Question Authority

It’s all about timing. I spent Election Day in class, talking with students about the question of authority and obedience: Should you obey those in charge? When? Under what circumstances?

These are first-semester freshmen, mostly kids who have not been challenged to think systematically about power, protest and individual responsibility – which is why I assigned several essays that they are supposed to use in a research paper contemplating and explaining which political issues were most important to them and just how far they might be willing to go to advance their causes. The essays – “On Disobedience” by Erich Fromm, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau – focused on protest and morality, on when authority is legitimate and when it loses that legitimacy. They are both examples of how others addressed these basic questions and guideposts for how we should look at these questions..

Disobedience is necessary for our survival and growth as a society. Fromm makes the claim that “Human history is ushered in by an act of disobedience” – Eve eating the apple in the Bible, or Prometheus’ stealing fire from the gods – and it is disobedience that will allow us to survive. Fromm’s essay was written during the Cold War and in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation, a threat recklessly pushed by those in authority. Their authority is illegitimate, he says, because it fails to call us back to humanity.

King makes the same argument in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he proclaims that an unjust law – which he defines as one that constricts human potential – is one that lacks moral force and should not be obeyed. King is not calling for anarchy – he accepts the authority of an elected government, which is why he willingly went to jail after breaking the law against parading without a permit.

“One who breaks the law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty,” he writes. “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

What might this mean going forward, with a proto-fascist having won the White House and conservatives owning both houses of Congress? First, I would argue, we have to grant that Donald Trump’s election is legitimate and, therefore, so is the baseline of his authority. But his authority is limited by the constitution. He cannot rule by fiat – unless we cede power to him.

That is something I’ve been concerned with for years. The greatest failing of the Obama years has been the left’s general apathy, its willingness to sit back after his election and assume his leadership would be enough to move the country in the right direction. What we got, because of that, was a form of Bill Clinton light – a slightly more liberal administration that made incremental progress but failed to create broader structural change. Had we been more active in critiquing Obama and challenging him – on the Affordable Care Act, on bank reform and so on – we might have created a more durable progressive electoral apparatus.

That might be water under the bridge – except that the election of Trump creates a sense of urgency that the left has not really felt over the last eight years. Trump will be the president of all Americans – as a conservative Facebook friend said to me. But, as I shot back, that does not mean we have to sit on our hands and take what he dishes out.

Trump’s signature issues – deportation and the border wall, his Muslim ban and calls to clamp down on the press and protest – meet King and Fromm’s definition of the unjust use of authority. Conservative Republicans’ signature issues – repeal of women’s, gay and transgender rights, restrictions on voting, etc. – meet King and Fromm’s definition of the unjust use of authority. These efforts need to be responded to, their enactment into law needs to be stymied, and if they do become law, the law needs to be disobeyed – through protest, through writing, through speaking up, through solidarity.

We have to make it clear that we will not sit by idly as the United States attempts to enact hate-based and fear-based laws that diminish the human spirit, that target specific groups, that allow the continued existence of white supremacy and privilege the rich over the poor and middle class.

Liberals lost this round, but the fight is not over. Now is the time to dig in and push back.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Facebook,; Instagram, @kaletwrites.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2016

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