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Resistance Means More Than Voting

When former president Barack Obama called on the nation to oppose Donald Trump at the University of Illinois in Chicago last week, he said there was only one way to do it, by voting. This was a criticism of the internal resistance supported by the anonymous op-ed writer in The New York Times. Obama said that people who “secretly aren’t following the president’s orders” are not defending democracy: “These people are not elected. They’re not accountable.”

That is a plausible argument, one that has been used in the past to oppose every kind of civil disobedience, whether unions that launch strikes, Rosa Parks sitting in a forbidden place, or those who break trespass laws for sit-ins (Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter), or Harriet Tubman smuggling blacks out of the South, or people hiding Jews from Nazis. People engaged in these activities have not been elected; they are not publicly “accountable.” And yet, if people consider specific laws unjust, we are told, they should change the laws, not just break them. Argue against them. Vote against them. Use legal means.

But what if the laws are not only unjust but framed and upheld by measures that baffle democratic correction? The classical justification for tyrannicide is that the tyrant has removed legitimacy from the laws, so there should not be unilateral observance from those who would be crippled by the law’s observance. But the trouble with tyrannicide as a test of obedience to law is that it does not allow for any resistance short of killing the tyrant. There must be other ways to resist before that drastic extreme. If we wait until the tyrant kills six million Jews before tyrannicide is contemplated, we are actually facilitating tyranny.

Some people said that Martin Luther King Jr.’s form of civil disobedience was justified because he broke the law openly and took the punishment prescribed by law. But that was less a moral validation than good public strategy. He was trusting that support could be recruited for his position. Harriet Tubman could not have done that, nor Oskar Schindler, nor the people hiding Anne Frank. And even King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, though it acted openly, planned in secret. Secret disobedience is not immoral because secret. ...

Read entire article at NY Review of Books