Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

05/27/2008 (5:58 pm)

Civil Disobedience and Pretty Good Debaters

As a former high school and college debater, I was excited to see Oprah Winfrey’s production The Great Debaters get presented to the public, and I looked forward to seeing it. I watched it over the weekend with my wife, and enjoyed it. It wasn’t historically accurate, but it was entertaining.

The movie was predictably about civil rights, and debate topics were chosen to emphasize the civil rights theme for the fragments of the debates they showed us. The movie portrays an invitational debate in 1935 between Wiley College and Harvard College (which in fact never took place) on the topic, “Resolved: That civil disobedience serves a moral role.” In actual fact, the topic of the 1935 championship debate, which was against Southern Cal, not Harvard, was more likely about preventing international munitions shipments, as that was Phi Delta Kappa’s topic for that year.

I was struck by the quality of the education the characters in the movie had received even prior to attending Wiley College. This turns out to be fairly accurate; Professor Melvin Tolson of Wiley College was fierce in preparing his students for intellectual combat. The debaters in the film were able to quote extensively from the classics with genuine understanding, something I’m not able to do despite decades of self-education. One of my recurring disappointments is how badly I’ve been robbed by liberalism of a real education by being born in the wrong time in history; and as much as I read, I’m hacking around in the dark trying to recover the structure of knowledge that nearly everyone took for granted in those days. As with so many other topics, liberals addressed what they considered injustice and inequality in education, not by improving the education of the poor so it matched what the rich received, but by reducing the education of everybody to the least common denominator. They promise to do the same with medical care, using the same argument: some get better care than others, therefore we need national health care. This will result, not in better care for anybody, but in worse care for a large number of people who can actually afford better. When all education was private, the US had the best-educated public in the history of the world. We could have that again, if we could get the government to release education into private hands again.

The Harvard debate in the movie ends with an impassioned speech by 14-year-old James Farmer Jr., the only debater in the movie who was really on the historic team. Rebutting a claim by the previous speaker that “Nothing that erodes the rule of law can ever be moral,” Farmer began his talk “In Texas, they lynch Negros.” He goes on to assert an affirmative duty to oppose injustice “by violence or civil disobedience; you should pray that I choose the latter.”

Farmer in the movie just breezes by the correct argument, quoting St. Augustine’s “An unjust law is no law at all,” in favor of making Oprah Winfrey’s and Denzel Washington’s civil rights point, that violence in opposition to racism is appropriate. The correct argument is broader and more subtle. It is a crucial argument in our modern world, because the moral system of Progressivism is producing such incredibly distorted laws that it will eventually be necessary to oppose them.

The fictional Harvard debater was correct, nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. However, nothing erodes the rule of law more surely than a grotesquely unjust law, unless perhaps it is an unjust law officer enforcing the law unevenly. When the law or the defenders of the law titanically fail the cause of justice, it becomes the duty of citizens to stand up to the injustice and force a change. This act, when conducted correctly in the defense of justice, upholds the rule of law, whereas unjust laws or unjust law officers erode the rule of law. History shows that these changes do not always come about through natural evolution of laws; sometimes it takes a little force.

An ironic side note of the question gets raised by the comment, “In Texas, they lynch Negros.” While apparently each of the debaters from Wiley College in the 1930s saw a lynching at one time or another, the truth is that lynching had pretty much died out by 1935. The year 1935 was the last year in the US that the number of lynchings nationwide reached double digits; there were 20 that year. Lynching was never routine, but reached its nadir around the turn of the century, after which it gradually petered out to nothing. The year 1935 was even after the race riots in major cities, which took place mostly before 1930. There may have been 5 lynchings in Texas in 1935; that’s obviously 5 too many, but it wasn’t a common event.

The point, though, is that lynching is an instance of civil disobedience in the mistaken pursuit of justice, by those who don’t know virtue. This makes the point that while civil disobedience can be a force for morality, it can only be so in the hands of those who have “by practice trained their senses to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Civil disobedience without virtue is vigilantism, and destroys the rule of law.

Those who would like to read further about this difficult topic ought at least to pick up a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters From Prison. Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian, involved himself in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler during WWII, and was jailed by the Nazis. His letters explain his reasoning somewhat. I recommend them.

« « She's Not Going to Kill Him, Folks | Main | What Happened? » »

4 Comments »

May 27, 2008 @ 8:58 pm #

Imagine with me that a mob of Muslims have just dragged a Christian man from his home and family and beheaded him in a rural town in Texas.

Let’s say that it has happened 5 times this year, in 5 different rural towns in Texas. Each time, there was no penalty to those that beheaded those men. They got away with it every time.

Now, Let’s say that happened that Muslims outnumbered us 7 to 1. We live amongst them.

These days black Americans bawl like brats when someone in the world doesn’t love them, but their grandparents were courageous in the face of a terrorism no other people in the US ever faced, not even the Indians.

Excuse me as I wander a bit.

It is a testament to the destructiveness of the Democrats that they were able to destroy the black family with ‘social programs’ when 100 years of this kind of racism and terror could not.

May 27, 2008 @ 9:19 pm #

Wow. That was clumsy.

I hope I made my point.

May 28, 2008 @ 6:37 pm #

If you have no reason to be moral, who cares about morals?

In a completely secular, naturalistic world, what place to morals have? What is law without the moral grounding that comes from faith and absolute truth?

May 30, 2008 @ 9:28 pm #

Saw the movie with my family and we all enjoyed it. It also occurred to me that lynchings were not a routine day to day happening. However, it is such a grotesque, horrendous act that I felt that the shock effect it would have on you if you did happen to witness one made it a fair portrayal in context of the movie. For sure, the movie made me at least try to walk a mile in the shoes of the people who were trying to claw their way ahead against some heavy odds in those times.

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