BOOKS/Alvena Bieri

Dissent in America

Reading Dissent in America: 400 Years of Speech, Sermons, Arguments, Articles, Letters, and Songs That Made a Difference by Ralph F. Young (New York: Pearson, Longman, 2006) is like taking a lively course in American history. When we pick it it up, with all its 780 pages, we immediately know it's going to be good because Howard Zinn recommends it on the front cover. Young is so popular at Temple University where he teaches history that he often speaks all over the campus on the power of dissent.

He says all of us have dissented about something at one time or another. We write letters to the editor, sign petitions or join a protest march, thereby exercising our fundamental right to free speech. The encouraging and positive thing is that many times the ideas of the dissenters become part of the mainstream and produce real results. Think of the abolition of slavery, racial desegregation, the vote for women, and the final end of the Vietnam conflict.

So Young takes us all the way from Roger Williams to Cindy Sheehan. And he even includes some antidemocratic voices too, like Huey Long of Louisiana and Father Charles Coughlin who turned out to be prejudiced against Jews. He is mentioned, by the way, in one of Woody Guthrie's songs, two of which are in this book.

Long before the American Revolution, John Peter Zenger (1697-1746) showed that freedom of the press was worth standing up for. As editor of the New York Weekly Journal, he was arrested and tried for criticizing the royal governor. But he was acquitted when the jury found him innocent because he had simply told the truth.

Our revolutionary days were full of dissenters. I keep waiting for someone to write a little satire on those wild patriot insurgents at Lexington and Concord. Maybe it could be the journalist who recently described the Queen's trip to America as "a visit to the colonies."

Patriot Thomas Paine's Common Sense is still meaningful. One of my all-time favorite essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self Reliance," a dissent from our accepting authority without question is as trenchant today as it was in 1841.

The period after the Civil War was a time of much social and economic reform. All the reformers spoke and wrote widely, so we have selections from many well-known, respected Americans like Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and William Jennings Bryan. The People's Party, or Populist, platform from 1892 when they met in Omaha and nominated James B. Weaver for president is quoted in full. Among other things the Populists called for a graduated income tax, strong support of labor unions, government regulation or ownership of railroads, telegraph and telephone companies, and direct election of US senators.

The section on the 20th century has many civil rights statements by people like Martin Luther King Jr. and there is also a wide array of antiwar expressions. At the time of World War I, Wisconsin Republican Robert La Follette and socialist Eugene Debs were among the strongest voices for waging peace. Debs really suffered for his stand. He was sent to prison during the Wilson administration, and he did not get out until President Harding pardoned him in late 1921 after he had served nearly three years.

Cindy Sheehan signed her piece, "Mother of Needlessly Slain Soldier Casey Sheehan." She makes a very direct anti-Bush argument against the Iraq War. Ralph Nader and Michael Moore as well as people for Amnesty International and are quoted in the same chapter.

The amazing power of dissent as shown in this volume strikes me as so great that I started wondering if we could find a better term to describe it. "Dissent" may have a slightly negative tone. Professor Young, could we just call it Democratic Action?

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2007

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