America’s revolutionary declaration of dissent



On this Fourth of July in the Connecticut town where I live, a small group of residents, many of them veterans, gathered on the green to read aloud the entire text of the Declaration of Independence.

This solemn and salutatory ritual serves as a reminder that if we want to know what America is all about, the Declaration, rather than the U.S. Constitution, is the place to start.

For America, Independence Day has always had a symbolic importance that Constitution Day lacks. July 4 has been selected as the date for any number of historically important events in U.S. history: the start of the American bombing campaign against Nazi-occupied Europe in 1942, for instance, and the effective date of the abolition of slavery in New York state in 1827.

And it was no accident that boxing promoters chose July 4, 1910, for the “Great White Hope” fight between Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries.

When I was a kid, the Fourth of July had a certain magic. You could count on Major League Baseball teams playing Independence Day doubleheaders.

In the small town of my youth, you could look forward to a July Fourth ice cream social in the park. Those were the days when, in the words of novelist E.L. Doctorow, “Patriotism was a reliable sentiment.”

We may not be any less patriotic than we used to be, but the formal signals of earlier days are largely absent.

Try to remember, for instance, the last time any store flying a U.S. flag paid much attention to the proper method of display, long ago codified by Congress in a forgotten statute called the Flag Code. (Yes, enforcing the statute would in many cases violate the First Amendment. Still, just because one has the right to violate it doesn’t mean that it’s right to violate it.)

But the one symbol of patriotism that has yet to fade is our love of dissent — loud, raucous, passionate, sometimes impolite — and it is dissent that we should be celebrating on Independence Day.

It’s hard sometimes. If you’re like me, at least twice a week you encounter some opinion that makes your blood boil. Maybe it comes from a friend or colleague, maybe from a politician or pundit. Whatever the source, a part of you surely wonders how any seemingly intelligent person can possibly believe that drivel, much less express it.

The Fourth of July is exactly the right occasion to pause and give thanks for those disagreeable views — and for a country that was founded on our right to express them.

Dissent is central to democracy, and although I believe dissent should be civil, its centrality doesn’t fade when it isn’t.

As sociologist Charles P. Flynn pointed out in his 1977 book “Insult and Society,” insults aimed at government officials “provide a check to those in power who may be tempted to think of themselves in grandiose terms, above the rest of humanity and hence not subject to insults.”

The essential function of dissent is to remind the rulers that they serve the ruled. It is a paradox of our era that even as the digital world opens new avenues for conveying ideas, effective dissent becomes more and more difficult.

In particular, the growing bureaucratization of government has a stifling effect on dissent. A large and complex government, distant from those it governs, tends to handle disagreement in the same way as a corporate customer-relations department: The complaint is reduced to a standardized input to be processed, cataloged, digitized and ultimately forgotten.

I suspect that one cause of the growing fury of our political age is that a large, distant, essentially diffident federal establishment is not terribly well-suited to give ear to the disgruntlements of the ordinary citizen. Dissenters feel ignored, and their frustration leads them to anger.

Both the tea party and the Occupy movement rest fundamentally on a popular sense that nobody in Washington listens.

This inattention matters. I have argued elsewhere that the very justness of a sovereign — the legitimate authority to rule — rests in large measure on how it responds to dissent. The Declaration of Independence relies crucially on this notion. If you read through the long list of the colonists’ complaints, all of them seem reasonable but none seem sufficient to justify revolution.

Then, as the litany ends, there is this: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

The very next paragraph reminds the reader that the petitions have been ignored, and the key to the language isn’t the specific complaints but the repeated efforts to bring them to the sovereign’s attention: “We have warned them … we have reminded them … we have appealed …

“But, alas, those the Declaration calls “our British brethren” have proved “deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.”

Those two paragraphs are key to understanding the argument. We have asked and asked, the writers insist, and our appeals have not even been given a serious hearing. On the contrary, our complaints “have been answered only by repeated injury.”

The refusal to take dissent seriously, then, might be considered the essence of the complaint on which America itself is founded.

Nowadays, we tend to extol the patriotism of dissenters in causes we like and question that of dissenters in causes we hate. There is, of course, nothing new in this behavior. But the Fourth of July is a good time to remember how antithetical to the values of our founding it is.

Maybe next year on July 4, President Barack Obama could kick off a reading of the entire Declaration of Independence on the South Lawn of the White House, followed by a celebration of dissent, in which he might encourage us to thank one another for our mutually disagreeable views.

Maybe you beg to differ.

If so, let’s thank God for placing us in a nation founded on your right to tell me I’m wrong.

Stephen L. Carter (stephen.carter@yale.edu.) is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.