Demonstrations, yes and no

Voice Card  -  Volume 11  -  Stuart Card Number 5  -  Tue, Dec 12, 1989 5:02 PM

This is a response to Vol 10 Roger 2 ("Student demonstrations")...

Good question, Roger. The issue of demonstrations, and civil disobedience in general, is an interesting issue, one on which my composition class and I spent some time mulling over this past quarter.

Because writing well, and hence thinking well, is a skill that citizens must have if democracy is to function properly, the students read some essays and wrote some papers that discussed and explored various points of view of this issue. Perhaps it might shed some light on the subject if I briefly mention some of the essays that we read.

The first is The Declaration of Independence. This is a document that is rhetorically structured along the classical (read Roman) form of argument and persuasion. At its center, the D.I. is of course an argument that attempts to justify an extreme act of civil disobedience. The argument is quite simple: Since we've tried every legal means to get laws that we consider unjust and unfair changed, we have no alternative but to engage in an extreme form of demonstration - a revolution, a complete change of government.

Wendall Berry, in an essay entitled "The Reactor and the Garden" argues that demonstrating / civil disobedience is justified for similar reasons.

Berry cites the following example. He lives in Kentucky, 20 miles downwind from a nuclear power plant that was built across the Ohio River in Indiana. Though the citizens of Kentucky will be affected if the power plant goes kablooie, they had no say in deciding if it was to be built or not; only voters in Indiana had that right. Since Berry could not express his opinion through the normal democratic channels, he felt he had no choice but to engage in an act of civil disobedience - in his case, to trespass on the grounds of the nuclear power plant as part of a peaceful demonstration.

Both of these essays appear to support the Students demonstrating in Tienneman Square, but not support the demonstrators at the Pete Stark meeting. In the former case, as China is a Totalitarian government where citizens do not have the right to vote or express themselves democratically through other means, demonstrations/acts of civil disobedience was their only course of action. As you will recall from the interviews that various students gave on the networks and from the the giant Statue of Liberty-like sculpture erected in the square, the Tiennemen Square demonstrations were very Jeffersonian in nature. Hence, these students, it seems to me, ennobled democracy with their actions.

The same cannot be said for the elderly demonstrators at the Pete Stark meeting, however. They had other democratic means of expressing themselves and deliberately chose not to exercise those options. Rather than ennobling democracy, they are helping to erode it.

Such is the main distinction that Lewis Van Dusen makes in another essay we read. Van Dusen wrote his essay in 1969 when demonstrations were of course rampant. He excludes Martin Luther King, Jr. from censure by the way (another voice of civil disobedience we read in class), since, as he argrues, King was not so much a law breaker as he was a law tester; i.e., he tested/demonstrated against unfair laws at the state level, laws which were eventually overturned at the federal level for being unconstitutional. Van Dusen goes back to Plato's essay, "The Crito" (another essay we read), for his justification.

The relationship between an individual and the state is very fragile, especially in a democracy. I condemn the demonstrators at the Pete Stark meeting for putting that relationship in jeopardy. The students demonstrating in Tiennemen Square, since they do not live in a democracy, are a different case entirely.