The popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and the current events in Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, Libya, and Algeria have captured the attention of the world and brought to light one of mankind’s most fundamental, yet woefully under-utilized faculties: dissent. These protests, demonstrations, and rebellions against the status quo power structures prove yet again that despite the crippling powerlessness and disenfranchisement many individuals feel in the face of the overwhelming superiority of established power, when organized, the people can make a change in their country and for their lives. This epidemic of resistance spreads rapidly throughout the Arab world, but its ramifications are universal. To better understand the phenomenon of dissent, one must study a variety of disciplines ranging from history, to philosophy, to psychology, to economics, and of course politics. But for those who, for whatever reason, feel alienated from the ideas of dissent, there are ways of breaking into this area of study, and as I hope to show, self-education is the first and most important piece of dissent, of autonomy, and of sovereignty.
Verso Press is an “independent, radical publishing house.” Many of the world’s leading dissenters and thinkers publish their books through Verso. Verso’s Book of Dissent is a tidy volume that compiles text fragments and brief analyses of dissension throughout history. As the subtitle of the book states, it covers everything “from Spartacus to the Shoe-Thrower of Baghdad.” The Book of Dissent is by no means a guide to any particular area of dissent, nor a study of any coherent ideology of dissent. Instead, the book paints a picture of a wide variety of human beings standing up for themselves and others in the face of power. The idea behind the book is to remind people today that popular change is possible, whatever the circumstances may be, and no matter how firmly entrenched and well-supplied the established authority is. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings prove this point to be true today, even in a world of ubiquitous computer technology, faceless multi-national corporations and extreme governmental military force. For those interested in a brief and wide survey of dissent throughout recorded history, the Verso Book of Dissent offers a startling collection of fragments, blurbs, and vignettes covering nearly every aspect of dissent in its totality, any of which can be further researched for deeper understanding.
Another important publication by Verso is the “Radical Thinkers” series. Now on Set 5, the Radical Thinkers series has provided various books from the leading leftist intellectuals of our day and the 20th century, including Adorno, Zizek, Debord, Marcuse, Baudrillard, and many others. The multifaceted vision that these series provide offers an enormous resource of criticism, new ideas, history, philosophy, and even creative writing on all of the important ideas that face us today. These series can offer readers an introduction to a writer or thinker previously unknown and opens the door to the vast world of dissenting literature and thought. Verso is not the only publishing house that tackles these issues, but they certainly hold the avant garde and continually recruit the finest minds to continue their work of intellectual dissent against established power.
In America specifically, there is a strong tradition of dissent. The idea of dissent is written plainly in our very Declaration of Independence; our nation was born out of a revolution against established power. However, in modern America, many of these ideas are lost. Supporters of the status quo often label dissenters as unpatriotic or even the dreaded word “terrorists.” However, there have been several examples of successful dissidents in our country, none perhaps more well-known than Noam Chomsky. Chomsky’s activism began in the 1960s as he took part in protests against the war in Vietnam. However, his activism has increased broadly from focusing on a specific struggle to being the mouthpiece for the nearly infinite number of disenfranchised peoples around the world against the insidious forces that seek to exploit and sometimes exterminate them. Chomsky has taken on every major established power from the mass media in his groundbreaking work Manufacturing Consent , to American policy both domestic and foreign, and a large focus on the exploitation and human rights violations of third world countries by first world governments and corporations. Chomsky, a famed linguist, heavily criticizes the intelligentsia of the west for not taking a more active role in dissent. In fact, he accuses them bluntly of either omitting wholly criticisms against the status quo or often times willingly supporting the status quo either out of fear (fear of censorship, of vilification, of income loss, of ostracization in the academic community) or from simple ignorance, willful or otherwise, of the real issues facing people today (ivory tower insulation.) Many of Chomsky’s essays and speeches are available online for free. A YouTube search will turn up tons of material. A few documentaries, including Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media are available on Netflix instant watch. Chomsky, as a popular figure with near-celebrity status, takes the vanguard in bringing the ideas of dissent to those who will listen.
Another popular dissenter in America is the recently deceased historian Howard Zinn. His world famous A People's History of the United States challenged the across-the-board curriculum of public school history and its bias towards the narrative of power and explored the various twists and turns of history through the eyes of the disenfranchised, the powerless, and often the victims. Zinn’s life, as Chomsky’s, was full of social protest. Zinn was among the very few in the academic community who vocally and physically supported the Civil Rights Movement. Much deserved credit goes to Martin Luther King for his role in the Civil Rights Movement, but as A People’s History points out, and the American Civil Rights Movement was no exception, change happens because of grass roots popular movements, such as those by black students in the South, some of whom Zinn taught and supported. A documentary about Zinn, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, offers an introduction to his work and life and is also available on Netflix instant watch. One of Howard Zinn’s life goals was to bring knowledge to the people that they were capable of changing the systems that seemed to bind them. Offering hope to the hopeless, power to the powerless, and change to the stagnant is the duty and legacy of intellectual dissenters.
Perhaps one of the greatest cases of dissent in our day is that of WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing team responsible for releasing thousands of classified cables, memos, and information to the people. The American mainstream media has spent more time covering the reaction to WikiLeaks, the outrage from the military-industrial complex, and the empty threats of the leaky governments, than they have of the actual substance of the leaks themselves. Such amazing revelations include the fact that America, under George H.W. Bush, goaded Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait as a means of justifying a large-scale military operation in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the real heroes and dissenters, like Bradley Manning, are treated like criminals for revealing the truth to the American public. A working knowledge of dissent, a practice of auto-didactism, and a healthy skepticism towards power are crucial in understanding a phenomenon like WikiLeaks.
To close, there are three things of utmost importance when thinking about dissent and understanding how the common man or woman relates to the power structures that dominate him or her:
1) Education. This term today generally applies to the idea of a completed high-school education with perhaps an undergraduate term in college. But education isn’t about grinding one’s way through the established institutions of learning. Education is about critical thinking in a free environment. Education is about continual, perpetual self-betterment for one’s entire life. Education consists of maintaining a high level of involvement with the intellectual zeitgeist of one’s reality. Education, first and foremost, comes about through the study of relevant texts, which leads to the next idea:
2) Literacy. Typically, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. If one has these basic capabilities, one is “literate.” However, true literacy is achieved by reading the correct books. If one has a houseful of grocery store paperbacks, one is not necessarily literate. But, if one has a single bookshelf full of philosophy, psychology, literature, economics, political science, history, and science, one may achieve true literacy, which is the ability to critically analyze and discuss a wide variety of topics from a locus of self-earned knowledge. One may not be an “expert” in these fields, but the very idea of specialization, of experts, leads to a great ignorance of vital topics for the greater part of humanity. We must resurrect the idea of the Renaissance Man; because in our modern information age, the tools to craft one’s self into a Renaissance Man are ubiquitous and available to all.
3) Critical skepticism. One’s default approach to all information, to all authority, must be that of critical skepticism. Critical, because one’s sovereign right as a human being is to criticize ideas and institutions, to filter them through one’s mental faculties in order to judge their worth, truth, and effects. Skeptical, because if one blindly believes any argument from authority, one is surrendering his or her autonomy of thought, the basis of one’s freedom, to an alien body. Dissent is born out of critical skepticism of the established power. This critical skepticism must be applied to news media, to books, to magazines, to politicians and their rhetoric, to advertising, in short, to all forms of persuasion. Failure to hold this healthy critical skepticism is failure to maintain defenses against a highly organized, highly scientific onslaught of information warfare.
Dissent is not an ephemeral activity that will one day be obsolete. No Utopia will be built that satisfies all the people all the time. Therefore, dissent is part and parcel of freedom. Our first amendment, often invoked, was established to protect our right to dissent openly. There can be no freedom when dissent is squashed, when peaceful protest is met by violent police reaction, or when the cacophony of the mass media drowns out the too often ignored voices of those who disagree with the fundamental systems of society. Frederick Douglass said “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Dissent is the engine that provides the impetus for movement along that path.