moral right to drink whiskey as my neighbor has to drink milk."

In the case of a negatively unjust law, a man will break it as privately as possible; he has no intention of paying the penalty if he can possibly avoid it because he thinks has no moral right to exact one.

A law is positively unjust if it commands an action which is unjust or immoral. A man who publicly refuses to serve in the armed forces, as distinct from a draft dodger, does not say: "I have a right to defy the law." He says: "It is my duty to defy the law. Moreover, though the majority do not yet recognize it, it is really the duty of all men to defy it." It is only in such circumstances that a man can be said to "accept" the penalty for defiance.

To claim that one is right and that the majority is wrong is, of course, morally perilous; every crank and megalomaniac is prone to make it. But to suggest, as Mr. Kennan seems to, that the claim can never be justified is to deny that human history owes anything to its martyrs. Dr. Johnson, who was certainly no anarchist, thought otherwise:

"The magistrate has a right to enforce what he thinks, and he who is conscious of the truth has the right to suffer. I am afraid that there is no other way of ascertaining the truth but by persecution on the one hand and enduring it on the other."

-- W.H. Auden


*From Democracy And The Student Left by George F. Kennan, 1968
The Letter from Auden originally appeared in the New York Times.

***Update, and on-topic, Matthew Yglesias completely disgraces himself. WTF is wrong with you, man?

***Edit: Maybe Yglesias is joking; I hope so.

At any rate, coverage of the protests by a leftist *not* given to reactionary sneering may be read at the always excellent alicublog.

From a site strategically linked to by that asshole Instapundit (and so rating a maximum cootie factor of 10), is this picture which is by far my favourite of all. Perfect.

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