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The Limits of Tyrants

By Andrew L. Roth

“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
Frederick Douglass

Background Note:

On 15 February 2007, Sonoma State University students organized a campus strike to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Strikers at Sonoma State acted in solidarity with the members of twenty additional college and university campuses across the country.


This text was prepared for and delivered on that occasion.

* * * * *

How frequently are we asked some version of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” or “What do you do?” By contrast, how rarely are we asked, “What kind of world do you want to live in?”

Putting recurrent emphasis on what you want to be or what you do – that is, a disproportionate focus on occupation, job, or career—rather than on what kind of world you want exemplifies the individualism that characterizes contemporary American society. You do not need to be trained in sociology to see that, by pursuing an occupation or even your own dream job, you also contribute to shaping the kind of world you will grow into.

Whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, whether we intend to or not, we make the world new each day when we return to work, when we go to class, when we go about “business as usual.” What we think of as individual choices contribute to the production – and reproduction – of our collective realities.

In a capitalist culture, we reproduce the social order when we pursue self-interested, individual goals. The calculation of self-interest and the pursuit of profit reproduce our social order’s hierarchical organization. This is true on an international scale: As Americans we are complicit in wars waged, in our name by our government, in Afghanistan and Iraq. When we go to work, when we go to classes, when we go about business as usual, as if killing and torture are not being carried out in our name, we legitimize that state of affairs, we reproduce that social order. The calculation of self-interest and the pursuit of profit also reproduce our social order’s hierarchical organization, domestically. Our country is characterized by a widening gap between the rich and the poor. The poor—and those at risk to poverty, which includes an increasing number of the middle class know that the domestic war on poverty has been disastrous, just like the global war on terror. Our nation is also “distinguished” (I use quotes to underscore the irony intended) by unprecedented rates of incarceration. According to Bureau of Justice statistics, as of 2005 more than seven million Americans 1 in 32 were on parole, in probation, jail, or prison. The so-called war on crime is also disastrous, especially for people and communities of color. When we go to work, when we go to classes, when we go about business as usual, as if domestic poverty is not rampant, as if a correctional population of over seven million is not problematic, then we legitimize those states of affairs, we reproduce that social order.

So it heartens me to participate in today’s events: To refuse if only symbolically, if only for one day to go to work, to go to class, to go about business as usual, as if nothing is wrong, as if the immoral wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the arrogant political leadership that champions them, do not sadden us, depress us, outrage us.

Enough is enough!

* * * * *

The theme of my talk today is “the limits of tyrants”—a phrase I borrow from the writing of the 19th century American abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass. Douglass tells us that, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Find out what people will quietly submit to, Douglass says, and you learn the extent of the “injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” That injustice and wrong will continue, Douglass further tells us, until the oppressed resist.

The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Douglass’s insights challenge us. These insights should raise questions for us. Are we tyrannical? Are we complicit in the tyranny carried out (in the name of the American people) by our government?

Last October, when George Bush signed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 into law, he called the day “historic,” he called the bill “one of the most important pieces of legislation in the war on terror,” and he told us that the programs and practices supported by the Act “will save American lives.” We may not agree with our President on this, but like it or not he acted, publicly, in our name.

Are we tyrannical? Are we complicit in tyranny?

The questions are uncomfortable to address.

But, Douglass’s insight that “the limits of tyrants” are defined by the endurance of the oppressed challenges us to ask another, perhaps less pointed question: If we are not tyrants, if we are not complicit in tyranny, then have we reached the limits of our endurance? What are the limits of our endurance? How quickly will be take up Douglass’s charge to resist?

* * * * *

We all would likely agree that the dead to date more than 650,000 Iraqis and 3,000 US military personnel have obviously met the limits of their endurance. That is a brute, physical fact albeit one that debates over the exact figures, and the almost complete absence of corporate news photographs or television footage depicting death from war, attempt to hide from us. But occasionally, the corporate media provide us with a glimpse of war’s brute reality, exposing war for what it is—organized killing, which, in its modern form, typically targets civilians.

What about the survivors? Have they met their limits of endurance? For one answer consider the testimony of Haydar Abdul Jabbar, 28, a car mechanic, from central Baghdad, who attempted to help the wounded after a bombing in his neighborhood:

‘’I saw with my own eyes young children flying from the windows of the apartments on top of the shops when the explosion arrived. One woman threw herself out of the window when the fire came close to her. The government is supposed to protect us, but they are not doing their job. I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all so we will rest and anybody who wants the oil—which is the core of the problem—can come and get it. We cannot live this way anymore. We are dying slowly every day’’ (New York Times, Feb 5, 2007, p. A1).

The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. I take Douglass’s word choice endurance to be carefully chosen. Endurance is both a physical and a moral attribute. The ultimate limit of endurance is a physical one. The human body can only take so much abuse, so much damage, before its physiological systems fail. Haydar Abdul Jabbar, the Iraqi auto mechanic, has not met a physical limit, but his desperate wish to be attacked with a nuclear bomb that kills everyone vividly depicts another threshold of human endurance.

If his desperate wish also sounds crazy to us, then that can only be due to our isolation from the horror he’s witnessed. Those of us who are physically distant from the hazards of war and the threat of physical violence – we are far from the physical limits of our endurance. This makes us safe in one sense, but extremely vulnerable in another.

We can do much more to resist. But will we? Our distance makes us vulnerable to apathy. Will we do more, beyond today? Here we have to ask about the moral limits of our endurance. Have we reached a threshold morally?

* * * * *

On the historic day in October 2006 when President Bush signed the Military Commissions Act he effectively suspended the principle of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus has been a cornerstone of Western justice since the Magna Carta of 1215. It epitomizes the value that laws, not individuals—whether they are kings or Presidents govern a land.

The Act strips the right of habeas corpus from non-citizens that is bad enough—but its impact goes further. It has profound consequences for legal permanent residents those who hold greencards and for citizens, too. President Bush can now detain anyone, citizen or non-citizen, whom he deems to be an “unlawful enemy combatant.” Who is an “unlawful enemy combatant”? The definition is broadly worded and affords Bush power to imprison almost anyone.

Frederick Douglass tells us, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” Have we reached the limits of our endurance?

* * * * *

I want to touch on one further, related theme this afternoon.From the start, the weeklong sit-in and today’s strike have been signaled as “non-violent,” emphasizing the goal of peaceful protest. As Martin Luther King, Jr. taught: Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. I admire and support this. Which raises for me the issue of non-violence.

For several years I have been haunted by the typewritten letter that Gandhi sent Hitler in July 1939—just months before Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. At the urging of friends and “for the sake of humanity,” Gandhi wrote Hitler:

It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a state of savagery. Must you pay that price for an object however worthy it may appear to you to be? Will you listen to the appeal of one who has deliberately shunned the method of war not without considerable success?

Modest to a fault, Gandhi concludes by asking Hitler’s forgiveness, if he has “erred in writing.” Of course, numerous critics (perhaps most notably George Orwell) have questioned the sense of Gandhi’s conviction to non-violence in the face of fascism. What to make of Gandhi’s appeal? Was he naive? Foolish? Did the limits of his endurance stretch beyond our capacity?

Confronted with a President and Vice President who flagrantly ignore the will of the American people not to mention the world’s population can we continue to gather, to march, to petition?

Non-violent protest stands as one of the great forces of the 20th and, perhaps, the 21st centuries. But what do we do when it falls short? The Military Commissions Act and its broadly threatening definition of “unlawful enemy combatants” force us to address this question with urgency. Laws that potentially transform non-violent protesters into unlawful enemy combatants heighten the stakes. What do we do when the government our government attempts to de-legitimate non-violent resistance?

Here are some of author and activist Arundhati Roy’s reflections on the failure of a grassroots campaign by indigenous Adivasi and Dalit people in India, who for 15-years non-violently opposed the Indian government’s plan to dam the sacred Narmada River:

If we don’t respect non-violence, then violence becomes the only option for people. If governments do not show themselves to respect reasoned, non-violent resistance then by default they respect violence.

We have not yet exhausted all the options of non-violent resistance attempted by the Adivasi and Dalit along India’s Narmada River? The toolkit of non-violent resistance contains many tools that we have yet to grasp and use including escalated forms of civil disobedience and direct action. Our work today should be to consider those tactics, and how to escalate them, gradually but effectively.

We need to be disruptive. Otherwise we legitimate a government that we reject, and we participate in the reproduction of a social order that we find immoral. As we approach the limits of our endurance for oppression, we must remember Frederick Douglass’s insights. We act today to indicate to our political leaders that we, as citizens, have reached our limits.We will not accept any more oppression: neither our own, through the steady erosion of civil liberties; nor others’, around the globe, through the escalation of immoral militarism conducted in our name.

We have reached the limits of our endurance for these oppressions—which means that our political leaders must soon reach the limits of their tyranny, at home and abroad.

Douglass tells us: If there is no struggle, there is no progress. The question for us now is, How best to continue this struggle?

Andrew L. Roth is Associate Director of Project Censored and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University.

Thanks to Sunsara Taylor and Liam Madden for inspiring ideas and useful information.

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