DISSENT by Ralph Young


The History of an American Idea
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A broad-ranging, evenhanded view of a tradition honed into an art form in America: the use of dissent as “a critique of governance.”

Americans are very good at complaining about everything under the sun. The stock market may be booming, jobs may be plentiful, and gas may be cheap, but still it’s not enough. As Young (History/Temple Univ. Dissent in America: Voices that Shaped a Nation, 2009, etc.) observes, throughout most of our history, the intent of dissenters has been honorable, an expression of “lofty ideals” and loyal opposition. However, often—and increasingly more often, it seems—dissenters are bent on forcing their narrow interests on the larger polity, sometimes in the hope of escaping such burdens as paying taxes, sometimes in the hope that their worldview will be declared the worldview. As Young chronicles, dissent often comes with unintended consequences. In a particularly pointed episode, he notes that slavery entered the American tradition as a means of dismantling a system of white indenture that bred seething resentment wherever it was practiced, with occasionally fatal results. Slaves, it was hoped, would not be so given to dissent, though that premise, too, would be proven false. Young has a knack for finding obscure but thoroughly revealing moments of history to illustrate his points; learning about Fries’ Rebellion and the Quasi-War with France is worth the price of admission alone, though his narrative offers much more besides. Of particular interest is the constant shift in American politics between the positions of dissenter and establishmentarian—not just as when, countering secession, West Virginia itself seceded to form a state, but also as when tea party activists get elected to become part of the government they despise, at which point much cognitive dissonance ensues.

Refreshingly democratic—solid supplemental reading to the likes of Terkel and Alinsky, insistent on upholding the rights of political minorities even when they’re wrong.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4798-0665-2
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: New York Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2015


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