How did you come to write an entire book on the concept of dissent?
Ralph Young: The idea came to me while I was compiling and editing Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation. This was a massive 800-page compilation of 400 years of dissenting speeches, sermons, petitions, songs, poems, polemics, etc. I let the voices of dissenters speak in this book and then I thought I should write my own narrative history of the United States from the standpoint of dissenters and protest movements. From the standpoint of those outsiders who sought more equality, more opportunity, more empowerment.
Can you succinctly define what dissent is—or perhaps it’s easier to say what dissent is not?
There are many ways to define dissent. And I go into this at great length in the introduction to the book. On the broadest level it’s going against the grain. Dissenting against what is. Whatever that is is.
The act of dissent covers a lot of ground ranging from intellectual skepticism to radical violence. Is there ‘good’ dissent and ‘bad’ dissent?
I believe there is. Dissent is dissent, regardless of the motives behind it. But for me dissent that seeks to empower the disempowered without infringing on anyone’s natural rights, that seeks to broaden rights rather than limiting rights is “good” dissent. Dissent that seeks to disempower other individuals or groups, that seeks to maintain white supremacy, or in other ways to limit the rights of others, is “bad” dissent. But ultimately I don’t like to use the words good dissent or bad dissent, because things have a way of working out in surprisingly unexpected ways.
What separates violent dissent from terrorism?
Violence is a somewhat mindless blind reaction against what is and resorting to violence reveals the frustration of those who have been fighting for a cause without success. Terrorism is on a different level. It is more strategic and is the ultimate weapon of groups that wish to destroy a government or a ruling paradigm and set up something entirely different. Violent dissent expresses frustration and is perhaps the last gasp of a group that still wants to reform the system. Terrorism is an attempt to utterly destroy the system.
Is dissent a uniquely American construct, sort of like jazz?
No, it is not uniquely American. Dissent has existed from time eternal and throughout the world. But it is a concept that Americans valued so much that we put it in our constitution as a right and we have been dissenting and refining dissent ever since. (In fact, dissent itself was one of the forces that brought about the creation of the United States, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights itself.)
The book you’ve written is in many ways an alternate history of America. How would you compare Dissent to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States?
I admire Zinn’s People’s History, but it is clearly a one-sided point of view. And while my book admittedly has a point of view, and any reader will know where I stand about the subject under discussion, I do try to give voice to those I don’t agree with. Also Zinn’s book looks at America through the prism of class, of class consciousness, of the age-old class struggle, while Dissent: The History of an American Idea looks at the scope of American history through the lens of dissent, which is a broader perspective. True, some dissent is a manifestation of the class struggle, but it is not limited to class. There are thousands of middle-class, even upper-class, dissenters. So dissent can be a manifestation of far more divergent points of view.
What would you say are some of the biggest triumphs of dissent in America and the biggest disappointments or failures?
Certainly the abolitionist, women’s, and civil rights movements achieved a great deal of success although at the time it seemed maddeningly slow to the participants. The movements that have protested income inequality, like Coxey’s Army and the recent Occupy movement have not achieved success, although they might simply have been the early rounds in an ongoing struggle. Some movements had a great deal of success, like the labor movement in the 1930s, but much of that success has been rolled back since the 1950s.
Have the active protest aspects of dissent such as rallies and marches permanently given way to more passive activities still such as legal action and armchair clicktivism (hitting a like button to support a cause) or are we just going through a phase?
I don’t think active protests and marches will ever come to an end. In some ways the Internet and social media have diminished attendance at protest rallies and marches, but in some ways social media has also increased attendance. I would say the jury is still out on the impact of social media on protest movements. Throughout history dissenters have always employed the latest technology to get out their message: radio, television, song, poetry, mass-printed sources like posters and flyers, etc.
Some would argue that modern dissent is less about life and death struggles and more of a lament against first world problems. Would you agree or disagree and why?
Dissent has never had to be about purely life and death struggles. In some cases, like with the abolitionist movement, yes. But in other cases it has primarily been about forcing the United States to live up to its part of the bargain. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution established highly idealistic principles that have not always applied to all people. Those who have felt left out of the “American Dream” have viewed these documents as a contract that the United States government must honor.
During the roughly 400-year history you examine in the book, many of the root causes of dissent—race, gender and economic inequality, religious differences, whether or not to fight wars and even police violence—are recurring themes. Does this repetition mean that we are not learning from history and are therefore doomed to repeat past mistakes?
Do we ever learn from history? There are lessons, to be sure, that history can teach us. But these issues are central to human nature. One of my favorite protest signs I saw recently was “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit!”
Does the passage of time make it easier to judge the motivational integrity and the results of dissent? In other words, is it easier to draw conclusions about the Revolutionary War than the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party movements?
Yes. The Revolutionary War resulted in the foundation of the United States and so we can interpret and evaluate its motivational integrity far better than we can Occupy or Tea Party since these are still unfolding. The irony, though, is that interpretations of the past are fluid, they are still changing. Historians have analyzed and critiqued the motivations of the Founding Fathers ever since the creation of the United States. Were they motivated by truly democratic principles, or were they economic elites who created a Constitution that would protect the interests of economic elites? This is still a debatable interpretation.
By studying the past, might you be able to predict the future face of dissent or perhaps see the next wave of dissent in America on the horizon?
I’ve always viewed history as the study of the past, the present, and the future! History is organic. And we are part of that organism. We cannot actually predict the future, but we can see the patterns and come up with some reasonable expectations of what they might lead to.
Do you think it’s only a matter of time before some form of violent revolution revisits America or have we progressed beyond that in the 21st century?
I can’t see it happening in the near future, but I wouldn’t count out anything. It depends on how bad things get. If economic inequality continues to grow and fester, it’s like putting a cap on a volcano. Pressures will continue to build unless there is some effort at reform to act as a safety valve. Theodore Roosevelt always believed that reform is essential and that if the powers that be ignore reform they are stoking the fires of revolution.
What do you hope people will take away from reading Dissent?
That dissent is patriotic. It is one of the central attributes of being an American. And that no single individual can change the world, but if thousands, millions of individuals work together toward a goal, together they can make a difference. And making a difference in small incremental steps is the way we do change the world.
Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters.