Sunday, May 1, 2011

Time for Civil Disobedience?

In the skewed political world represented by the aging lefty audience for political panels at the LA Times Festival of Books (an event I rarely miss), supporters of President Obama stand on the right end of the spectrum (represented on the panel I saw this morning by Bill Boyarsky).  The loudest applause was reserved for Chris Hedges, who seems to think that Obama is as much a tool of the real power structure as was George W. Bush, and who believes that we have reached the point where civil disobedience is the only means left for combating corporate power, and other evils of our current economic and political system.

I want to say this to Chris Hedges. While I agree with many of your criticisms of our current condition, your proposed remedy is hopelessly old-fashioned, out of date, even reactionary. In the 1930's, when millions of people lived in shantytowns, calls for revolution might have seemed understandable, but even then the countries that avoided violent upheavals (like the United States) seemed to emerge more whole than those in which protest movements triumphed, because those protests often led to fascism. And in the 1960's, in the wake of the civil rights and anti-war movements, it also might have seemed understandable to call for violent protests, but the upsurge in violence in the late 1960's in fact led to a law and order backlash, the election of Richard Nixon, and 40 years of a conservative counter-revolution. If the peaceful, democratic revolution of 2008 was such a jolt to the American system that it has sparked yet another conservative comeback, what do you think would happen if people took to the streets in a lawless way, as you are advocating?

And Chris, if you want to view Bradley Manning as some kind of whistle-blower, hero, or political prisoner, who is being tortured to dissuade others from revealing war crimes; instead of as a criminal who got caught reading other people's mail, and is being treated no differently from others in similar circumstances, I suppose that is your privilege. But you should understand that your perspective is not going to be shared by more than a small minority of Americans. If we learned anything from the 1960's, we should have learned that people are turned off by violence and lawlessness. When they see disruptive behavior, they tend to follow figures of authority. You could try pointing to Egypt and Tunisia as counter-examples, but my response would be that whatever the faults of the American system of democracy, it has not reached the level of repressiveness of the dictatorial regimes that demand to be changed by massive, peaceful protests.

Bill Boyarsky made the point that as far as he can tell, civil disobedience is not what most people are looking for. And it was either Boyarsky or the middle of the road panelist, Joe Mathews, who has co-written a book on California's dysfunctional political system, who pointed out that much of what Hedges is saying is wrong could be fixed by re-structuring the tax code, which would do more good than marching in the streets. Mathews advocates a new constitutional convention for California, on the ground that our current system is so beyond our control that we cannot fix it through regular democratic means. At least in Wisconsin, he said, the voters could choose a slate of candidates and actually give them the power to do what they said they would do. And if people don't like it, they can go to Madison and protest at the center of power. In California, we can elect a Democratic governor and Democratic legislative majority, but they are still powerless to enact the programs that they and a majority of the people favor. And if we don't like it, there doesn't seem much point in marching on Sacramento. We should probably march against the system that we ourselves have set up over the years, and which is now  beyond our control.

My real problem with writing this post is the following, however. Why am I obsessing about the most doom and gloom panel of all the ones I attended? I should be talking about Patti Smith! I saw her yesterday talking with Dave Eggers about their respective memoirs and art and life and stuff, and it's hard to think of two more inspiring and uplifting artists to have the privilege to listen to. On the other hand, Patti also mentioned that she thinks it might be a good idea if billions of people start taking to the streets demanding change. Well, if she led the charge, I'm sure that at least she would try to channel all that energy in a positive direction.


  1. Thanks for the post. It's nice to hear you views. As well it is simultaneously pleasing to hear the success story of the end of the mastermind of terrorism. If that tightens the transition from Bush to our current President, so be it. Huge congratulations to the POTUS and our heroic military who have done the leg work for nearly a decade.

  2. I am a bit unsettled by news video of Americans celebrating outside the White House like a frat party. I can't see how those reactions will serve anyone's interest. Reminds me of people in the ME clebarting after kills. Not good. Just a little humility would be nice.

  3. Very flattered you are reading me with all the momentous news going on. Right after I clicked post I saw the news then I immediately had to go pick up my wife at lax. Heard the president's speech on the way. It's a little scary to be at the airport at this moment but everything seems normal here and that is good.


  4. The Presidents speech was top shelf! LAX has great security. Best wishes.