Thursday, August 31, 2006

Obedience and Disobedience

from Howard Zinn's Declarations of Independence


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"Obey the law." That is a powerful teaching, often powerful enough to overcome deep feelings of right and wrong, even to override the fundamental instinct for personal survival. We learn very early (it's not in our genes) that we must obey "the law of the land." Tommy Trantino, a poet and artist, sitting on death row in Trenton State Prison, wrote (in his book Lock the Lock ) a short piece called "The Lore of the Lamb":

i was in prison long ago and it was the first grade and i have to take a shit and . . . the law says you must first raise your hand and ask the teacher for permission so i obeyer of the lore of the lamb am therefore busy raising my hand to the fuhrer who says yes thomas what is it? and i thomas say I have to take a i mean may i go to the bathroom please? didn't you go to the bathroom yesterday thomas she says and i say yes ma'am mrs parsley sir but i have to go again today but she says NO . . . And I say eh . . . I GOTTA TAKE A SHIT DAMMIT and again she says NO but I go anyway except that it was not out but in my pants that is to say right in my corduroy knickers goddamm. . .

i was about six years old at the time and yet i guess that even then i knew without cerebration that if one obeys and follows orders and adheres to all the rules and regulations of the lore of the lamb one is going to shit in one's pants and one's mother is going to have to clean up afterwards ya see?'

Surely not all rules and regulations are wrong. One must have complicated feelings about the obligation to obey the law. Obeying the law when it sends you to war seems wrong. Obeying the law against murder seems absolutely right. To really obey that law, you should refuse to obey the law that sends you to war.

But the dominant ideology leaves no room for making intelligent and humane distinctions about the obligation to obey the law. It is stern and absolute. It is the unbending rule of every government, whether Fascist, Communist, or liberal capitalist. Gertrude Scholtz-Klink, chief of the Women's Bureau under Hitler, explained to an interviewer after the war the Jewish policy of the Nazis, "We always obeyed the law. Isn't that what you do in America? Even if you don't agree with a law personally, you still obey it. Otherwise life would be chaos."'

"Life would be chaos." If we allow disobedience to law we will have anarchy. That idea is inculcated in the population of every country. The accepted phrase is "law and order." It is a phrase that sends police and the military to break up demonstrations everywhere, whether in Moscow or Chicago. It was behind the killing of four students at Kent State University in I970 by National Guardsmen. It was the reason given by Chinese authorities in 1989 when they killed hundreds of demonstrating students in Beijing.

It is a phrase that has appeal for most citizens, who, unless they themselves have a powerful grievance against authority, are afraid of disorder. In the 1960s, a student at Harvard Law School addressed parents and alumni with these words:

The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. Communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes! danger from within and without. We need law and order! Without law and order our nation cannot survive.

There was prolonged applause. When the applause died down, the student quietly told his listeners: "These words were spoken in 1932 by Adolf Hitler."

Surely, peace, stability, and order are desirable. Chaos and violence are not. But stability and order are not the only desirable conditions of social life. There is also justice, meaning the fair treatment of all human beings, the equal right of all people to freedom and prosperity. Absolute obedience to law may bring order temporarily, but it may not bring justice. And when it does not, those treated unjustly may protest, may rebel, may cause disorder, as the American revolutionaries did in the eighteenth century, as antislavery people did in the nineteenth century, as Chinese students did in this century, and as working people going on strike have done in every country, across the centuries.

Are we not more obligated to achieve justice than to obey the law? The law may serve justice, as when it forbids rape and murder or requires a school to admit all students regardless of race or nationality. But when it sends young men to war, when it protects the rich and punishes the poor, then law and justice are opposed to one another. In that case, where is our greater obligation: to law or to justice?

The answer is given in democratic theory at its best, in the words of Jefferson and his colleagues in the Declaration of Independence. Law is only a means. Government is only a means. "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness"-these are the ends. And "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government."

True, the disorder itself may become unjust if it involves indiscriminate violence against people, as the Cultural Revolution in China in the period 1966-1976 started out with the aim of equality but became vengeful and murderous. But that danger should not lead us back to the old injustices to have stability. It should only lead us to seek methods of achieving justice that, although disorderly and upsetting, avoid massive violence to human rights.

Should we worry that disobedience to law will lead to anarchy? The answer is best given by historical experience. Did the mass demonstrations of the black movement in the American South, in the early sixties, lead to anarchy? True, they disrupted the order of racial segregation. They created scenes of disorder in hundreds of towns and cities in the country (although it might be argued that the police, responding to nonviolent protest, were the chief creators of that disorder). But the result of all that tumult was not general lawlessness.' Rather the result was a healthy reconstitution of the social order toward greater justice and a healthy new understanding among Americans (not all, of course) about the need for racial equality.

The orthodox notion is that law and order are inseparable. However, absolute obedience to all laws will violate justice and sooner or later lead to enormous disorder. Hitler, calling for law and order, threw Europe into the hellish disorder of war. Every nation uses the power of law to keep its population obedient and to mobilize acquiescent armies, threat- ening punishment for those who refuse. Thus the law that inside each nation creates conscript armies leads to the unspeakable disorder of war, to the bloody chaos of the battlefield, and to international turmoil.

If law and order are only ways of making injustice legitimate, then the "order" on the surface of everyday life may conceal deep mental and emotional disorder among the victims of injustice. This is also true for the powerful beneficiaries of the system, in the way that slavery distorts the psyches of both slave and master. In such a case, the order will only be temporary; when it is broken, it may be accompanied by a bloodbath of disorder - as in the United States, when the tightly controlled order of slavery ended in civil war and 6oo,ooo men died in a country of 35 million people.


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