It’s popular to refer to the political line of a major corporate party in the United States as something like “the resistance” when the other of the two parties is on the throne of what both parties have, over many decades, actively converted into an unconstitutional position of something wildly beyond old-fashioned royal powers. Around 2004 the Democratic Party line was to pretend to oppose wars. Around 2018 it wasn’t. So the “resistance” of that party’s followers included war opposition in 2004 but not in 2018. Its essence was and is not resistance at all, but obedience.
When it comes to the general habit of resisting unproven, unworthy, illegitimate, and unpopular authority, the stance promoted by U.S. culture is quite mixed, and virtually everyone in the U.S. government is opposed to resistance as a matter of principle or as a matter of cowardice. For every whistleblower, there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of people who could have exposed the very same abuses and chose not to.
Bruce Levine believes that the anti-authoritarian personality type is beaten down and drugged out of people by U.S. culture, and that we suffer in the United States from excessive apathy and obedience because the activists we need have been diagnosed as ill, drugged into submission, conditioned by schooling, tamed by rewards, hounded out of academe and respectability, imprisoned, and chased out of the country or exiled. Add those factors to long working hours, lack of economic security and healthcare, student debt loads, tons of television viewing, obsessive consumerism, social isolation, bootstraps bullshit, and the mythology that holds that submissive loyalty to the U.S. flag equals a brave stance for liberty, and you’ve got a population primed to put up with more shit than probably any other on earth — and, perhaps not coincidentally, the country producing the most violent destruction around the world and, by some measures — and per capita by virtually every measure — the most destruction of the earth’s environment.
Bruce Levine has written and spoken on this theme in the past, but his new book, Resisting Illegitimate Authority, is a powerful new tool that ought to be put into the hands of every young person, teacher, and parent. When George W. Bush was emperor, it was rare to attend a gathering of peace activists in the United States at which nobody asked “Where are the people under 30?” During the Obama regime, especially the early years, a common question was (in much shortened form) “Shouldn’t we all kill ourselves since we tried such a clever thing as empowering a different sort of war monger and we didn’t get peace?” During Trump Times, it’s “Where are the people under 40?” — a sort of return with an updated statistic. History doesn’t repeat itself but it does photoshop itself.
Levine believes that one answer to “Where are the young people?” is that they have been diagnosed as diseased and drugged into obedience. It takes a certain personality type to question near-universal consensus, no matter how insane that consensus. In the past, such personality types have managed in some cases to flourish, even in the United States. Some historical figures in the U.S. pantheon, in fact, who are often presented in history books stripped of much of their radicalism, might never have done what they did had they lived in the era in which attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder are treated with drugs and institutionalization. This “psychopathologizing and resulting ‘treatment’,” writes Levine, make it more difficult for young people’s prideful noncompliance to mature into this vital societal contribution: discerning an authority’s legitimacy, and resisting illegitimate authority.”
They never had it easy. That is actually the message that takes up the bulk of Levine’s book as he recounts the stories of such varied anti-authoritarians as Thomas Paine, Ralph Nader, Malcolm X, Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, Edward Snowden, Frances Farmer, Ernest Hemingway, Phil Ochs, Lenny Bruce, Ida Lupino, Alexander Berkman, Leon Czolgosz, Ted Kaczinski, Henry Thoreau, Scott Nearing, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Helen Keller, Jane Jacobs, Noam Chomsky, George Carlin, and Levine himself. Historical anti-authoritarians have had it hard when they’ve opposed the wrong authorities, and dismissing them as mentally imbalanced is nothing new. But today a kid like Malcolm X in a foster home would be quite likely to be drugged. Threatening suicide, as teenage Emma Goldman did, might today land her in a psychiatric hospital.
“I have talked to many anti-authoritarian women,” writes Levine, “who, in their youth, for their anger and rebellious behaviors were labeled with ‘bipolar disorder’ and ‘borderline personality’ and heavily medicated. Several of these women have told me that the pathologizing of their anger and rebellious behaviors delayed their political consciousness.” This, I think, is why it is important for healthy and respectable people like Levine to point out that anyone living in the current society ought to rebel, that rebelling is the normal response to some outside circumstances, and not necessarily something driven by a flaw within the rebel. One section of Levine’s book looks at the anti-authoritarian nature of Native American culture, and how this constituted a threat to be eradicated. The victorious authoritarian culture, the society in which Donald Trump is the ultimate authority rather than the prime candidate for mental patient, is a culture in which a sane person ought to completely freak out.
In the history that Levine recounts, disease is often a matter of disempowerment. The tendency of enslaved people to rebel was understood as a disease. Homosexuality was understood as a disease. These understandings are shifted along with power. But young people, especially poor and institutionalized and orphaned young people do not have the power to rid themselves of the diagnoses that afflict them. The one nation on earth not party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child speaks up for children paternalistically, not respectfully.
Levine finds greater anti-authoritarianism in U.S. culture, not just in the 1960s, but in the 19th century prior to the spread of public education — an observation that I think merits further study. He also finds religious belief — including the belief in a personal mission assigned by God — to be a positive factor in the lives of some of the anti-authoritarians he chronicles. Whether this outweighs the George W. Bushes with the same belief and all the other damage religion does is not a question Levine gives any clear answer to, but is — I think — well worth looking further into.
Levine’s book is designed to guide the potential anti-authoritarian. It offers not hero legends but flawed truths, including the mistakes and self-destructive actions of the people whose lives are chronicled, and including their self-corrections and changes in opinion. Some anti-authoritarians have lived long happy lives. Some have not. Levine helps us understand why.
I wish that Levine had stressed more what I see as critical to the happiness that some past anti-authoritarians have found, that I have found, and that many people I know have found, namely the activism cure. While activism creates difficulties, it also creates purpose and fulfillment far better than any pharmaceutical prescription.
I would certainly diagnose myself as heavily anti-authoritarian, and as having been so for a long time. I’ve been unable to hold a job in which I had a supervisor within 1,000 miles of me. I almost entirely avoid editors and publishers, and while I stagger people with my ability to condemn war making while trying to love the war makers, I would shock and offend them if they were aware of my visceral feelings toward editors. I’m generally at a loss to relate to the depression that many activists claim to feel and which Levine diagnoses in many anti-authoritarians. But if I didn’t have the ability to make a living doing things I 99% agree with, if I didn’t have a completely wonderful wife and kids and family, if I didn’t have colleagues and associates and measurable if minimal progress and appreciation, who knows? I call myself healthy and happy, but I doubt I could last two weeks if required to sell widgets I had no interest in selling. And most people in the United States do just that. Are they healthy?
A few extra points about Resisting Illegitimate Authority:
As I’m headed to Toronto this week, I was interested to note how many anti-authoritarians have ended up there in exile. I wonder if it shows.
A couple of unsolicited corrections:
The deaths of Native Americans post-Columbus should really include mention of disease epidemics.
Al Gore was not “narrowly defeated in Florida,” not by any means of counting the votes. He was narrowly defeated in the U.S. Supreme Court.