- The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere. [Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Abigail Adams, 1787.]
- Most codes extend their definitions of treason to acts not really against one’s country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government, and acts against the oppressions of the government. The latter are virtues, yet have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former, because real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries. [Thomas Jefferson, Report on Spanish Convention, 1792.]
- We cannot play ostrich. Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. In the chill climate in which we live, we must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust. We must dissent from a nation that has buried its head in the sand, waiting in vain for the needs of its poor, its elderly, and its sick to disappear and just blow away. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better. [Thurgood Marshall, Liberty Medal acceptance address, July 4, 1992]
- The commotions that have taken place in America, as far as they are yet known to me, offer nothing threatening. They are a proof that the people have liberty enough, and I could not wish them less than they have. If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then, or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase. ‘Malo libertatem periculosam quam quietem servitutem.’ Let common sense and common honesty have fair play, and they will soon set things to rights.” [Thomas Jefferson, letter to Ezra Stiles, 1786.]
Perhaps nothing is more strongly disapproved in national life — especially the national life of a wealthy and successful people — than dissent. Yet in every field, dissent is indispensable to progress. Apparently, Thomas Jefferson did not write that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” but we might conclude that he believed it from some of his other remarks, quoted above. In a classic work of intellectual history, Thomas Kuhn observed that scientific progress usually results from crisis and turmoil in established fields of science, begins as dissenting scientists (usually young ones) challenge established theories, proceeds through a period of bitter rejection by the “establishment” and ends with the emergence of new theories replacing the old. [Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962).] We see the same process in virtually every field of human endeavor, and yet time after time otherwise intelligent people fight furiously to preserve established methods that have fallen into crisis.
Sometimes, in our quest to reduce life to terms we can comprehend, or in an attempt to preserve personal or group privileges, we humans have tried to squelch diversity. Because of our particular nature as a social species, we developed a natural inclination to prefer conformity. Conformity has its place but sometimes people are inclined to suppress our differences solely for the sake of personal comfort. This has led to an unfortunate tendency toward unthinking suppression of dissent and unfamiliar lifestyles. The struggle against this has been a long one and the battles have been intense. For that reason, our narrative on this subject is rich.
Technical and Analytical Readings
I suggest the following works on the history of dissent. These narratives are especially compelling in the United States, whose form of government is republican/democratic, whose origins are those of political dissent and whose Constitution proclaims a formal commitment to the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
- Barry Hankins and Derek Davis, New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America (J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, 2002).
- Frank Lowenstein, Sheryl Lechner and Erik Bruun, eds., Voices of Protest!: Documents of Courage and Dissent (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2007).
- Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
- Robert B. Woods, ed., Vietnam and the American Political Tradition: The Politics of Dissent (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Bud Schultz, The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America (University of California Press, 2001).
- Bud Schultz and Ruth Schultz, It Did Happen Here: Recollections of Political Repression in America (University of California Press, 1989).
- Barrows Dunham, Heroes and Heretics: A Social History of Dissent (Alfred A. Knopf, 1964).
- Timothy L. Wood, Agents of Wrath, Sowers of Discord: Authority and Dissent in Puritan Massachusetts, 1630-1655 (Routledge, 2005).
- Ellen Levine, Freedom's Children: Young Civil Rights Activists Tell Their Own Stories (Putnam Juvenile, 1993).
- Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Andrew G. Walder, eds., China's Cultural Revolution as History (Stanford University Press), 2006).
- Chihua Wen, The Red Mirror:Children of China's Cultural Revolution (Westview Press, 1995).
- Aleksandr Iksaevich Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 (Harper Collins, 1974).
- Leona Toker, Return From the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (Indiana University Press, 2000).
- Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday, 2003).
- Janusz Bardach and Kathleen Gleeson, Man Is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag (University of California Press, 1998).
- Evgeniia Semenovna Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967).
- Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Knopf, 1963).
- Julia Alvarez, In the Time of Butterflies (Algonquin Books, 1994).
- Vibeke Schou Tjalve, Realist Strategies of Republican Peace: Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and the Politics of Patriotic Dissent (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
- Gabriel Audisio, The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival, c.1170-c.1570 (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
- Euan Cameron, Waldenses: Rejections of Holy Church in Medieval Europe (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).
- J. A. Wylie, History of the Waldenses (Church History, 1985).
- Stephen L. Carter, The Dissent of the Governed: A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty (Harvard University Press, 1998).
- Richard Hoffer, Something In the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (Free Press, 2009): Hoffer’s “jaunty but disciplined prose puts the wind at the reader’s back and shows us how the leaps, lifts and dashes of 1968 made a significant impact on the civil rights movement and raised the political consciousness of athletes.”
- Noah Feldman, The Broken Constitution: Lincoln, Slavery, and the Refounding of America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “Was the Constitution Pro-Slavery? Jefferson Davis Thought So. Abraham Lincoln Didn’t.”
We need not share Martin Luther’s theology to appreciate the power of his dissent.
- Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017): about “a remarkable and complex man who boasted of being imperfect while insisting that he was always right.”
- Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation 1483-1521 (Fortress Press, 1985).
- Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation 1521-1532 (Fortress Press, 1991).
- Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church 1532-1546 (Augsburg Fortress Publishing, 1993).
Dissent is a form of intervention.
- Daphne Patai and Wilfrido Corral, Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (Columbia University Press, 2005).
In the United States, it has ended wars and opened doors for oppressed peoples.
- Vasily Grossman, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays (New York Review Books, 2010).
- Victoria E. Bynum, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
- Robert Mann, Wartime Dissent in America: A History and Anthology (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).
- Ralph Young, Dissent in America: The Voices that Shaped a Nation (Prentice Hall, 2008).
- Ann Wright and Susan Dickson, Dissent: Voices of Conscience (Koa Books, 2008).
- Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lenticchia, Dissent from the Homeland: essays after September 11 (Duke University Press, 2003).
- Mary Ann Weinknoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (Indiana University Press, 2002).
- David Pickering and Judy Falls, Brush Men and Vigilantes: Civil War Dissent in Texas (Texas A&M Press, 2000).
- Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (Duke University Press, 2006).
Of course, there have been great intellectual dissenters.
- Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Chronicles of Dissent: Interviews with David Barsamian (Common Courage Press, 2002).
- Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT Press, 2007).
All over the world, throughout history, injustice has compelled people to dissent.
- Knud Haakonssen, Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
- Madawi Al-Rasheed, Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
- Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent (Palgrave MacMillan, 1999).
- Cristina De Stefano, Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend (Other Press, 2017): “Someone should write an opera about her: La Fallaci, beautiful, extravagant, courageous survivor of war and tempestuous love affairs, speaker of truth to power. . . . Her interviews remain studies in speaking truth to power. Interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini, she famously called the chador a “stupid, medieval rag” and took it off, provoking the Ayatollah to leave the room.”
- Kerri K. Greenidge, Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter (Liveright, 2019): “Greenidge positions Trotter as a radical populist, distinct not only from the conservative Washington but also the progressive Du Bois.”
Humor can be a vehicle for dissent.
- George Carlin, Last Words (Free Press, 2009): “ . . . a jazzy, inward-looking piece of work. Its strength lies in its documentation of how this great comedian made the trip from a happy-to-be-here entertainer of the 1960s to the salt-in-the-wound philosopher-comic of the 1970s and beyond.”
- Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” (Touchstone / Simon & Schuster, 2010): “ . . . a straightforward chronicle that charts the rise and fall of a charming double act cut down in its prime by annoyed CBS executives.”
Music can be a vehicle for dissent.
- Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: From Billie Holiday to Green Day (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2011), on protest songs
Personal histories of dissent:
- Diane Johnson, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith: And Other Lesser Lives (New York Review Books, 2020): “. . . Mary Ellen staged her mutiny, all the more astonishing at a time when divorce was unspeakable and children remained the property of their fathers. This is to say nothing of the practical hindrances of having an affair.”
- H.L. Mencken, The Days Trilogy: Expanded Edition (Library of America, 2014): collected writings from a man who bucked the crowd, and everything else
- Morgan Jerkins, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America (Harper Perennial, 2018): the author “writes about buzzworthy topics and milestones in her life . . .”: “I know that as a black woman, I am a problem. I am a contradiction of what it means to be human. … I am a stranger and I like it.”
Documentary and Educational Films
Film and Stage
- Ju Dou: a Chinesewoman challenges tradition in the 1920s
- The Angry Silence, about a worker who opposes the union at his workplace
- Butcher Boy, about “a boy’s struggles with violence and mental illness,” the film maintains the protagonist’s “wily, headstrong voice through all his tumultuous experiences” and his cultivated ability “to attack the status quo with extreme prejudice”
- The Conformist(Il conformista), about a man who went along at all costs to others
- Silkwood, on the price of dissent and the resistance against it
- Kabei: Our Mother, a Japanese film set in the early 1940s chronicling the price a family pays for the husband/father’s implicit criticism of Japanese war policies
- To Be or Not to Be, celebrating the Polish resistance during World War II
- Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, a quirky film by an Iranian film-maker, who creates a film while driving a taxicab, using non-professional actors, who appear anonymously, while the film-maker supposedly is under house arrest
- Magda Szabó, Abigail: A Novel (1970): “Even as the students are fostering a culture of quiet dissent within the academy, an anonymous political insurgent is papering Arkod with anti-Nazi signage.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Dmitri Shostakovich was a dissident composer in the truest sense of the word. As a Soviet citizen under Stalin and then Kruschev, he faced intense pressure to compose music that pleased state officials, and more pressingly perhaps, not to compose music that displeased them. Keenly aware of the atrocities within the Soviet system, Shostakovich was driven to compose the music that spoke truth as he saw it. Several of his works reflect this drive, which gained expression during periods when he was able to resist pressure from the state. They constitute a forbidden critique of Soviet government and culture.
- Symphony No. 5 (1937), in which Shostakovich subtly mocks the state’s glory (documentary and concert) (performances conducted by Rodzinski in 1942, Bernstein in 1959, Ormandy in 1965, Previn in 1965, Kurt Sanderling in 1982, Petrenko in 2008, Kondrashin and Mravinsky in 1983)
- Symphony No. 7 (1941), musically commenting on Stalin, as well as Hitler (performances conducted by Gergiev, Svetlanov and Bernstein)
- Symphony No. 9 (1945), intended to deflate Stalin’s ego (performances conducted by Gergiev, Rozhdestvensky, and Bernstein)
- Symphony No. 11 (1957), on the Hungarian uprising (performances conducted by Kondrashin, Gergiev and Stokowski)
- Symphony No. 12 (1961), a satire of Lenin (performances conducted by Mravinsky, Gergiev and Inbal)
- Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar” (1962), in honor of the Jewish peoples (performances conducted by Petrenko, Kondrashin and Barshai)
- String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 (1960), portraying the composer as a victim of fasciam (performances by Borodin Quartet, Beethoven Quartet and Jansen, et. al.)
- From Jewish Folk Poetry (1948) (performances with Shostakovich, on piano, Södrström singing, and Polyansky conducting)
- Anti-Formalist Rayok (1960), a musical satire on the USSR’s treatment of composers and their music (performances conducted by Platonov, Leiferkus and Spivakov)
- Satires (Pictures of the Past), Op. 109 (1960), on ideology
- Michelangelo Verses (1974), a commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s exile from the USSR (sung by Nestrenko, Hvorostovsky and Tomlinson)
- Shostakovich also used humor and irony, such as in his Concerto No. 1 in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, Op. 35 (1933), and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102 (1957). These works create musical images of Soviet citizens rushing about frenetically, surrounded by military themes and rhythms.
- Janáček, Capriccio "Defiance" for piano left hand & chamber ensemble, JW7/12 (1926)
- Garrett Fisher, The Passion of St. Thomas More
From the dark side:
- Weill, Der Jasager (He Who Says Yes): The dark side of dissent is not having the freedom to do it.