In the current climate of "go-team" patriotism and near-mandatory support for national leaders, it might be a little jarring to sing the praises of telling the powers-that-be to get lost. After all, we're told, Americans are supposed to pull together in this time of crisis, and put our wayward sentiments on hold. But no less a man than Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing." If the author of the Declaration of Independence thought that resistance to authority was a praiseworthy act, perhaps such sentiments are worthy of consideration, even if contrary to the spirit of the moment.
Jefferson penned his famous quote after Shay's Rebellion, in 1786. Unhappy veterans of the Revolution had risen in Massachusetts against high taxes, worthless money and abusive officials, and been defeated by the militia. In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson expressed sympathy with the rebels' grievances, though he condemned "acts absolutely unjustifiable." Then he added:
"Unsuccessful rebellions, indeed, generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."
It's not a far step from Shay's Rebellion of 1786 to the Tennessee tax protests of the past few years. Outraged by state legislators who planned to close a budget gap by imposing an income tax rather than cutting spending, Tennesseans took to the streets of Nashville. In July of 2001, Fox News reported, "The Legislature … abandoned plans for an income tax Thursday night after rowdy protesters stormed the Capitol, breaking windows and chanting 'No New Taxes!' "
Less than a year later, lawmakers raised the issue again — and people once more rallied in protest. Demonstrators gathered outside the Capitol, honking horns and shouting until the legislature voted down a proposed income tax.
Taxes are often at the center of uprisings — but not always. Government officials sometimes even develop new ways of angering their constituents. So it was in Hawaii where drivers protested the use of "Talivans" — vans equipped with traffic cameras — to enforce the state's notoriously sluggish speed limits. Drivers went to court in hordes to challenge tickets, they abused the Talivan operators, and many even concealed their license plates so they couldn't be photographed.
Echoing Jefferson's observation that rebellions "establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them," The Honolulu Star-Bulletin editorialized, "Public anger about the speed threshold and the locations of vans prompts the larger question of whether speed limits on various highways or stretches of roads are appropriate. Where they are unreasonably low, motorists have ignored them and police officers have not enforced them."
In the end, cowed lawmakers abandoned the unpopular surveillance scheme.
Uprisings are sometimes less cinematic than Shay's rebellion or the Tennessee tax revolt, and quieter than the Hawaii Talivan tussle. But even low-key resistance can be courageous when it bucks popular laws and passionate public opinion.
That's the case with officials in eight U.S. cities who have raised serious concerns about the USA Patriot Act, which was passed with wide support in the wake of Sept. 11. City councils in communities from Cambridge, Mass., through Denver, Colo., to Berkeley, Calif., have condemned the draconian police powers in the law as a danger to the civil liberties of Americans in general and minority groups in particular.
"Historically there have been attacks on civil liberties in times of war," Cambridge Councilman Brian Murphy said in explaining a resolution opposing the federal law. "I think if you look at USA Patriot, this is another example of that."
So far, the civil libertarian sentiments raised in opposition to the anti-terrorism law have stood as an example of the "unsuccessful rebellions" to which Jefferson referred.
Of course, Americans have no monopoly on rebelliousness. Headlines around the world recently carried the tale of the plucky Snifferdogalert web site. It seems that the parliament of New South Wales, Australia, voted its police the power to use dogs to search people for drugs in public places. Worse, the searches can be conducted at random without any cause whatsoever.
The New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties along with the Redfern Legal Centre responded with Snifferdogalert and a related messaging service. Through the site, people can sign up to be warned via text messages to their cellphones that police are searching people at random in the area of their home or work.
The free service proved so popular that it initially swamped the site, and has now been limited to 3,000 people at a time.
Police Minister Michael Costa vowed to find a way to shut down the service — so far, to no avail.
From high-tech to low-tech, from North America to Australia, rebellion has thrived as an expression of dissatisfaction with government actions, and as a means of changing policies — or of expeditiously replacing the people who set those policies. Even when they're not successful, rebellions often succeed in telling politicians that they've gone too far, and that the cost of pushing further may be higher than they're willing to pay.
Not all rebellions are necessarily good, but Thomas Jefferson may well have had it right when he wrote, "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing."
— Arizona Daily Sun