Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Let us demonstrate for peace...but only if it is convenient; Some thoughts on the efficacy of civil disobedience

I thought this was pretty funny.

Apparently, the mother of the first female soldier from Wisconsin killed in the Iraq war declined to participate in an upcoming peace rally, scheduled for this Friday in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, when she learned that the rally will likely involve "civil disobedience." The civil disobedience in question would involve a public street march without a permit.
[She] said she couldn’t endorse any peace-promoting event that may involve police arrests or conflict.

"I prefer Gandhi’s or Mother Theresa’s philosophy about peace," she said. "It’s about love and cooperation, not about conflict."
Gandhi? Okay. When I Asked Jeeves "Did Gandhi ever go to jail?" here's what it gave me:
Gandhi was arrested many times by the British for his activities in South Africa and India. He believed it was honorable to go to jail for a just cause. Altogether he spent seven years in prison for his political activities.
That page also states:
[Gandhi] developed a method of action based upon the principles of courage, nonviolence and truth called Satyagraha.... Satyagraha promoted nonviolence and civil disobedience as the most appropriate methods for obtaining political and social goals.
The way peaceful, civilly disobedient protests work is that everyone is there protesting peacefully, then the cops come in and start busting people. It's the police who are the source of the conflict, not the protestors. Of course, the police always have the option of not busting people, but that would involve voluntarily not enforcing the law, which is typically a bit of a stretch for them. In fact, if they choose to take that course of action, they themselves would become part of the civil disobedience.

A more valid point to make might have been to question whether civil disobedience actually accomplishes anything anymore. I often think that it does not--after all, it seems to me the primary reason Gandhi succeeded is that he made the British look like a bunch of barbarian thugs. This worked because the British went through great pains to proclaim themselves as the most civilized culture in the world, and they were embarrassed to be exposed like that. So there are some key elements here which are required for civil disobedience to work: 1) The authorities must respond excessively (merely arresting people is not generally considered excessive), 2) The authorities must actually care about their public image, and 3) The excessive response of the authorities must be publicized in a way that reflects negatively on them. I think the powers that be in the United States have pretty effectively disarmed numbers one and three--normally, the police do not respond excessively anymore, and the media rarely paints the acutal power structure in a negative light based on the results of a protest. Recall how the Seattle protests of several years ago were blamed on "anarchists". Whether or not the anarchists were real or not, or whether the violence there was started by the cops or not, this one little misdirection, along with a compliant media, was all it took to effectively diffuse the impact of the most significant protest to take place on American soil in recent decades.

[edited 10/12/05 to clarify that the female soldier killed was the first female soldier from Wisconsin killed in the Iraq war. Ooops.]


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