Dissent: A book review by Bob Morris

DissentDissent: The History of an American Idea
Ralph Young
New York University Press (2015)

“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Edmund Burke

On occasion, I read two or more books at the same time if they address many of the same issues. For example, this book and Carol Belkin’s The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America’s Liberties. Dissent has indeed been one of the most powerful forces prior to, during, and following the War for Independence. It is also true had there been no Bill of Rights and what its ten amendments establish, it would have been difficult — if not impossible — to protest anything within the legal framework that has since preserved and protected the “inalienable right” to which the Declaration of Independence refers.

According to Belkin, “Despite the fluidity of meaning that marks the history of federalism, the Bill of Rights has fulfilled James Madison’s fervent hope that this ‘parchment barrier’ would benefit from civic and moral development of the nation. It has proved a strong bulwark for our liberties and a safeguard against the majority’s abuse of minorities. And it has established the vocabulary for our most critical discussion of, and fiercest debates over, who we are and what we think is best to do.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Ralph Young’s coverage:

o Dissent: American Revolution (Pages 55-78)
o Dissent: War of (1812 (91-93)
o Slave resistance and rebellion (115-122)
o Dissent: Mexican War (161-166)
o Dissent: Spanish American War (184-186)
o John Brown (185-189)
o Dissent: Civil War (191-212 and 204-205)
o Ku Klux Klan (216-220)
o Haymarket (262-2630
o Emma Goldman (320-335)
o Dissent: World War One (327-344)
o Sacco and Vanzetti (344-348)
o America First Movement (392-396)
o Dissent: World War Two (393-406)
o House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC): Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson hearings (410-413)
o Freedom Riders (430-432)
o Martin Luther King, Jr. and Selma (445-447)
o Dissent: Vietnam War (455-460)
o Eugene McCarthy (470-472)

In the final chapter, Young shifts his attention to the new elements that have entered the dissent narrative, notably the social media that “have the impact of reaching massive audiences and raising public awareness of [alleged] injustice.” I agree with him that postings on Twitter and Facebook “spread the word of protestors of the time and place of the next rally or demonstration or civil disobedience action or spontaneous ‘flash protest’…The possibilities are endless for dissenters to utilize these new tools to spread the word, educate people, and increase participation in their movement.” However, Young goes on to share his concerns about dissent that does not serve as “the fuel for progress.” He refers to irresponsible dissent that is, best uninformed and self-serving, and at worst, unethical or even criminal. There are significant needs that need to be addressed, such as demanding more responsible journalism, demanding that politicians “are beholden to the people and not to those who bankroll them, we need to question authority, we need to speak out [as he has], we need to make sure that ‘We the People’ really means something. We need to dissent.”

Obviously it is impossible for a brief commentary such as mine to do full justice to the abundance of insights, and counsel that Ralph Young provides but I hope that I have at least indicated why I hold his book in such regard. The idea of dissent can be traced back in time thousands of years but its nature and extent as well as its potential power are probably most evident in the history of the United States.

As I began to read this book for the second time, I was again reminded of this observation by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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