By Ariel Shearer
Editor’s Note: The Project is proud to introduce our latest contributor, Ariel Shearer (@arielshearer). Ariel is studying journalism and political science at Emerson College, and is the web producer at The Boston Phoenix (@BostonPhoenix). This editorial is cross-posted on Ariel’s blog, Wait, What is the Internet?
After reading this article in the New York Times’ 9/11 supplement: “Civil Liberties Today” by Adam Liptak — I’ve been thinking a lot about our currently wayward democracy and the widespread youth apathy epidemic.
After reading an article from 1970, titled “The Problem is Civil Obedience” by Howard Zinn — similarities between now and then are scary.
I was inspired to write this essay in response to a prof question.
What are the implications of Zinn’s argument regarding the law and its relationship to powerless groups?
Zinn is quite clear in his message – those rendered “powerless” by the political system itself are in fact well-endowed with the power of opposition. As we read last week, “America is a country founded on dissent” (Haynes). The power of opposition is the power that wrote the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. Just plain power – as the government would have us believe in these times – is something that comes from money, clout, and peer support. That means someone like a politician. This is a convenient and self-establishing definition.
But where do these politicians really come by their power? The doctrine meant to limit government powers (Bill of Rights) is where they take their authoritative roles from, written both implicitly and explicitly and further defined/assigned by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is supposed to be a detached body – and historically is seated by fogies far older than popular opinion. Due process seems to flow at the same speed as it did when the Bill of Rights was written. The Internet generation can’t even comprehend such ineffectiveness in their video games, so watching the snail’s pace of politics has left most of them a bit bored.
What I wish I could tell the rest of my generation to try and wake them up, to demand a government that reflects the speed at which they think and grow: The same words used to tell the government what they cannot do to us (and therefore what they can do to us) are the same words used to defend and protect all that we can do as citizens – we all share the same source of power. And we’re all promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And as a society it’s obvious we settle for 1 out of 3.
How does the government exercise power? They influence our lives oppressively with taxes and policing, and positively by providing socialized services like public transportation and fire stations. It’s important to remember, however, when the government tries to use social works as a bargaining chip –that they are humans too. Politicians have families and homes they wouldn’t want to see burn to the ground because they couldn’t afford to hire fire fighters.
Politicians are citizens that directly benefit from the same services they demand praise and votes for providing to society.
This game of ideological tug-of-war between who knows best, the people or the government, has existed as long as politics itself. Somehow, over hundreds of years, societies managed to evolve and progress, to demand better qualities of life and better government… The existence of social democracies like France and the United States, the most progressive form of governance to date, proves the effectiveness of rebellion, opposition to government, and social revolution.
Tracing history from Hellenic Greek times proves that it isn’t the state leaders who enable progress within a society –but rather it is the opposition to political leadership, the People, who fuel progress. The People have consistently reformed government just as consistently as state leaders have overstepped their totalitarian roles throughout history.
One of the most hard-hitting points Zinn makes in The Problem is Civil Obedience, is the mass devastation caused by civil obedience, by following the demands of government without opposition. His example is Hitler – and I think that says everything that needs to be said about that.
When we adhere, and obey, it’s much like settling into a cubicle knowing you’ll never take a greater role within that company. We must constantly push our government, and encourage our fellow citizens, to demand progress — because despite apathy being “the new black,” history has taught that it’s up to us, the “powerless,” to improve society for all living humans, and for all future generations to come.
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