Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Brief Note on the Oregon Armed Occupation

Rev. King and other Protesters in the Selma March (AP Photo, March 21, 1965)
I have been away for a bit - Christmas and holidays and such - but I have gotten a lot of questions about the situation in the American northwest.  I don't know enough about the specifics of the dispute and, honestly, those details aren't the most important thing to me.  Rather, the debate over whether or not occupying a public space illegally while armed is ethical or constitutional - for certainly it is illegal.  I got a note on Facebook to this effect:
Dr. Smith, I need help. The militiamen situation in Oregon, is it  Constitutional or not? I can't get an unbiased opinion formed due to slanted bullshit in the media. I can tell Fox and NBC are slanted. Help me out?
A Former Student
Well, it isn't a question of constitutionality or not.  Rather, think of it like this - the occupiers (which are different from the Occupiers, who were frequently derided by supporters of the occupiers in Oregon, a fact I find, well, ironic) are knowingly engaged in an illegal occupation.  Fair enough - this is semi-protected in American experience - a legitimate protest is justifiable if legal always, legitimate but just but illegal (though still prosecutable, even if sentencing should be nothing or less), and illegitimate if illegal and unjust.

The underlying assumption in each of these instances is that these protests put the protester in a position of relative weakness and exposure - the justness of the protest is confirmed by avoiding compounding ill act with ill act.  The notion is that as public opinion shifts the executive and legislative powers will take steps to alleviate protesters' suffering and amend the unjust law.  Having weapons, threatening the government, it is not a demonstration of the ill form of the state's side of the social contract, but an assertion that the social contract is dissolved, that the monopoly of force by the state in matters of justice has reverted to society.

This is legitimate if society agrees, but it constitutes a nullification of the Constitution, a fundamental invalidation of the pretense of the statehood.  So, the question then is whether or not revolution is justified, in the logic of Locke.  So, putting aside the justice of the cause, the logic of civil disobedience is violated, and with it the logic of constitutional government.

Vigilantism when other means exist, when there is a state that still has the potential to be swayed by society and nonviolent, legalistic means is, in my opinion, is both morally problematic and philosophically inconsistent.

But that is my two-cents.

I want to recommend everyone consider reading a couple things.

Sophocles' 442 BCE Antigone

Plato's 360 BCE Crito

Plato's 339 BCE Apology

Henry Thoreau's 1849 Civil Disobedience

Mahatma Gandhi's 1928 Satyagraha of South Africa

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 1963 "Letter from the Birmingham Jail"

And of course those parts of the Christian Gospel that deal with the seizure, trial, and death of Jesus of Nazareth (my translation of choice is the Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard edition, but each to their own of course).