In an old “Peanuts” comic strip, Linus offered a thought for the ages: “You know, Charlie Brown, I love mankind. It’s just people I can’t stand.”
Ah, people. Annoying, aren’t they? They get in the way of everything we want to do. I may want to drive through a traffic intersection, but if the light turns red I have to stop and let you through instead. What’s up with that? Aren’t you infringing on my rights? Why should I have to stop just so you can go?
I use this admittedly stupid analogy just to remind us that we actually need the laws that enable us to function as a society, and that this basic principle of law and order reaches from the corner stop sign to the steps of the capitol building. The alternative is social breakdown and chaos.
In a dictatorship, laws are created and enforced with little concern for the rights and needs of its citizens. Fortunately, we live in a democracy, where our leaders answer to us, at least in election years. In the meantime, we entrust our elected leaders with the responsibility to make the hard decisions society sometimes requires.
But there will always be times when the person for whom I voted makes a decision I consider to be wrongheaded and stupid.
So what happens then? Thanks to our democratic process, I can lobby my leaders and ask them to change their minds. I can stand on a street corner and wave signs. I can troll social media to try to recruit others to throw the bum out in the next election.
Or I can simply decide to break the law that bothers me. I can decide that working as a fellow-citizen in a participatory democracy is just too much trouble and takes too darn long.
I’m not endorsing this approach, but it is nevertheless a path many choose. From drug users who just want to get high, to people who occupy federal grazing lands, the principle is exactly the same.
Back in the 1960s, protesters who opposed the Vietnam War and discriminatory Jim Crow laws took to the streets and engaged in acts of civil disobedience in an effort to force change. The tough-on-crime response from the majority of citizens was predictable: lock up the lawbreakers. But the protesters — and this is important — did not see themselves as lawbreakers. They believed they were following the higher moral law of thou shalt not kill, love your brother, etc. And so they did what they thought was right, and many were jailed for their beliefs.
Now flash forward a half-century or so, and let’s see what we’ve got: Duly elected leaders making tough decisions on social isolation based on the vast consensus of medical analysis, but which a vocal portion of the citizenry considers stupid and morally wrong. The protesters tell us to swing open the doors, bring on the crowds and let’s get this party restarted. Across the nation, some social-distancing violators have been arrested in acts of deliberate civil disobedience.
In no way am I putting social-distancing protesters on the same moral ground as those who endured police beatings after walking over the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma. But I suspect that’s where this new breed of demonstrators place themselves. They see themselves as answering some higher moral call.
So here we are. Protesters committing acts of civil disobedience, as we saw others do in the ’60s. In both decades, lawbreakers acted from a conviction that personal morality trumps civil legality. The essential difference being that today’s protests are coming from the political right instead of the political left.
It was said in the ’60s that all the civil unrest was bringing the nation close to anarchy. As we watch events play out in the months to come, we may find ourselves in similar territory.
What will save us? If we are to be saved, it will be by virtue of the same democratic institutions scorned by protesters both then and now: the rule of law, and our willingness to support those who, by our own collective vote, we have put in place to govern us.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in southern Idaho. Connect with Chris on both Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.