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Challenging Authority

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When an esteemed civil rights giant was asked on his deathbed what advice he had for future generations, he prophetically stated, "Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!" There has been a long history of resistance to the political status quo in this country, by African-Americans as well as other disenfranchised groups. This resistance can properly be seen as challenging authority. But what are the dimensions of challenging? To what lengths is it feasible to challenge, and over what issues. I hope to explore and expound upon these themes in this paper.

When we think of challenges to authority, what comes to mind might be the view of a child arguing about going to bed when a parent insists. Or maybe it is students being required to conform to a code of conduct or dress code. It is a somewhat natural human reaction to chafe at being told what to do by someone in authority. Many times the discussion centers on where and how the source of power is derived. If power is derived "fairly" or "democratically", or if the individual has some stake in how the power paradigm is played out, there is a greater likelihood that those under its dominion will accept such power. However if the power is autocratic or dictatorial as in "might makes right", then resentments are sure to follow.

The ultimate authority in Judeo-Christian societies is God. All power and authority is derived from God. In America one of the iconic mottos is "In God we trust." The pledge of allegiance includes a phrase stating we are one nation under God. The notion of the omnipotent creator is central and fundamental to our society. However many of the citizenry of this country do accept the premise that our government is a representational democracy. This concept loosely holds that although our rights as citizens are inalienable and flow from God, in order to effect a functioning government we the people must allow others to represent our sentiments and our interests in the halls of government. Government remains, nonetheless, a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people. " Our national constitution enshrines this notion of "the people as the most basic and essential part of government.

As we will further examine, the constitution posits generally that when government ceases to represent the will of the people, it is the right, in point of fact, it is the duty of the citizens of the country to do away with the government and constitute a new government. Citizens challenge authority frequently in a number of ways. Frequent elections are mandated in our system of government that gives everyone an opportunity to challenge the status quo. Our court system allows for specific governmental mandates and decisions to be challenged by ordinary citizens as well as by organizations. Elected officials are subject to censure and impeachment, depending on the severity of the supposed infraction. These types of checks and balances on improper or abusive uses of governmental power are have been addressed many times in our country’s history. But what is one to do when there is a strong feeling that the whole government has drifted in a dangerous drift towards totalitarianism or fascism, where individual citizens sense that there individual rights have been so eroded as to amount to little or nothing. Such a catastrophic challenge has never been mounted since the first American Revolution against England in 1776.

From time to time our government appears to drift in a dangerous direction. Sometimes this is due to crises such as war or economic depression, which call for a limitation of individual rights for the supposed good of the whole society. We think of government imprisoning and confiscating land belonging to Japanese-Americans during World War Two. We think of travel restrictions due to terrorism. We are reminded of the suspension of habeas corpus rights during periods of riots in this country during the sixties. Some of these governmental limitations can be defended, even in some small way, because of the times in which they were made and because the government appeared to have no plan to permanently limit individual rights.

A very real necessity to challenge governmental authority arises when it appears that a "regime change" has occurred. By regime I mean that (1) there is the government that generally functions in a traditional manner based on the perception of the majority of people and (2) a small elite group or regime has basically highjacked the government and the country. The evidence of this improper use of power can be seen in the official actions of the government by way of the laws enacted and by the influence this group has over the other branches of government. For example, since Supreme Court justices serve a lifetime appointment, the political and judicial philosophy of a justice potentially has a lifespan lasting more than several generations. By appointing socially conservative judges to the Supreme court, the Bush "regime" threatens to reverse many court decisions that affect every woman and every African-American in this country Reproductive rights, civil rights including affirmative action, presidential imperatives and war powers, are all brought into peril by the recent appointments to the Supreme court. Further, the political conservatives in Congress, being a majority, rubber-stamp much of the president’s agenda (as do the religious right) and at the same time it appears they have created a political litmus test as to what constitute a "real American".

Against such a formidable force, what options do the rest of us possess, if we do not espouse those same faulty bedrock values? The answer may lay in one of the greatest challenges to authority this nation and the world has ever witnessed, namely, the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Thru non-violent social change and resistance and a moral authority rooted in biblical principles and imagery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were able to prick the conscious of the country and, in fact, the world. By way of reminder, all power derives from the creator, who has endowed all men and women with certain inalienable rights, among which are life liberty and happiness. Rights, which cannot be usurped or eroded by government or anyone. In other words" you didn’t give it to me and so you can’t take it away from me." The civil rights movement used the power of love, soul force, and moral force and a capacity to outlast hatred. By succeeding in large part, this movement may have saved the democracy thru a relatively peaceful revolution and avoided a bloody urban war.

It is my belief that government constantly is in need of renewal and pruning, in order to stay vibrant and vital. Sometimes the "in group" senses their power slipping and manipulates situations to guarantee outcomes that benefit their group. When a government is complicit in this type of scheme, it is incumbent upon citizens of good will to call the government into check.



New Documents Unsealed in ACLU and NYCLU Patriot Act Challenge(May 25, 2004)

Library and Information Services Council, Setting Objectives for Public Library Services (HMSO, 1991).

The Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries, Developing the 21st Century Archive. An Action Plan for United Kingdom Archives (Re:source, 2001)

The National Council on Archives, Taking Part. An audit of social inclusion work in archives (National Council on Archives, April 2001)