In memory of Howard Zinn, who died yesterday, I reread an address he gave at Johns Hopkins University in November 1970, titled, “The Problem is Civil Obedience,” and reprinted in Voices of a People’s History of the United States.
Zinn discussed his frustration with the so-called “problem of civil disobedience.” That’s “topsy-turvy,” he said, just plain backwards, like a protester getting clubbed by the police and then getting arrested for assaulting a police officer.
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.
Facing injustice, we are oblivious if not complacent – a stance that stems from undue deference for the law, as if it were holy. “There is nothing sacred about the law,” Zinn said. “The law is not made by God, it is made by Strom Thurmond.”