Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Angry words, peaceful deeds

The atrocity in Arizona has prompted many Americans to call for "toning down" the political rhetoric on the right and the left. Certainly, the overt display of weaponry or other forms of physical intimidation, by Tea Partiers or anyone else, at public events, is wrong. Dehumanizing your opponents with eliminationist rhetoric is wrong. But it is never wrong to question the judgement, or even the motives, of an elected official simply because doing so might be disruptive. In many cases polite protest through letters, supporting candidates for office, etc. can be effective. Nonviolent protest, however, is not always polite. If leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had restricted themselves to writing letters and making polite speeches they would have never accomplished their goals. If mill-workers and coalminers had simply lodged formal complaints with their bosses none of us in the U.S. would now enjoy weekends or paid overtime. Rational arguments can help make progress, sure. Very often, however, it is only through actively disrupting the status-quo that unjust situations may be remedied. Indeed, sometimes those pushing for change have to be willing to risk physical confrontation to accomplish their aims.

The Dorr rebellion in Rhode Island is a good example. In 1840s Rhode Island, the right to vote was still limited by the property-holding rules set out in the old colonial charter. What this meant in practice was that only 40% of the white males in the state could vote. Many of the other 60% were Catholic immigrants working in mills, or in the busy ports. Thomas Wilson Dorr argued that the state was violating Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, that guarantees a republican form of government in every state.. In fact, at this time Rhode Island was about the only state that didn't have universal suffrage for free white men. Dorr organized a People's Convention that drafted a more democratic state constitution. Rhode Island's governor King sent troops out to crush the Dorr supporters, some of whom had armed themselves. President Tyler declined to intervene. Fortunately, neither side was keen to fight a real battle. Dorr left the state, but his cause gained in strength. Within a few years all freemen, of any color, could vote in Rhode Island upon payment of a $1 poll tax. It would be generations before the Irish and other members of the Dorr coalition could challenge the Protestant elites in state and local politics. Yet just having the vote gave these Rhode Islanders some more influence in public affairs.

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