Saturday, September 22, 2007

Civil Disobedience in 2007

The Jena Six case has been the big story so week, so much so that even O.J. got bumped off the front pages. Obviously, a racially charged incident is going to draw attention, but I think part of the reason for the fascination is that this situation resonates because of our familiarity with the past.

Many of the stories I saw had a variation of the phrase "A throwback to the days of the Jim Crow South." Despite laments of how poorly our educational system teaches kids about important events in history, I think a sense of our country's historic injustice toward African-Americans is something that is pretty well ingrained into most students (which is not to say that there is necessarily much discussion about ongoing injustices). I think the only other concept that is as ubiquitous throughout social studies curricula is the notion that Hitler was evil. In fact, there is even a concept called "Godwin's Law," which both humorously and aptly observes the use of Hitler as the go-to example of evil personified. For this reason, I think a neo-Nazi in America would have a better chance of getting publicity than a neo-Maoist (maybe I can make this into my own Law which would someday get a Wikipedia page....).

So it would seem that the American historical-cultural canon stands at two items. Perhaps there are a few more here and there, but I think most would agree that it wouldn't be a bad thing to expand our common pool of reference. And one item I think deserving of inclusion is Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience." And if this particular essay had the type of broad currency that it has in select political and intellectual circles, I think an incident this week would have garnered perhaps as much attention as the Jena Six.

A 68-year-old Massachusetts man was jailed for refusing to pay a 50 cent toll (I guess if you were associated with the concept of 50 cents, it was an all around bad week in general). You can get the full story here, but the short version is that he had previously purchased tokens that could be used on tollways, tokens which are now apparently null and void. He passed the tokens instead of coins, was subsequently issued a citation, and chose a day in jail rather than pay the fine.

There are some obvious parallels to Thoreau, including his home state and the length of his stay in the big house. There are some differences, though. Thoreau never considered a lawsuit, and this man didn't take the opportunity to compose a treatise on resistance of state power.

The question I ask: is this significant? Does this represent a contemporary example of the Kafkaesque? Should this man be applauded for asserting a human dignity in the face of an illogical, inane and indifferent state bureaucracy? Or should be be mocked for choosing to fabricate a conflict where none existed?

And does this action make a significant statement about American justice? When a man is willing to contest an injustice of such minuscule proportion, does that actually speak well to the whole system? After all, could such a thing happen in Baghdad? Is there something to celebrate in the fact that this man's concept of justice is so ideal, that he refuses to compromise even at harm to himself? And if such a man exists, isn't that a testament to the culture that helped him to form such an ideal?

And if these questions can be answered in the affirmative, can the same significance be assigned to the public's reaction to the Jena Six case? And finally, what about O.J.? O.J. Simpson is the figure in America today most likely to inspire cynicism about the concept of justice. Is the fact that we take an interest in his latest misadventures necessarily a bad thing?


Blogger Crashoverride said...

I don't want to shy away from the story you talked about but I do want to talk about someone you talked about in it. You mentioned that Hitler was evil. I disagree, I think his beliefs were wrong but he was a great man. If he had not been so screwed up in the head he would have been a great leader. The way he spoke and could convince people to believe in what he did, it was truly amazing.

Back to the story, I have no opposition that racial discrimination should not allowed anywhere. This is the 21st century slavery and segregation was abolished like 100-150 years ago.

The real truth is discrimination, hate; all the "bad" things will never stop until humans are no longer in existence. These kinds of events like the Jena Six case have been happening since minorities have obtained "Rights" and hate groups like skinheads and neo-nazis think that its not right.

Personally if you are involved in a hate crime both parties should be convicted unless one can prove otherwise. They should also have to room together in prison. I think that would greatly reduce the number of hate crimes.

12:21 AM  

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