Monday, June 20, 2011

'The rules are written by those who profit from the status quo'

It wasn't the federal government's land to begin with. It was, to quote some guy, "made for you and me." So when environmental activist Tim DeChristopher interfered with a Bureau of Land Management attempt to sell off pristine Colorado federal park land to oil and gas interests -- taking land stolen from one group of people and handing it over to another, wealthier group of people -- he had the confidence that comes with knowing what one's doing is morally right, if not necessarily legal.

DeChristopher's attempt to defend the commons from being expropriated by state-enabled corporate interests has won the 29-year-old a federal court case and the prospect of a decade behind bars; the powerful don't look kindly, it seems, upon uppity citizens thinking they have a right to shape the world they live in, much less prevent powerful corporations from polluting it.

That doesn't surprise DeCristophe. “The rules are written by those who profit from the status quo,” he observes in an interview with Chris Hedges. “If we want to change that status quo we have to step outside of those rules."

As DeChristopher says, the status quo is stacked in favor of corporate privilege. It serves you, the common person, the same way those aliens from The Twilight Zone served man: on a platter. To change the way we live, to overturn a system that accepts permanent war, pervasive pollution and double-digit unemployment as unalterable facts of life, requires attacking the system, not obligingly working within it and electing "more and better" rulers.

Changing the way things are means more than just shuffling the figureheads in power who, whether they identify as Republicans or Democrats every few years, reliably enable and enrich not those who elected them, but the corporate interests that bankrolled their campaigns. It means challenging the whole notion of the U.S. system of government; of a system that calls the choice between a couple of empty suits from two indistinguishable political parties "democracy"; of a power structure that grants corporations the legal status of persons but treats undocumented immigrants as pests.

Changing the status quo means acknowledging one's role in perpetuating it and, importantly, choosing to do something about it. Changes comes not from dutifully accepting laws and orders as writs from a benevolent god and perhaps signing a politely worded e-petition requesting a tinkering here and there, but from questioning the legitimacy of arbitrary authority. The oft-offered excuse that someone is "just following orders" -- "the law's the law" -- does not absolve them of responsibility for the consequences, it makes them complicit.

State capitalism and aggressive war aren't possible if the people refuse to obey their rulers' edicts.

Civil disobedience is required not just of soldiers asked to fight in unjust wars, but of everyday citizens asked, as jurors, to sanction the imprisonment of their peers. Unfortunately, if understandably, most people are unwilling to buck what their fancy-dressed superiors from the state tell them: have someone in a silly robe give the order and, like Abraham, your average American will readily offer their first-born son for sacrifice (while showing up five minutes early to avoid a fine). As DeChristopher tells Hedges, when the judge in his case found out prospective jurors had been handed pamphlets on jury nullification -- the act of juries passing judgment not on the accused, but on the laws they stand accused of violating -- he sternly lectured them on the evils of nullification.

The jurors ate it right up:
[The judge] said that regardless of what the pamphlet said it was not their job to decide if this is right or wrong, but to listen to what he said was the law and follow that even if they thought it was morally unjust. They were not allowed to use [their] conscience. They were told they would be violating their oath if they decided this on conscience rather than the evidence that he told them to listen to. I was sitting in that chamber and could see one person after another accept this notion. I could see it in their faces, that they had to do what they were told even if they thought it was morally unjust. That is a scary thing to witness in another human being. I saw it in one person after another brought in the courtroom, sitting at the end of a long table in front of the paternalistic figure of [the] judge with all the majesty around him. They accepted it. They did not question it. It gave me a really good understanding of how some of the great human atrocities happened with the consent of the population, that people can accept what is happening, that it is not their job to question whether any of this is right or wrong.
If you have a conscience, it is your duty to exercise it, not suspend it upon request. Those willing to forgo judgment of the rightness of their own actions or, worse yet, willing to do something they know is wrong because, by god, somebody important asked them to do it "command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt," in the words of Henry David Thoreau.

The first step in changing the system is acknowledging one's complicity -- because we're all, to varying degrees, complicit -- and, instead of rationalizing it, doing what you can to end it.


  1. "The first step in changing the system is acknowledging one's complicity -- because we're all, to varying degrees, complicit -- and, instead of rationalizing it, doing what you can to end it."

    A more vexing question for every man, woman and child could not be asked. I would have to say, as someone who has long struggled with this very question, that everyone has to determine how best to limit their own complicity, and continue to limit that complicity, stretching and expanding what they think is personally feasible. And to not become discouraged because they cannot do as much as another, or superior because they do more than yet another, or to feel comfortable not taking action because yet another is apathetic or compromised, but to make their own honest effort with their conscious as their guide.

  2. Brian Drake5:09 PM

    Great article, but I do not agree that "we're all, to varying degrees, complicit". That's a pretty heavy charge and the burden of proof is on you. There are plenty of us libertarians (the genuine, anarcho kind) that oppose the very existence of the state, everything it is, everything it does. Choosing one's life when confronted by an armed enforcer of the state is not complicity, it's compliance. If that's complicity, then the Holocaust victims were complicit. Seems a lot like blaming the victim. I don't see how liberty obligates its advocates to martyrdom. No doubt, MANY are complicit, but not all. Fight the state in every way you can, seek not its favors or its power, and the charge of "complicit" becomes baseless.

  3. jcapan9:31 PM

    Martin Luther King Jr. on HDT's "Civil Disobedience"

    "Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.

    I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice."

  4. jcapan9:33 PM

    Sorry. Link:

  5. geoff2:12 PM

    The judge reading the riot act to the jurors, in effect, reminded me of something Barbara Clark noted in her book "The Freedoms We Lost". Clark notes that one of the things lost after the revolution was the very nature of juries as they were conceived of in the British colonies. I don't have a pdf of the book but she notes it in this chit-chat with Lewis Lapham about 2minutes 10 second into the podcast. Sorry Bloomberg only keeps the past 20 chit-chats on their site so for interest here's my iTunes copy at ifile:

    She does also provide a more elorate explanation at a talk here - about 7 minutes in I think:

    Of course we know after the revolution the USA turned shapely into an individualist's paradise and the so-called rule of law, aka elite control, took over. But maybe I'm just a cynic, eh.

  6. I wrote a more coherent response, Charlie, to what I perceive is your question. FWIW.