18 October 1996
Earlier this week, on October 16 to be exact, WMBR news presented Howard Zinn and others in a benefit appearance here at MIT. It was an appropriate date for that appearance, being the 29th anniversary of the day in 1967 when the same Howard Zinn spoke before some 5000 demonstrators gathered on Boston Common in resistance to the draft and the Viet Nam war.
In 1967, resistance to the war was still limited, and those who protested were labeled as heretics and worse by the establishment. Yet on this occasion, some sixty seven young men burned their draft cards in an abolitionist's candle at Arlington Street church, and more than 200 others turned their draft cards over to be forwarded to the Justice Department in defiance.
On that day, Howard Zinn observed, "people have felt the need to gather, whether in the forest or the mountains, or in underground cellars, or, as here, under an open sky, to declare the rights of conscience against the inhumanity of government."
Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin also spoke at this demonstration, saying, "Men at times will feel constrained to disobey the law out of a sense of obedience to a higher allegiance." And indeed, some of those who acted on their principles at this and similar events did feel the hand of the law fall heavily on their shoulder. Within months, many were arrested and jailed, and Coffin, with three others, was indicted for conspiracy.
It is a time we should not forget, for many of the fundamental issues raised in those days are still defining the differences among us. With the passage of time, we now have a president who used various means, all legal under the laws of the time, to avoid being drafted into that war. And we have his opponents who still mutter darkly about those choices and question any failure to blindly follow the pronouncements of officialdom.
This is one of those fundamental differences -- must the laws always be obeyed, even if some of them are wrong. In that rally on the Common 29 years ago, William Sloane Coffin invoked the memory, quote, "of hundreds of history's most revered heroes. ... Socrates, St. Peter, Milton, Bunyon, Gandhi and Nehru" who defied the legal and other authorities of their time in service of a higher allegiance. In the years since then, we have added other names to the list of heros who broke unjust laws, and we have designated a national holiday in honor of one such person, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For indeed, Martin Luther King and his followers broke the laws of the states in which they lived and demonstrated, and many went to jail for their actions. This is a fact often overlooked by authoritarian politicians of the present day who may praise King on his holiday and then turn right around and heap scorn and derision on those who would challenge or defy corrupt laws of the present day. There's also no shortage of people proposing additional laws to add more government coercion to the lives of individuals. Abortion, free speech, drugs -- these are the present day grounds where these same battles are being fought.
One side in each of these battles simply believes that it's ok for the legal system to enforce any kind of behavior that you can get a majority of congress to vote for. These are often the same people, by the way, who speak of "government" as the enemy, who boast of being beltway outsiders, or who simply want to cut government at every turn. Turns out, it's not *every* turn. There's no cutting of military or police forces which would be used to hunt down and incarcerate those who fail to conform to any of these existing or proposed coercive laws.
This being an election year, we are supposedly in the process of choosing those who will make our laws, as well as those who will carry them out. And in this election year, as in most others, even the most relevant discussions hardly ever touch on the question of how laws should be made and what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate laws. We choose people for legislative bodies over and over again, and we virtually never ask if they know anything about how to make laws.
One of the things I wish that more of our lawmakers understood is that you can't make laws that the people don't support. I didn't make this principle up, by the way; I first heard it credited to the Talmud, that ancient embodiment of Jewish law and wisdom. What this means is that a reasonable law is one that most reasonable people are willing to abide by if others do likewise. Laws against stealing and murdering, for example, are pretty widely supported.
Thomas Jefferson said it another way: "That government is best which governs least." Yet at any given time, the debate in congress and other legislative bodies is usually how, not whether, to add additional layers of interference in the lives of citizens.
Most of the time, people accept it and make do. Every once in a while, something comes along which is intolerable to enough people that resistance or disregard forces it to be changed, and this is always accompanied by upheaval, pain, and hostility.
We are a nation of laws, it is said, and that is as it should be. But for people to respect the law, the law must be worthy of respect. We still have too many laws on the books today that are not worthy of respect or obedience, and I'd like to see a few more candidates for legislative offices promising to apply their cutting tools in this area for a change.
For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.