Sunday, April 23, 2006

Of Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence - Part I

There is rumor of mass civil disobedience in Ethiopia. Over the past month, the U.S. Embassy has been reminding and urging Americans in Ethiopia to “avoid demonstrations intended to be peaceful [which] can turn confrontational.” On April 22, Sudan Tribune online published a press release purportedly issued by Tegbar League Addis Ababa announcing the initiation of a “peaceful civil disobedience campaign against the Meles dictatorship.” The campaign is aimed at pressuring the “government to respect the people’s vote and to demand the release of all political prisoners.” According to the press release, the objective of the concerted nonviolent acts of civil disobedience is to “systematically make the country ungovernable and choke the Meles regime by drying up its sources of revenue.”

In a three-part series, we shall attempt to present an overview of the history, practice and philosophy of civil disobedience and nonviolence, and the unique contributions of Henry David Thoreau, Mahatama Ghandi and Martin Luther King to the global nonviolence movement.

Henry David Thoreau

Is there a moral duty for men and women to nonviolently resist oppressive and unjust laws, and the commands and demands of a despotic government? If there is such a duty, what is the best method of resistance? If civil disobedience and nonviolence are morally justified methods of resistance, what are the foreseeable consequences of such resistance for the individual and society?

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th Century American philosopher, was the first modern thinker to systematically consider the moral dimensions of disobeying unjust laws and oppressive civil government. He concluded that nonviolent civil disobedience was justified, because in a democracy government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed and by delegation from free individuals. If government abuses or perverts the will of the people, Thoreau argued, any individual has the moral right, indeed a higher moral duty, to stand apart from the laws of that government and actively and nonviolently resist it.

Thoreau, an ardent abolitionist and pacifist, condemned the practice of slavery in America, and railed against the federal fugitive laws which allowed slave masters to recapture and repossess slaves who had escaped to the free states. He also opposed the westward territorial expansion of the United States and annexation of what is now western United States by President James Polk in the Mexican-American War (1846-48) under a general doctrine known as “Manifest Destiny,” which was based on a belief that God had given America a mission to expand its borders from “sea to shining sea.”

In his book, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience(1), Thoreau explained his philosophical justifications for civil disobedience and the moral duty of individuals to engage in it to preserve their individual integrity and advance the common good.

Thoreau had little confidence in elected leaders or governmental institutions. He believed that “government is best which governs least,” but such government he did not find in his day. He acknowledged government was necessary, but only in so far as it is the “mode which the people have chosen to execute their will.” He believed the leaders of his day, entrusted with the people’s will, were “liable to abuse and pervert [that will] before the people can act through it.”

The inevitable “perversion and abuse” of the people’s will presented Thoreau two problematic issues in the functioning of democratic government: 1) the tendency for majority rule to degenerate into tyranny of the majority, and 2) the tendency for citizens in a democracy to abdicate their moral responsibilities in favor of blind obedience to the law. Thoreau questioned: “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?”

For Thoreau, men could be distinguished by their demonstrated abilities to act their conscience and convictions. He felt most citizens -- out of ignorance, indifference, or cowardice-- would rather show blind respect for the law than disobeying it even when they are convinced the law is oppressive and unjust. He believed government had reduced ordinary citizens to “serve not as men, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailers, constables.” He felt these citizens had no “moral sense, but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones. Such [men] command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt. They have the same sort of worth only as horses and dogs.”

Thoreau had an equally dim view of the “esteemed good citizens” of society -- legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, scholars, businessmen and office-holders -- who have compromised their capacity to make moral distinctions and judgment to advance their self-interest and were “as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God.”

Thoreau saw social redemption in a third and much smaller group of citizens -- heroes, patriots, martyrs and reformers -- whose chief distinction is that they “serve the state with their consciences, and necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”

In his day, Thoreau saw his civil disobedience as a proper response to the evil institution of slavery and the unjust expansionist war in Mexico. He thought the American government of his day was a “disgrace,” and declared: “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government also.” Thoreau refused to accept a government that kept a sixth of the American population in bondage, yet piously claimed to be the land of liberty. He found it necessary to oppose an unjust war against Mexico resulting in the destruction of indigenous populations in a shameless land grab.

Thoreau demonstrated his civil disobedience by becoming part of the antiwar movement of the day and refusing to pay poll tax which he felt was used to support an unjust war and extend slavery into the western territories, which proved true when Texas became a slave state upon joining the union in 1861.

The greatest source of frustration for Thoreau was the inertness of the thousands of his countrymen who were opposed to slavery and the Mexican War, yet did nothing to put an end to them. Thoreau complained that these citizens will “sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing.... They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man; but it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it.”

The impact of Thoreau’s advocacy of civil disobedience has been wide-ranging, inspiring notably Ghandi to mount a passive resistance independence movement in India and Martin Luther King to lead a nonviolent civil rights movement in the in the United States.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from Thoreau’s philosophical discourses, it is that civil disobedience is both an act of uncommon virtue and valor, and an extraordinary act of patriotism by an individual in a given society. As to the “ninety nine patrons,” they have a choice of not acting, and continuing to practice their well-worn virtues: ignorance in the face of manifest injustice, indifference in the face of suffering, deprivation and oppression, and cowardice in the reflective mirror of their own conscience.
1 Originally titled Resistance to Civil Government.

Friday, April 21, 2006

.... A Friend in Deed

There is much confusion and consternation in the Ethiopian community in North America over the fact that the democrats on the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations of the House International Relations Committee voted against a bill in subcommittee titled the “Ethiopian Freedom, Human Rights and Democracy Act (HR 4423), introduced by subcommittee chair Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.). Many Ethiopians are perplexed by the fact that the ranking democrat on the subcommittee, Donald Payne -- an African American supported by other African American representatives on the Subcommittee -- should spearhead the opposition to HR 4423. Perhaps out of a sense misplaced ethnic solidarity, many Ethiopians thought the African American members of the Subcommittee would take the leadership in promoting human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Ethiopia. This turn of events appears to have been an epiphany to many Ethiopians in the U.S. who are now openly questioning the value of their allegiance to the Democratic Party.

HR 4423 is a piece of legislation designed to promote human rights, due process and the rule of law in Ethiopia. It requires the unconditional and immediate release of all political prisoners in Ethiopia and demands legal protections for journalists along with guarantees of free speech rights for Ethiopian citizens, offers support and training for human rights groups working in Ethiopia, and provides for technical assistance to Ethiopian law enforcement authorities to ensure due process of law in the administration of justice, among other things.

Donald Payne offered a substitute amendment which sought to provide assistance to Ethiopia to strengthen local, regional, and national parliaments and government agencies, promote reconciliation efforts between the Government of Ethiopia and opposition political groups, and facilitate participation of opposition groups in the political process. Payne’s failed substitute consisting of lofty platitudes did not call for the immediate release of political prisoners nor did it require compliance with various human rights issues boldly featured in HR 4423.

Part of the confusion and bewilderment among Ethiopians on the voting patterns of the democrats on the subcommittee may stem from a lack of understanding of the history of the Republican Party and their uncritical allegiance -- bordering on blind faith -- to the Democratic Party. Many Ethiopians subscribe to popular misconceptions about the Democratic Party, and know even less about the Republican Party or its history.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Democratic Party in the United States is the defender of human rights, democracy and freedom not only in America but also throughout the world. Democrats are said to be champions of the poor and weak and advocates of civil liberties and social justice.

On the contrary, the Republican Party is often depicted as the party of the “rich,” mostly white and conservative, and unconcerned with the plight of the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Republicans are portrayed as indifferent and insensitive to the cause of human rights and individual liberties.

The historical facts negate the conventional wisdom. When the Republican Party was formed in the early 1850s, it was impelled by two factors: an abolitionist ideology committed to the eradication of the institution of slavery -- an institution that is the very antitheses of human rights-- and economic modernization driven by robust business institutions and a strong national government.

In 1856, the first Republican presidential candidate, John Freemont, adopted the slogan “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men, Fremont,” which summed up the essential concerns of the early Republicans. When republican Abe Lincoln became president in 1860, he had to decide whether to go to war with his Southern brothers over the issue of slavery. Lincoln understood the grave consequences of liberating the slaves -- the real possibility of disintegration of the Union-- but he affirmed the humanity and human rights of the slaves by boldly issuing the Emancipation Proclamation against weighty advice to the contrary. This decision made Lincoln a reluctant partner in a civil war that was fought in no small part over the question of slavery.

The Republican Party did not stop with a proclamation telling the slaves they were free. After the Civil War, republicans played a pivotal role in amending the U.S. Constitution to abolish slavery altogether and guarantee the former slaves the equal protection of the laws and the right to vote. But they did not stop with constitutional amendments. During Reconstruction -- the period after the Civil War when the defeated southern states were reintegrating into the Union -- the republicans pushed a number of bills in Congress which had a decisive effect on the lives and rights of the newly freed slaves. Progressive republicans known as “radical republicans” advocated for and secured more legal protections for the freed slaves, and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 -- overriding a presidential veto for the first time in U.S. history-- recognizing blacks as U.S. citizens and guaranteed them a whole panoply of economic and political rights. In 1869, the first blacks were elected to Congress as members of the Republican Party, and continued to serve as part of the republican delegation until 1935 when the first black Democrat joined them.

Republicans continued to defend human rights and remained in the forefront of the struggle for women’s right to vote, providing the decisive ratification victory in the various states for the 19th Amendment. Montana sent the first woman and republican member of Congress -- Jeanette Rankin who incidentally was the only member of Congress to vote against U.S. involvement in the two world wars-- in 1917. Needless to say, the Democratic Party was conspicuously absent in the long march for human rights, until the civil rights movement in the 1960s when it discovered the electoral value of black voters.

Unlike Jimmy Carter who pronounced the May, 2005 elections in Ethiopia as “fair and free,” Ronald Reagan in 1982 stood in the British Parliament and predicted the “march of freedom and democracy will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.” A few years later, he stood at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin, and issued his challenge: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

HR 4423 is the legislative equivalent of Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” The bill states in its preamble that its purpose is “to encourage and facilitate the consolidation of security, human rights, democracy, and economic freedom in Ethiopia.” It contains a simple message: “Mr. Zenawi, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for Ethiopia as you say you do, if you seek liberalization, release the political prisoners you have packed in your jails, respect the rule of law and ensure due process of law in your courts, allow your citizens and journalists to engage free speech and free press. Respect the human rights of your citizens! Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root.”

It is obvious and natural that the Republican Party should reflect a diversity of views and opinions across the ideological spectrum. The important point is that there are republicans such as Chairman Smith, Representatives Royce, Tancredo, Flake, Mark Greene, Boozman and Fortenberry on the Subcommittee, who believe in the original republican principles of “Free soil, free labor, free speech, free men” and women. They have proven their commitment to our cause, the cause of human rights in Ethiopia!

As we ponder HR 4423, we should perform a reality check and see if we have misplaced our trust and relied upon misguided political alliances. We should candidly ask ourselves whether we believe in equal rights, equal justice and equal opportunity for all regardless of race, creed, gender, age or disability, free enterprise and individual initiative, fiscal responsibility and low taxes, democracy, freedom and human rights throughout the world and the principle that the “the best government is that which governs least.” These are core republican principles. It may be that the moment of truth has arrived for many Ethiopians in America to decide one way or the other. As they say, this is the time to fish or cut bait! As we express our gratitude to Chairman Smith and the other republicans on the Subcommittee -- and each one of us who supports HR 4423 must do so by email, letter, fax or telephone-- we should remind ourselves that “a friend in need is a friend indeed!”