“Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience…” – Howard Zinn
We live in a uniquely troubled time, particularly due to our access to information. We can see the problems unfolding if we look closely, but, many choose to look the other way.
Our high-ranking political officials are more influenced by incessant corporate lobbying than by public opinion, and this is not hard to see when it comes time to make policy changes.
We are always at war (often with questionable motives, at best), and those responsible for waging these wars are rarely held accountable for their words and actions, or for the death toll that results.
The government is steadily working to erode the civil liberties of the people in the name of national security. And, speaking of national security, the threat of nuclear warfare is becoming evermore terrifying across the globe.
Oh, and we have done irreversible damage to the environment.
It can be very easy to tune out, or to claim that everything is okay, that every period in history has its rough spots. But, I think, with our access to information today, we have a unique and important responsibility to force change.
If you believe everything is dandy, you are less likely to work to create change. But, if you see the world as it is, a fight for radical change seems to follow logically.
This was the approach taken by late activist and historian Howard Zinn.
“I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.”
Zinn was convinced that the world needs more disobedience; the problem is not civil disobedience, but civil obedience, particularly during times of rampant injustice (which is, unfortunately, almost always).
“All you have to do is read the Soledad letters of George Jackson, who was sentenced to one year to life, of which he spent ten years, for a seventy-dollar robbery of a filling station.
And then there is the U.S. Senator who is alleged to keep 185,000 dollars a year, or something like that, on the oil depletion allowance. One is theft; the other is legislation.
Something is wrong, something is terribly wrong…”
And the media, television, and other sources of distraction do a lot to alter our perception, whether via misinformation, disaster porn, or useless entertainment.
“If you don’t think, if you just listen to TV and read scholarly things, you actually begin to think that things are not so bad, or that just little things are wrong.
But you have to get a little detached, and then come back and look at the world, and you are horrified. So we have to start from that supposition – that things are really topsy-turvy.”
The problem, in Zinn’s view, comes down to civil obedience, as mentioned above; the people passively looking on as their government stomps on their civil liberties, goes to war without justification, and easily takes the power out of the hands of the many, placing it in the hands of the few.
“As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience…
Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty.
Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.”
Speaking to an American crowd, Zinn recognized that Americans tend to see the problems that result from passive obedience in other countries, but rarely do we look in the mirror and see that similar problems are piling up in our own living rooms.
“We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them.
Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people.
But America is different. That is what we’ve all been brought up on.”
American exceptionalism is a precious ideal, taken to heart by many Americans; and, if you don’t accept the doctrine that America is a divinely chosen nation, well, you must be a Communist or a terrorist. That is what we have been told to believe.
But it’s nonsense. America is a powerful nation, and a nation that has done good as well as bad. It is not divinely ordained, it should not be shielded from criticism, it should not be held above the law by its politicians or by its people, and it should not be using (abusing) its power to bully other nations into submission in the name of world domination as we have seen all too clearly in recent years (and throughout history).
“…if we have learned anything in the past ten years [during the Vietnam War], it is that these lovely things about America were never lovely.
We have been expansionist and aggressive and mean to other people from the beginning. And we’ve been aggressive and mean to people in this country, and we’ve allocated the wealth of this country in a very unjust way.
We’ve never had justice in the courts for the poor people, for black people, for radicals. Now how can we boast that America is a very special place?”
The mainstream media likes to depict protests, and civil disobedience in general, as anarchy in action, when in fact it is democracy in action. They marginalize those who dare to challenge the establishment dogmas as radicals who are not to be trusted, and encourage conformity and obedience.
The media also, as Adam Curtis suggests in his latest documentary Bitter Lake, attempts to create a defeatist attitude amongst the people; “ah, we can’t do anything about it, the problems are too confusing, too lofty, and out of control.”
This is a farce, and even, as Curtis further posits, a form of social control. The constant confusion imposed by the media drives us into feelings of uncertainty and paralyzed inaction.
But the people standing up for themselves, exercising their rights to free expression, educating themselves, and doing everything they can to demonstrate their dissatisfaction; these are necessary factors in a functioning democracy, and throughout history, they have shown to be incredibly effective for inducing change on a large scale (although, we are often told that voting is enough to induce change, which is another absurdity. To quote Zinn: “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”).
It’s not easy, and it’s not a quick process. But it works. Civil disobedience works.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacriﬁce, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”
The fact that the media looks down upon protesters and demonstrators is very telling; they don’t want civil disobedience or independent thought. They want passive obedience, they want us to accept their version of every conflict, domestic or international.
It is up to all of us to disobey, and to fight against the comforting lull of passive obedience and resignation; that is, if we really want things to change around here.