Passionate Declarations: “The Ultimate Power”
Everywhere you go you see it, whether it is children on the playground fighting over who uses the swings next or the evening news blaring from the television about another suicide bombing, violence follows us wherever we go. Throughout history violence has been socially accepted. Our ancestors used it to determine weakness and now we are using it again for the same reasons. Today the United States must still be the alpha dog, greater than all other countries but it isn’t about who has the larger club it’s about who has the bigger weapon. If you asked people on the streets if they thought violence was appropriate for achieving things most would say no unless it was absolutely necessary. This is idea has been instilled in us for many years, we are taught not to use violence unless it’s needed but what if we were taught that violence is never needed? Maybe our politicians wouldn’t send millions of people to die in wars that are “necessary”, maybe there would be billions of dollars left over to educate our children, create jobs, and clean our planet. Politicians have been using this concept for years by telling us that it is necessary to kill millions of people in war and it is necessary for billions of dollars to be spent on weapons. Not many people have questioned authority and plead for justice and if they had not very many of us have heard of it, Chapter 11 is ultimately about achieving justice without massive violence using dissent.
P-1) Dissent is the ultimate power.
P-2) Nonviolent direct action is an example of dissent.
Therefore, nonviolent direct action is the ultimate power.
The argument is valid; premise 2 is acceptable because many protesters use nonviolent direct action to express their dissent. Premise1 is also valid because the whole book is about dissent being the ultimate power. Overall, the argument is sound. Nonviolent direct action is more powerful than nonviolence, on page 289 Zinn uses an example of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being praised by many political leaders for his nonviolence. These same leaders are the ones who have done violent acts to other people and countries. The difference between nonviolence alone and nonviolent direct action is that nonviolent direct action is about striking at injustice immediately rather than waiting and being passive. “Direct action does not deride using the political rights, the civil liberties, even the voting mechanisms in those societies where they are available( as in the United States), but it recognizes the limitations of those controlled rights and goes beyond.”(Passionate Declarations, 289). Zinn tells that freedom and justice have been excuses for violence but are still our goals; however, we must achieve them in different ways than we did in the past.
Zinn starts Chapter 2: “Machiavellian Realism and U.S. Foreign Policy: Means and Ends”, with an example of direct action being used over 500 years ago. It is the story of a monk in Florence named Savonarola who was hanged for preaching the belief that people could be guided by their “natural reason.” Since his beliefs threatened the importance of the Church fathers, Savonarola was arrested and tortured for ten days before he gave them a confession. The monk was sentenced to death and was hanged, stoned, and burned in front of the public. Machiavelli refers to Savonarola and says, “Thus it comes about that all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed.” Political ideas are centered on the issue of ends (what kind of society do we want?) and means (How will we get it?). Today people can express views that threaten the importance of our leaders without such drastic consequences but many do not. There is widespread fear that if people speak against government and war that they are unpatriotic or worse, terrorists. Freedom and justice are the most patriotic ideas there are and they are not attained by bombing innocent civilians or having bigger, better weapons; they are attained by recognizing and speaking against the injustices of the world.
Another example of dissent being used is in Chapter 8: “Free Speech”, on page 189 Zinn shows the reader a false analogy made by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. In 1917 The Espionage Act was written and two months later a man named Charles Schenck was arrested, tried, and found guilty for violating the Espionage Act. Schenck had been handing out leaflets in Philadelphia denouncing the draft and the war. Schenck appealed his case on the grounds that “Congress shall make no law...,” Holmes responded with this statement: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic... The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” This statement was accurate; however, is shouting “Fire!” the same as handing out leaflets to people on the street. Falsely shouting fire would cause panic in a theatre and is wrong. He was only trying to inform the naïve public of the perils of war. Schenck was not intending to cause panic, he was only trying to save lives. Schenck used nonviolent direct action, he did not care about laws stopping him from making his message and when he did get in trouble he fought congress.
In Chapter 6: “Law and Justice”, we hear more about the most active person in nonviolent direct action Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke not only about racial injustice but about the evils of war. During the time he was urged not to speak against the war because it may affect Johnson’s program of domestic reform but he refused to be silenced. “Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor in Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world that stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop must be ours.”(Passionate Declarations, 131). Kings profound statement is the ultimate example of direct action. He is not threatening anyone in his words and he is still making an effective plea to the American people. This message gave many people initiative to dissent to the war. Over half a million men resisted the draft; there were more protests than any other war, and many individual acts of disobedience.
Passionate Declarations is filled with stories about amazing people doing amazing things to stand up for what they believe. After reading this book, I was inspired to use direct action towards what I believe. I’m not going to go burn my draft papers or chain myself to a tree but I will be more vocal in expressing my beliefs without the fear of other people judging me. Freedom and justice are never going to be attainable if we do not take action. Overall, the message Zinn is trying to make with chapter 11 is that weapons and fear are not as powerful as our beliefs as a people. Our country’s wellbeing and security is dependent on what we teach our future generations now. Dissent is the ultimate power, not violence. If we taught understanding and acceptance rather than violence as a way to achieve our ends the world would be a better place.
Zinn, Howard. Passionate Declarations: Essays on War and Justice. New York: Perennial, 2003. Print.