For my epic 100th book of the year – the culmination of a goal established 18 years ago – I wanted something with a bit of intellectual heft, something worthy of the iconic spot. I killed two birds with one stone by selecting a book that has sat on my shelf since about the time I set that goal; Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience by Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Written in 1968, during the height of Vietnam, urban riots, and social upheaval, the book seeks to define the “limits and the scope of permissible dissent and civil disobedience” in America.
Fortas promotes a liberal philosophy but one tempered with a respect for this nation and the institutional framework of democracy. Various arguments, such as those related to the draft, are no longer pertinent (though powerful) and at one point I vividly remember him writing that he can’t imagine anyone ever arguing that flag burning would be considered freedom of speech – a psychic he was not.
But there are a lot of reasoned, valid points in the book, all delivered without any lawyer speak.
“A citizen cannot demand of his government or of other people obedience to the law, and at the same time claim a right in himself to break it by lawless conduct, free of punishment or penalty. He cannot substitute his own judgment or passion, however noble, for the rules of law”.
“ . . . In a social revolution the demands for action, for cure, for restitution, for reparation, are not easily met. The demand is not satisfied by the initial or moderate response. It is fed by it. The vigor and fervor of the demand increase as its justice is admitted and some steps are taken to meet it. As demand outstrips the early response, attitudes on both sides harden. Frustration sets in. Those demanding change see no prospect of satisfaction; those who initially offered reform despair of a reasonable resolution. And so, conflict and crisis occur.”
“Dissent and dissenters have no monopoly on freedom. They must tolerate opposition. They must accept dissent from their dissent . . . they must give it the respect and latitude which they claim for themselves. Neither youth nor virtue can justify the disregard of this principle.”
“In my judgment, civil disobedience – the deliberate violation of law – is never justified in our nation where the law being violated is not itself the focus or target of the protest.[emphasis mine] . . Civil disobedience is a violation of law. Any violation of law must be punished, whatever its purpose, as the theory of civil disobedience recognizes. But law violation directed . . . to unrelated laws which are disobeyed merely to dramatize dissent, may be morally as well as politically unacceptable.”
“good motives do not excuse action which will injure others. The individual’s conscience does not give him a license to indulge individual conviction without regard to the rights of others.”
There are other points worth reading, and if there’s a copy in your local library I encourage you read this relatively short treatise. I grade this an “A”.