Freedom in your Goldfish’s Lifetime
A question that’s been asked several times is what have acts of civil disobedience accomplished in Keene, New Hampshire. I know of a couple of incidents where people refused to pay traffic fines on moral grounds and they got out of paying those fines. Those are small victories. I also have my larger expectations. For instance, I expect local law enforcement and the local justice system to exercise more restraint when they realize that their usual railroading and intimidation tactics don’t work on some of their victims. Instead, we make their jobs harder when they attempt to violate our rights. We don’t want to be in jail, of course, but we don’t necessarily let that threat deter us. Instead we bring attention to it. We stand up to them, defiant yet peaceful, and use it to point out the violence of the system. In turn, I expect that to affect a culture shift whereby many others become more aware of their rights and they’ll become emboldened to stand up for those rights. These are noble goals. But I can’t really point at anything significant and concrete that we’ve accomplished as of yet.
I don’t fault the victim of a street burglar who hands over his wallet rather than risk his life. For the same reason, I don’t fault the person who concedes to the demands of violent governments. We all have to decide for ourselves where our boundaries lie. Having said that, I’ve gotten a better sense of the risks and sacrifices of civil disobedience and what responses to expect from local agents of the State in my own role as a supporter of other activists. What I’ve experienced is my own safety boundaries being gradually pushed further and further out.
What I already knew but which I’ve become more acutely aware of lately is how much agents of the State control us with threats of violence and the associated fear far more than with actual violence. Herein lies the irony. We often obey because we fear jail. We obey because we don’t want to lose our freedom. But if you’re being ordered around due to the constant threat of losing your freedom, you’re a slave. Isn’t your freedom already lost? You’re simply being forced to choose which freedom to give up.
A policeman is used to using the threat of arrest to gain compliance, and of course they expect it to work. Most people live in constant fear of a policeman’s ability to use violence indiscriminately and so they usually obey any demand, even unlawful orders, to avoid jail. Police usually don’t want to arrest you. They want you to fear them and obey! They don’t expect people to call their bluff. Of course, it’s not always a bluff so you have to face your fear of being arrested and be prepared for it. You can’t be the one bluffing. If you aren’t prepared for the possibility of being arrested, you can’t absolve yourself of the fear, and that’s crucial before you can stand up for yourself.
When they succeed in controlling us with their threats, they become emboldened to push that control further and further. As our personal safety boundaries shrink, the boundaries of their tyranny continually expand. That’s why our rights are being further encroached upon. They fire bullets at our feet and we obediently dance, a dance that necessarily becomes more and more elaborate.
When you’re about to participate in some act of disobeying, and it may start very small, like refusing to stand for a judge who has promised to impose “sanctions” for that simple statement of free speech, you must first steel yourself for the possibility that you will get arrested. The instant that you do that, your own personal safety boundaries get pushed out. When you have prepared yourself for making that sacrifice of freedom for your principles, you have partially disarmed your enemy of its greatest tool to control you– fear. At this point, I’ve prepared myself on a number of occasions for the possibility of being arrested so that I could stand up for my principles, and each time I managed to walk away. I know that day will come when I’ll be arrested and I’m prepared for that, but in the meantime, I successfully disobeyed. I ceased to be a slave for a brief moment in time and it made me feel more alive. Some amount of time in jail seems like a small price to pay for that kind of freedom.
There is not an ounce of doubt in my mind that this is a crucial part of the path to achieving real concrete advancements against a violent State. At the least, I expect the culture changes I described. I expect more people to stand up for their rights. In turn I expect agents of the State to exercise more care in respecting our rights. In time, I even expect that we’ll have an impact on politics via the resulting culture shift.
But in the meantime, freeing yourself from that fear is a substantial advance in your own personal freedom. It’s not something concrete I can point to or measure, but I consider that quite an accomplishment. Living in fear and dancing as bullets are shot at your feet is no life at all. I’ve experienced substantial personal progress in a span of just one year. Meanwhile, I feel that fear draining away week after week. The average goldfish lives about six to eight years. Think of the freedom you could achieve for yourself just in your pet goldfish’s lifetime!