The Power of the Powerless

By Dara Lind

I’ve gotten some interesting pushback on my post from Sunday about civil disobedience, so I wanted to air it out a bit.

IOZ* makes the very good point that “the hoary, American-mythic tale of a deracinated and saintly Martin Luther King is going to be used to club out any notions about the importance of direct action in the Civil Rights struggle” in most high-school classrooms, whether they’re in Texas or not. (Since we agree that framing the civil rights movement as a battle between impulsive action and “persuasive” words is wrongheaded to begin with, though, I’m surprised that IOZ doesn’t see how badly the Texas BoE tips its hand by mandating textbook authors and teachers include the Black Panthers while leaving Woolworth’s up to their discretion.)

Then there’s this, from commenter bperk:

Civil disobedience is only a vehicle for political change, rather than a principled act of bravado, when the law actually gets changed.I’m curious if you really believe this. So, Rosa Parks and all of the other black people in Montgomery were engaging in acts of bravado for the time it took for the law to change? That is kind of a cruel interpretation of actions of people who stood up for what they believe.

The more I think about that line, the more I realize that no, I don’t actually believe it — or at least that my definition of “political” ought to be broader than “changing the law.” I started thinking yesterday about Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless,” and I’m sort of embarrassed I didn’t think of it at the time. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the essay — and if you aren’t, you should read it immediately after finishing this post (if anyone posts a better link in the comments, I’ll add it) — Havel explains that the best way for someone living under a totalitarian regime is to refuse quietly to comply with “the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society.’” It’s not about demonstrating that a particular law is unjust and getting it repealed — how could it be, under a totalitarian government? — but rather about showing other people and yourself the emptiness and indignity of the whole danged system. This doesn’t fit what I laid out in my original post, but it’s certainly a fundamental form of civil disobedience.


Although Havel calls this sort of behavior “anti-political,” I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s politics as the art of the possible — not in the Realpolitik sense, but in the sense of expanding people’s notions of how someone could conceivably behave. Four African-American students sitting down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and demanding politely to be served, it seems to me, would have been just plain unthinkable to many people who had the privilege to take segregation for granted. I don’t just mean that they would have seen it as a breach of etiquette, but that it literally wouldn’t have occurred to them that someone would do such a thing — until people did. Forcing someone to come face-to-face with injustice is the first step to getting them to recognize it, and that’s certainly a political act. It’s a completely different genre of civil disobedience from, say, Dan Choi chaining himself to the White House gate — an (apparently successful?) act for a definite goal and with a defined audience. Both can be effective, and both are (generally) noble.

The problem comes when you assume that any act of civil disobedience has the power to shake people’s assumptions to the foundations just because they’ve seen you break a law. It doesn’t. Waltzing out of jail the next day, getting it wiped from the record and assuming you’ve done your part to “call attention to the cause” is good showbiz, but lousy politics. And it’s privileged to boot: it ignores the obvious difference between civil disobedience from someone who’d otherwise have nothing to fear from the powers that be and from someone who actually has something to lose.

Five undocumented students were arrested last week for staging a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s offices to advocate for the DREAM Act. They’ve been released, but could still face deportation. They haven’t gotten enough coverage in the national press, but it seems reasonable to me to hope that the people who have heard about them have thought about them. Maybe, eventually, they’ll start to ask whether there might be something wrong with a definition of “patriotism” that excludes a group of students who did something they could have been taught about in next year’s Texas history books.

*Edited because I’m not as funny as I think I am, and it’s not worth overshadowing the rest of the post.