Civil Disobedience: When Do We Choose The Path Less Traveled?

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One of my most prized possessions is an autograph from Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi that my great uncle acquired on a visit by Gandhi to Bangalore, India in the 1930s.  It is not prized to me personally because of its monetary value, but because of the historical and philosophical significance of Gandhi in relation to India and in his greater influence on world history.

Gandhi’s main influence on the world, I believe, was his ability to put into practice the concepts of civil disobedience, first verbalized by the great American author Henry David Thoreau, in a way that effected massive change.  By combining the belief of non-violent mass protests along with Thoreau’s basic concepts of civil disobedience, Gandhi was able to force the English Empire to ultimately, and mostly peacefully, deliver independence to 1/7th of the world’s population.  It was something the world had never really seen before:  an empire coming apart because of the will of those that were ruled, without violence or bloodshed.

In this day and age, much of what Thoreau wrote sounds like a right wing conservative…or maybe a Tea Party member.  To show how far left the Democrats have moved the country, how many of these quotes, which were praised by the likes of Martin Luther King, would no be considered sacrilege by the mainstream American left?

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe— “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.

Or this…

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.

Or…

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.

The reality is, Gandi put into practice the basic concepts of individual freedom that Thoreau so artfully devised.  And from Gandhi came the likes of the nonviolent Civil Rights protests in the 1960s, and Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement against the Soviets in the 1980s.

The question that stands before us, however, is whether civil disobedience is meaningful in this day and age.

Civil disobedience is ultimately only effective and meaningful in a society that respects independent thought and freedom, even if it goes against the interests of the state.  In India, the British Empire could no longer defend their immoral rule over hundreds of millions of Indians without providing self determination.  In the U.S., segregationists and others fell to the wayside after a long fight that clearly demonstrated the utter illogical fallacy of living with the concept of ‘separate but equal’.  Even in Poland during Solidarity, the Soviets (never known to accept any such dissent) found it very difficult to deal with a peaceable movement; they could have thoroughly wiped them out, but at what cost?  Even the immoral Soviet machine knew that cost was too high.

The exception, of course, was Tienanmen Square in China, where the Chinese felt no distaste in wiping out the movement and putting thousands to death as the world watch.

So what kind of country is America today?

I am not one anyone would call a ‘rabble rouser’.  I eschewed protests of any kind when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan (well known for its protest movements).  Frankly, I thought they were silly and largely a waste of time, in lieu of actual political dialogue and debate.

So why do I now to accept these kind of movements and protests?  It is quite simple:  government has grown so invasive and contrary to many of the basic principles of individual freedom, we as a citizenry may have no other choice.

It began with Obamacare, forcing people into contracts for insurance, regardless of their will.  This has progressively moved on to other facets life, as liberals see more ways government can ‘aid’ the public.

But the most recent iteration was gun control.  As the gun control debate proceeds, I think the illogical and ill thought out plans of the liberals in Washington almost necessitates such civil disobedience.

The most recent proposal would consider some type of universal background check system, that would cover not just gun dealers, but gun shows, and supposedly, even private sellers (selling a gun from one individual or another, or even inheriting a gun through a family member).  The reality is that such a system is inconceivably hard to envision.  There is no way today for the government to track most of these weapons, and proving they were exchanged from one person to another, for cash or otherwise, is impossible…unless you forcibly register all guns in America, and right now that is not going to happen.

So what is the eventual result of such a law?  People will ignore it.  As stated most eloquently by Charles de Montesquieu’s adage: “Useless laws weaken necessary laws.”  Gun exchanges, except those going on in public, will go on as they always have.

There is a simple truth to governance…laws that cannot be enforced will be ignored.  There are numerous examples of this, both in the U.S. and around the world.  Think of laws against drugs, especially marijuana.  How is that working out?  Walk into any dorm of any college in America on a weekend, and you will see the utter failure of marijuana prohibition.  And this gun law would be no different.

And such laws are not just ignored by citizens, but by the machinery of the state as well.  How many state and local governments now ignore marijuana laws?  And how foolish do you have to believe that gun control that is unfeasible would be any different?

The larger societal problem is that such unenforceable, largely ignored laws further sow the seeds of distrust and skepticism within the public.  Such laws are first ridiculed as being ignorant of reality; they then are roundly ignored by citizens and government; and of course, ultimately fail in their goals.

What does this achieve?  Well, the obvious result is greater opposition to government actions.  This feeling of contempt of central government does not simply reside on the political right.  It is a basic tenet of most libertarian movements.  Many environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, are also calling for greater civil disobedience in blocking such proposals as the Keystone pipeline.  In places such as New York, which have passed unenforceable limits on the sizes of gun magazines, even Democrat gun owners plan to ignore the prohibitions.

What this slowly leads to is the progressive erosion of the legitimacy of government.  In a country where the majority of people see government as restricting their rights and liberties, instead of expanding them, more and more civil disobedience will become the norm.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, as often is the case, state it best…

“An unjust law is itself a species of violence. Arrest for its breach is more so. Now the law of nonviolence says that violence should be resisted not by counter-violence but by nonviolence. This I do by breaking the law and by peacefully submitting to arrest and imprisonment.”
― Mahatma GandhiNon-violence in Peace and War 1942-49

…and…

“I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
― Martin Luther King, Jr.The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The simple truth is a government that expands continuously, out of the rate of its ability to enforce its own regulations and rules, will become moot.  All these great leaders of our past recognize it.  Sadly, our contemporary leaders are too clueless and short sighted to see the damage they do.