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Civil Disobedience: The Misunderstanding of Patriotism
Human emotions are like fuel to a fire during a protest, it is unlikely that it will ever be completely “peaceful” and more likely lead to violence and chaos. Although freedom of debate and assembly are protected under our First Amendment rights as citizens of the United States.
However, so is the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, without the chance of death in the end. In the essay, “Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy” (1969) Lewis Van Dusen, Jr. urges that civil disobedience threatens democracy’s purpose of order. He emphasizes that reckless shortcut alternatives to the democratic way of petition, debate and assembly will destroy a society that is built on the rule of laws.
He explains, “If citizens rely on antidemocratic means of protest, they will help bring about the undemocratic result of an authoritarian or anarchic state” (Van Dusen 3). Unlike Van Dusen, Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849) urges citizens to disobey the laws when they do not agree.
He asks, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, shall we endeavor to amend them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” (Thoreau 311). Although Thoreau justifies acts of meaningful civil disobedience, Van Dusen has a stronger argument that civil disobedience can create violence, chaos and according to history can destroy a democracy.
Both authors wrote during controversial American wars. Thoreau’s essay was written at the end of the Mexican- American War in 1848. He believed the government pursued war without any moral sense, using men as “machines”. Thoreau explains, “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies” (307).
Unlike Van Dusen’s essay which was written during the Vietnam War in 1969, it had no “imperial” advantages or resources for America to obtain or protect. The United States did not seek this war, but had no other choice to join and prevent the spread of communism throughout the world (4).
Similarly, both authors agree that a government is a necessity. Thoreau does not deny the benefit of a government that enacts just laws. He admits that American government does provide avenues for change for dissenters but they are too slow and unreliable.
However, he is willing to allow a government it’s imperfections, “All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say let us not have such a machine any longer” (Thoreau 308).
Van Dusen emphasizes how crucial a government is to a democracy, how imperative it is to obey the laws and the court procedures to uphold every citizen’s rights. He firmly asserts that man is not above the law and has no right to break it.
He asserts, “Since equalities will mar even the best framed democracies, the injustice rationale would allow a free right of civil resistance to be available always as a shortcut alternative to the democratic way of petition, debate and assembly” (Van Dusen 2).
Although Thoreau expresses how Americans should exercise their right to speak against their government, Van Dusen argues that civil disobedience can trigger an uproar of violence and chaos. Thoreau describes necessary violence as, “Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and do not consist wholly with anything which was” (311).
On the other hand, Van Dusen clearly highlights the consequences of civil disobedience. He illustrates, “First, it courts violence, and even the most careful and limited use of non-violent acts of disobedience may help sow the dragon- teeth of civil riot” (Dusen 3).
For example, the Kent State incident, which started peacefully on May 1, 1970 took an unexpected violent turn when protesters, savagely broke store windows, and aggressively lit city and college buildings on fire. These threatening acts of civil disobedience left the mayor of Ohio no choice but to call in the National Guard.
The National Guard tried to control the hostile crowd, by reciprocating violence. Unfortunately, the protest ended in the massacre of four students and several injuries. It set the stage for more violent political and social movements, which on occasion have ended in deaths (History.com).
Van Dusen’s argument that civil disobedience can create violence, chaos and according to history can destroy a democracy is stronger than Thoreau’s unrealistic idea of peaceful civil disobedience. After all, what is the purpose of civil disobedience, without making a written change in the laws?
Freedom of assembly is essential to a democratic democracy, but as history shows the persuasion of Congress and other legislative bodies are essential to long term reform. Van Dusen emphasises, “To adopt the techniques of civil disobedience is to assume that representative government does not work.
To resist the decisions of courts and the laws of elected assemblies is to say that democracy has failed” (3). Without these proceedings democracy will crumble and invite anarchy, resulting in unnecessary violence and chaos.
History.com Editors. “Kent State Shooting.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 8 Sept. 2017, www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/kent-state-shooting.
Thoreau, Henry D. “Civil Disobedience” A World of Ideas: Essential Readings for College Writers, by Lee A. Jacobus, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013, pp. 301–324.
Van Dusen, Lewis H. “Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy.” The Essay Connection Readings for Writers, 4th ed. Ed. Lynn Z Bloom. D.C. Heath and Company: Lexington, Massachusetts, 1995. P563-70. Print.