The Odd Thing About Dissent Is the Illusion of Its Virginity

There are people in jail right now, others in early graves over this whole dissent business.

Dissent: The History of an American Idea

Publisher: New York University Press
Author: Ralph Young
Publication date: 2015-04
"Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests… During this plundering we remained passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall, assured our tickets to success, prosperity, and happiness were waiting around the corner.” -- Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

This review starts not with a quote from Ralph Young’s Dissent: The History of an American Idea, but from one of the most vital political analysts of our time addressing a potentially irreversible crisis happening right now and under our very noses: the suspension of dissent as a corrective and cyclical mechanism against the prevailing status quo. Of course as Dissent abundantly shows, the composition of both the privileged and dissenting class changes dramatically in each successive period. Less clear is whether each new era’s power structure encapsulates a more repressive paradigm until such time as a perfected vise-grip one day stifles dissent altogether.

In fairness to Young, his book is (as the subtitle reflects) a historical retrospective. So this reviewer’s disquiet precedes the reading of this expansive and, in many ways, impressive account. Nonetheless in other ways, Dissent reads like one of Hedge’s superseded text books, perhaps what one might encounter in a 200-level survey course in a university Political Science class. When the forest is ablaze, the last thing one wants to be handed is a field guide to its pristine flora and fauna. How about a red phone to the forest firefighters, instead?

At the end of the day, history is at the end of the day. Flames lapping at your heels? That’s a whole ‘nother campfire. So I confess to first flipping to the book’s conclusion in order to better gauge the tenor of the author’s closing thoughts. The book is, after all, a 2015 edition, a full two years on from the tragic ‘death by prosecutorial mischief’ of Aaron Swartz, easily his generation’s Abbie Hoffman. For all its portent, Hedge’s 2010 book could not have incorporated that cruel injustice. Yet Dissent makes no mention of Swartz; nor of electronic civil disobedience pioneer Jeremy Hammond, sentenced in 2013 to ten years in prison for leaking intelligence firm Statfor’s emails, which detailed money laundering and other improprieties. Indeed, there’s no mention of hacktivism at all. Wow. Tales of yesteryear, indeed.

The book concludes with this: "And we need to demand more responsible journalism, we need to demand politicians who are beholden to the people and not to those who bankroll them, we need to question authority, we need to speak out, we need to make sure that 'We the People' really means something. We need to dissent."

Never mind the comma splices. I’m thinking wan, pedestrian, bloodlessly text bookish. Obsolete, as Hedges might say, before the ink dries. There are people in jail right now, others in early graves over this whole dissent business. Historical remove aside, the nation’s commissioned thinkers in this space have an obligation to meet these dark times with something that reaches beyond academic pieties.

Equally dubious is the author’s introductory assertion that we can expect more of the same because, well, it’s been that way for four centuries. Here’s Young: “In a century that is only in its second decade, we cannot foresee the scope and extent of future protest movements, but if the history of the past four hundred years has taught us anything, it has taught us that dissent and protest in all its numerous manifestations is not going away and will continue to shape the United States.”

Oh really? Suppose modern surveillance techniques and perfected manufactured consent has in fact delivered us to a panopticonic dead-stop? What we thought was an endless cycle turns out, in the final analysis, to be a ratchet converging on its terminal click.

Well, those are my book-ended beefs. Perhaps I overreact with the jealous prerogative of the present moment. Am I wrong to expect more here-and-now hand-wringing from a historically focused account? On to the middle part, the history stuff, which is really quite fascinating and where Young exercises his true vocation. In fact, he excels in story-telling mode.

The odd thing about dissent is the illusion of its virginity, which Young ably conveys—how it always feels peculiarly impudent to the status quo each time it is invoked. During the western expansion of the 1870-80s period, myriad groups meet near-identical resistance, from Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce to Chinese coolies, to the Mexican resistance group the The White Caps. Then later, Americans of northern and western ancestry express alarm at the influx of Eastern European Catholics and Jews. The fundamental fear never seems to abate and typically manifests in a twofold manner: one, there is a sense that ‘true American identity’ is being hopelessly diluted by the new strangers and two, a selfish determination resists sharing the wealth and allowing economic parity and enfranchisement.

Sometimes the status quo’s fear is not ethnically-based at all, but rooted instead in cultural or even psychological factors. Speaking of the '50s’ consumer explosion and general exuberance born of full employment, Young also points to the dark Cold War imaginings fanned by McCarthyism: “Whereas the 1920s featured a conflict between modernism and traditionalism, the 1950s was a schizophrenic age split between confidence and paranoia.”

At other times, dissent is not a unitary expression issued towards a singular injustice. In the chapter "Progressives and Radicals", which deals with the turn of the 20th century, Young details a complex milieu of, “political, economic and social problems caused by rapid industrialization, urbanization, and mechanization” giving birth to a “range of responses”. Much of the dissent is of a reactionary cast, as opposed to a bold, progressive bid for a heretofore unclaimed promontory, as farmers, small store owners, capitalist reformers, etc. all weigh in against growing wealth disparities that are robbing their hard-won gains. Not unlike our own era, political corruption is rampant and wealth distribution is dramatically skewed (In 1900, the top ten percent owned 72 percent of the nation’s wealth). The middle was losing ground. Sound familiar?

In Dissent in the Age of Reason, it’s already clear by 1720s-era Colonial America that Enlightenment ideals and the Age of Reason are destined to clash with slavery, Native-American relations, women’s rights, the more rigid strains of Calvinism and Empiric mercantilism. By the end of this chapter (around 1740), Young points out that while the preponderance of, “demands fell on deaf ears… they did help raise awareness… furthermore, dissenters were aware of each other. When one group spoke out against injustice, it set an example for others to speak out.”

While this emboldening process assists in normalizing the righteous dissent of the oppressed through the centuries, the battles never seem to get easier. At least past struggles managed to ensue in all their variegated ardor, from the Suffragist movement of the post-Civil War era, to the Quaker pacifists of World War One, to today’s Tea Party advocates. One is always left hoping the war is not over altogether. But then, maybe the Mugwumps nursed similar anxieties. One would also like to think Fighting Bob La Follette, Sr. would have found a way to fight around drones and NSA surveillance. We’re hardly done yet. Edward Snowden could use a ticket home.





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