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How Dissent Has Shaped the US: An Interview With Author Ralph Young

In his new book, Ralph Young looks at the way dissent has shaped the United States.

Activists gather at an Occupy Wall Street rally in New York City on October 11, 2011. (Photo: Kurt Christensen)

Historian Ralph Young is the author of the recently published book Dissent: The History of an American Ideal. In this book, Young looks at the way dissent has shaped the United States, and does so in a manner reminiscent of the methodological approach that characterized the late Howard Zinn’s work. Ralph Young is professor of history at Temple University.

C. J. Polychroniou: I would like to start by asking you a basic question about the very subject of your book: What is dissent?

Ralph Young: On the broadest level, dissent is simply resisting the “powers that be,” going against the grain. But the powers that be shift over time, so this means that our definition of dissent has to be rather fluid. When dissenters accomplish their goals, they create a new paradigm, a new reality, and most often, that new reality generates its own dissenters. For example, once patriots gained the upper hand during the American Revolution, the previous powers that be, the Loyalists, found themselves in the curious role of dissenters. Another example is after slavery was abolished, the new reality was a slave-free society, and within months of the end of the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed to protest against this new reality with the goal, not only of resistance, but an all-out attempt to restore white supremacy.

The act of dissent covers a lot of ground, ranging from intellectual skepticism to radical violence. Do you argue that there is “good dissent” and “bad dissent?” If so, how do you distinguish between the two?

Although I don’t like to use words like “good” or “bad” when it comes to dissent, I do think there is a moral element that we have to consider. For example, dissenters who are pushing to expand rights, who are demanding that the United States live up to the promises it committed itself to in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, are practicing what we can call “good” dissent. The US at its founding declared that “all men are created equal” and that we all have basic rights. Dissenters, over the years, have demanded that America deliver on these promises.

When dissenters accomplish their goals, they create a new paradigm, a new reality.

Thus, you had the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, civil rights, LGBT rights, Chicano rights, etc. What these movements demanded was simply the rights guaranteed in our founding documents. However, there have been dissent movements that have pushed back against these movements: the KKK pushing to limit African Americans’ rights; nativists throughout the nation’s history fighting to restrict immigration in an effort to keep America white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Even today, there’s the continuing white backlash against the successes of the civil rights movement; thus we have efforts to overturn the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action and police and neighborhood watch violence against unarmed Black men and women. All of this can be classified as dissent. Ultimately though, I do not like to label dissenters as “good” or “bad,” because sometimes negative or “bad” dissent that seeks to restrict rights actually unveils deeper issues that need to be addressed. Such dissent serves a more positive purpose by intensifying the debate and forcing people to hone and perfect their commitment to the issues. This often creates a stronger foundation for the changes that are made.

Why is the subtitle of the book “The History of an American Idea?” Is there anything uniquely American about dissent?

Dissent, of course, predates the United States. We didn’t create dissent. Dissent created the US. But once the United States was established, we were the first country to guarantee in writing the right to dissent, and Americans, taking that right seriously, have developed a long history of using the right to dissent to push the envelope and create change. In my book, I argue that dissent is the fuel for the engine of progress. Another thing that is important about dissent in America is that dissenters often look at previous dissenters to draw inspiration and strengthen their resolve. They study the tactics of earlier movements to figure out what worked. And they emulate those that were successful for their own purposes. For example, after the civil rights movement, dozens of other rights groups adopted such tactics as boycotts, sit-ins, marches and civil disobedience.

Should dissenters always strive for nonviolence? Or when is violence appropriate? What separates violent dissent from “terrorism?”

This, of course, is the central question. I think most of us would agree that nonviolence is the way to go — that violent dissent usually does not win many converts to your cause. In fact, violence most frequently alienates those you want to influence. However, we have to realize that one of the most successful dissent movements in the history of the United States was violent. The protests against London increased to the point that a war for independence broke out that resulted in much death and destruction, but in the end, established the United States. John Brown’s activities in Kansas and Harpers Ferry helped eventually to ignite the Civil War, and it was that war that led to the final destruction of slavery.

Violent dissent is distinct from terrorism. Dissenters who resort to violence are still operating within the system. When they go from nonviolence to violence, it is most often an expression of their exasperation that those in power are not listening to them; that their nonviolent protests aren’t being taken seriously. So, in despair and frustration, they lash out and act violently. Their goal, however, is to reform the system, perhaps even in radical ways, but they are not trying to destroy the system. Terrorists, on the other hand, are not seeking to reform anything. They want to annihilate the system, the governing powers, the society.

The book you’ve written is an alternate history of the United States after the fashion of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States? What makes Dissent: The History of an American Idea different from Zinn’s book?

I like reading histories like Zinn’s. They’re refreshing. They get us to look at our history through a specific prism and often compels us to re-evaluate how the US has developed. Zinn’s synthesis of American history centers on class. Other historians have used race or gender. Dissent: The History of an American Idea, like Zinn’s, is an overview of American history, but instead of using the lens of class, I use the lens of dissent. And dissent is much broader than class.

We didn’t create dissent. Dissent created the United States.

It includes broader aspects of society and a veritable plethora of ideas and goals. True, a huge number of American dissenters — perhaps a majority — have come from the lower classes, but there are middle-class dissenters as well as those from the upper classes who have led or joined wholeheartedly in various dissent movements. There is left-wing dissent, but also right-wing dissent, and even what we could call “no wing dissent.” Dissent represents many more divergent views than those limited to class.

Dissent is a work of synthesis that also accounts for conflicting impulses in US history. Given this, what does historical “progress” mean — and should we think about being very specific when we use that term?

One of the things that I conclude in the book is that, although most dissenters are seeking progress, progress itself is a disputed concept. What is progress for one group is regress for another. I write in the conclusion that: “Throughout the country’s tumultuous history, the long tradition of skepticism and questioning authority has moved the United States, somewhat erratically in fits and starts, generally in the direction of ‘all men are created equal.’ Whether it is progress or not, whether it is evolution or devolution, is in the eye of the beholder.”

What would you say are some of the biggest triumphs/successes of dissent in the US and the biggest disappointments/failures?

There have been many successes, as well as many disappointments and failures. Clearly, the women’s suffrage movement, abolitionism, civil rights and LGBT rights have had a great deal of success. After a long, drawn-out fight, the labor movement was also successful, but since the 1950s, unions have been under such attack that it seems that workers are back to a pre-New Deal reality. So that has been a disappointment. And, of course, we have seen how there’s been a sharp white backlash against the civil rights movement that has resulted in major efforts to turn back the advances in voting rights. Another significant disappointment is how economic inequality continues to fester in the United States despite many protests. The Occupy movement was widespread, but it didn’t seem to gain enough traction, although I believe we have not heard the last of it. One thing Occupy did accomplish was bringing attention to the problems faced by the 99%, and it generated a lot of dialogue and debate. At the moment, Occupy appears to have been a failure, but perhaps it was only the opening salvo. I think the movement will rise again and continue in a new form.

Is dissent always useful — whether it results in political change or not?

Yes, I do think so. Even though many dissent movements were not successful in accomplishing their goals, some of them at least got people talking about the issues. They convinced people that there is an issue. So even movements that fail change the dynamic, they get people arguing and thinking in ways they hadn’t, and somewhere down the line, this will influence and inspire future protests.

Do we always need laws to protect and honor dissenters?

In a so-called democracy, it is of course imperative to protect the right to dissent, even dissenters with whom we disagree, even those we deplore. Raising the questions, raising awareness is always good for a dynamic society.

How has technology influenced dissent? Does the existence of the internet and social media change protest, especially at the organizational level? Is it positive or negative?

Dissenters always employ the latest technology. The Protestant Reformation benefitted from the Guttenberg Press, and so Bibles could be translated and published and disseminated along with treatises advocating reform of the church. During the Progressive era, Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine and others used photography effectively to raise consciousness about child labor and the plight of the poor. In the 1960s, television and audio recordings were used by dissenters to promote the civil rights and antiwar movements. So it’s not surprising today that the internet and social media are major tools for proliferating dissenting opinions. In some ways, I argue in my book, this is very positive. A movement can get its message out to masses of people, to gain converts, to inform of the latest protest marches, to create flash demonstrations, etc. So technology is a significant weapon for protestors. However, there is a negative side — what some people call “cliktivism” or “slacktavism,” in which people can click “like” or sign a petition and think they’ve participated actively in a protest. And this can result in lower turnouts, more complacency, more apathy. A million “likes” for a cause is not comparable to several thousand people actually marching across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to face billy clubs and tear gas. So I think activists and militants need to figure out ways to use technology wisely and effectively.

During the roughly 400-year history you examine in the book, many of the root causes of dissent — race, gender and economic inequality, religious differences, whether or not to fight wars and even police violence — are recurring themes. Does this repetition mean that we are not learning from history and are therefore doomed to repeat past mistakes?

What it means is that it’s a constant struggle. There is a built-in inertia in the system that constantly needs to be fought. One thing about dissent is that each dissent movement generates its own antagonists. For example, women’s suffrage spawned the anti-suffrage movement. So there’s this constant flux, this constant back-and-forth between expanding rights (in this case), and then fighting to maintain them. I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite protest signs I’ve seen recently was, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit!”

By studying the past, might you be able to predict the future face of dissent, or perhaps see the next wave of dissent in the US on the horizon?

I’ve always believed that history is not only about the past, but also about the present and the future. There is always cause and effect, and if we view the world with a historical frame of reference, we can come up with reasonable expectations about how things will progress in the future.

Dissent is sort of like a process of erosion.

Today, we see the discontent of the masses in so many countries — the ordinary people in the UK, Europe, the United States — who have lost faith in the elites and the powers that be. The third world has always known and experienced this, but now globalization has taken over the mindset of those first-world citizens who have been hurt, who have been disadvantaged by the elites, the Wall Street gentry, the bankers, the international corporations, the 1% who reap all — or at least most of — the benefits of globalization. And so I think we can reasonably expect protest against economic inequality to fester and magnify greatly. The worry, of course, is that along with the legitimate grievances about economic inequality, the anger has spawned an enormous amount of nativist, xenophobic nationalism. And we’ve seen how xenophobia, racism and scapegoating have so easily been manipulated by the fascist dictators of the 20th century and the destructive wars that has led to.

Is dissent effective or even relevant in the 21st century? What lessons can progressives learn from the history of American dissent?

Some causes seem more important than others, some are more urgent than others. But the lessons of the past are there for us to draw on today. We can see examples in the past where dissenters, because of their strategy or their tactics, ran up against a brick wall of resistance, and others that were able to crack through that wall. We can see which tactics worked and which ones did not. Dissent, in the end, is sort of like a process of erosion. Old ideas that seemed sacrosanct are slowly eroded away until they no longer seem so sacrosanct, and new ideas gradually take their place until you have a new paradigm. I don’t mean to sound so dialectic, and I don’t believe that there is an endpoint to history, there is no utopian classless society to aspire to. There is always change.

What do you foresee as far as the future of dissent is concerned in the United States?

I think that dissent will continue as long as the United States continues. We don’t know exactly what forms it will take, or what causes dissenters will take up. But we do have a pretty good idea from history that dissenters will always push for more freedom, more liberty, more economic equality, and that there will be counter-dissenters who will seek to deprive them of these goals. There always seems to be that for every two steps forward, there’s one step back.

What is gained for leftist movements today by anchoring themselves a positive account of the nation’s founding (accounts that suggest that this nation has leftist impulses at its core)?

I think that leftist movements today have a deep, abiding faith in “democracy.” And in that way, they are the true heirs of the American Revolution. Even if most of the “founding fathers” like [George] Washington and [Alexander] Hamilton and [Thomas] Jefferson were elites who distrusted the masses, they did give lip service to liberty and equality, and they did formulate fundamental arguments promoting the idea of a government of the people. Today, their ideas are more broadly conceived than they themselves conceived them. Because leftists today believe in the value of democracy, what they are in essence doing is holding America’s feet to the fire. They are demanding that the United States live up to those ideals ensconced in our founding documents. “Be true to what you said on paper,” as Martin Luther King Jr. expressed it in his last speech on April 3, 1968, in Memphis.

What is inevitably lost or papered over when one embraces a positive founding narrative about a nation-state?

What is papered over is that the majority of the “founding fathers” were slave owners. And the institution of slavery gave them the leisure time to devote to thinking and writing about such high-fallutin’ and precious concepts as democracy, liberty and republican forms of government. Historian Edmund S. Morgan, in his book American Slavery, American Freedom, makes a compelling argument that the notions we have of freedom, that the basis for American freedom is slavery. If it weren’t for slavery, we would never have developed as we have. So it is rather presumptuous of us, even for the left, to feel that we’ve embraced freedom and believe in equality for all. Still, despite that, it doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water. What it does mean is that we should aspire to those ideals, even if the “founding fathers” didn’t fully believe in them themselves, even if they were disingenuous hypocrites who framed a constitution solely to benefit and protect the property rights and aristocratic status of their class. Today, we need to take those ideals seriously and work toward making the reality of American society more closely resemble the ideals they espoused in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

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