Before the Religious Right
IT'S THE LAW
So, is it ever right to break it?
Huey Long, the one time governor (and near dictator) of Louisiana, once said that if facism [sic; fascism] ever came to this country, it would be under the banner of one hundred percent Americanism. Having been very young when McCarthy was knocked off his red, white and blue pedestal in Washington, I am only now beginning to see the truth in Long's statement.
We are being warned from many quarters that McCarthyism is on the rise again. Indeed, the recent loud mouthings of the Birchers, the Ku Klux Klan, George Lincoln Rockwell [head of the US Nazi Party], and even our dear friend, Barry "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" Goldwater would tend to support the argument that there are some among us who would welcome a return to the good old days of McCarthy's witch hunts.
However, these red in the face Red haters do not scare me half as much as another development, a bigger but quieter one. It is the slowly growing tendency of Americans to believe what some of the super patriotic fanatics are saying. It is a growing intolerance to dissent and mistrust of intellectualism; the reaction (mostly hidden) of most middle aged, middle class Americans to the war and the protests against it.
Even though they rarely question the freedom of opinion, Americans have an ingrained fear of dissent, perhaps due to the fact that through our history, we have experienced little of it. [Seems we didn't get much labour history.]
A similar situation was observed in religion by Samuel Butler. "People in general are equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and seeing it practiced." We find democracy in practice rather uncomfortable, we are quick to call protesters foolish, jeer at them, and rip down their placards. We are quick to ban politically unfavorable publications. We are quick to censor the high school newspaper. We are quick to condemn anyone who might suggest that America is not altogether perfect.
We are quick to squash any situation that threatens the status quo, either that of the nation's or even that of our own mind. We yearn for political security. We forget that the most secure form of government known is a total dictatorship. We forget that dissent is not only allowed in our system, but also necessary for it to function properly. Crushing this dissent would be an act of perverted patriotism, a great disservice to America.
Just as the Korean conflict was one of the prime causes of McCarthyism, so the Vietnam war has caused the rise of these new super patriots. They see the conflict as a "Holy War" against Communism, and like Joe McCarthy, they want to flush out all the Commies at home. When they can't find any they invent a few. Many of them consider Hoover [Herbert, not J Edgar, if hugely fond of him too] as the last truly American president -- the rest since then have all been dupes for the Reds.
They consider our colleges and universities virtual Soviet satellites, and have little respect and no trust for either students or professors. They truly fear many of the movements for academic freedom, and desire a return to the day when the college student kept his hair cut and his mouth shut.
Of course, this feeling isn't limited to the extremists; the fear and suspicion of this young generation of activists is widespread. It is one of the major characteristics of the Conservative wing of the Republican Party, the one that put Goldwater on the Presidential ticket in 1964, and Ronald Reagan in the California Governor's mansion in 1966.
One of the prime factors that helped Reagan get elected was the conservative middle class backlash to the demonstrations at Berkeley [its Free Speech Movement born in 1962], and Reagan, true to his cause, has started putting on the pressure. I imagine all the students in California must love him for that. (One high school paper there had called his administration "The Ronnie Raygun Show.")
I imagine that as the war gets worse (as it probably will) and continues to drag on, the super patriots will gain influence, preying on the desire of society to finish it once and for all, even at the expense of crushing some of the dissent here. The flag wavers will undoubtedly be hard to resist, and the flag burners will probably land in prison, as Rep. Richard Roudebush of Indiana has proposed. I wonder how those who refuse to salute it will fare.
Consider the flag. To many Americans its sacredness is surpassed only by that of motherhood. We pledge allegiance to the flag, we have rules of ettiquette [sic] for it, and even a national foundation to protect it. But what is it really? Physically it is a piece of fabric dyed in a certain pattern with certain colors. It is used to represent our nation to others, and to us it is a symbol of America and those principles for which America stands, as stated in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
Notice the word "symbol." The flag is America's symbol just as the cross and the Star of David are symbols of Christianity and Judaism. Those religions are strong because they are based on sound principles. They could exist without their symbols. Likewise, America could exists without the flag, but not without the principles that make her strong as a nation.
It is therefore clearly foolish to abrogate some of those principles in order to protect the flag. The fervent, super patriotic protection of that "sacred banner" even at the cost of what it represents is, in reality, a great insult to it.
I have heard it said that America is too sophisticated today to put up with another round of McCarthyism. Though it is disputable, I hope it's true. The super patriots, it would seem, are very prone to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
What a relief to find a country where even the flag -- in fact almost anything that might count to some as national mythology -- rarely flies uncontested.
And 1967 was, compared to now, America's good old days. Imagine: Ronald Reagan confined to California; almost no one having heard of (either) George Bush....
My hope to open my column "as a forum for the expression of valid opinions" held by others than myself was just this once fulfilled. And well: Amy Snyder was always amazing.
Last Monday, May 1, was Law Day, U.S.A. A brief observance was held at the Court House in Ayer, with members of local law enforcement agencies, the North Middlesex Bar Association, and the local judiciary in attendance. Also present were students from the Ayer and Groton High Schools.
I shall not give a full account here, since I'm sure others will do so, and will do a better job than I could, however, I would like to make note of one speech which was presented by Amy Snyder, the President of the Ayer High School Student Council, and which I will reproduce here, with her permission. [Call an editor for that sentence!] It dealt with a question which is not often considered on Law Day, but which is of great importance in these times. The text is as follows:
"Father Dunn, Honorable Justices, members of the North Middlesex Bar Association, and honored guests:
"Is it ever right to break the law? because a person honestly believes that a law is wrong, is he entitled to break that law?
"The immediate reaction -- particularly on Law Day -- is, "No, a law is a law, and should not be defied in any case." There is valid support for this opinion. First of all, there are ways to bring about or change laws within the legal framework of our nation. This in one of the things which separates a democracy from an anarchy or a totalitarian government.
"A case came before the Supreme Court in June 1962. and the result was the ban of compulsory school prayer in New York. This was accomplished through legal channels. A citizen felt strongly about the prayer and filed suit, and eventually a Supreme Court decision was handed down. True, the legal proceedings take time, but the channels are there and may be used.
"In New York City, civil rights demonstrators dumped garbage on City Hall Plaza to protest discrimination. They were sentenced with the statement: 'Even though they were acting from the loftiest of motives, we must all recognize that the heart of our democratic system lies in our acting in legal fashion.'
"All of these arguments seem to express a belief that the law is the basis of our democracy. But should it be? There are people who believe that there are times when it is necessary that a law be broken.
"The reasoning behind this is based on whether the law is morally right or wrong. A human being has a conscience, and a free human being should have the right to exercise the decisions of his conscience. Dr. Martin Luther King says, 'There are just laws and there are unjust laws ... A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.'
"There are lawbreakers whom all Americans applaud. The leaders of the American Revolution were breaking English laws. They considered these laws wrong, but they were laws, and they were being broken. We, and other members of the Free World, also applaud those who defied Adolf Hitler's regime. He was the government, he had his laws -- but thousands knew that, morally, the things he did 'legally' were wrong.
How can we say that the breaking of any law is wrong when we can see so many examples of justified lawbreaking in history?
"Of course not all laws which are defied or broken intentionally involve a great moral crisis. It may be merely something which a group of people believe to be outdated. It often takes non violent civil disobedience to bring attention to that law, to keep the laws up to date and practical, or to force a community or state to face an issue.
"I have presented these two opposing views not because I support one or the other, but because we are fortunate to be able to see and discuss two different sides to an issue, and because I think that -- particularly on Law Day -- the question should be considered: 'Is it ever right to break the law?'"
A note of interest: Expo 67 opened last Thursday, and right away American visitors expressed dissatisfaction with the U.S. pavilion, a 20 story [sic] geodesic bubble, filled with Raggedy Ann dolls, a display of one hundred American hats, a yellow taxi, and huge pictures of Hollywood stars, among other things. The Europeans, however, seem to like it.
Perhaps we, like the Russians, would rather display some nice gleaming, unobtrusive hardware than honest, contemporary Americana. I think it's about time that our world's fair exhibits displayed something more than a scale model of the Eastern States power grid, or a glorified review of U.S. History One. Thank you, Expo.
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February 2001 / Last revised: October 5, 2001
Rick Bébout © 2001 / firstname.lastname@example.org