Insubordination: A Bleg

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So I'm hoping I might harness the distributed genius of Teh Internets for a long-term project I'm working on. I'm looking for stories that fit the following description: A big group—maybe a whole society, maybe an organization within it, like a corporation or government agency—is involved in doing something that's not just morally wrong, but ought to be pretty obviously so to anyone with a normally developed moral sense. And in fact, many of the participants probably do realize it's wrong. But either from fear of reprisal, or respect for authority, or conformist instinct, the large majority go along. But a minority (maybe a minority of one) do not.

Concrete examples of what I'm thinking of might include: Holocaust rescuers; the people in the Milgram experiment who refused to keep shocking the "subject"; whistleblowers in corporations and government; Natalia Dmytruk, the Ukranian sign-language translator who warned viewers they were being fed propaganda; UN General Romeo Dallaire, who disobeyed an order to withdraw from Rwanda that would have left tens of thousands of Tutsis at the mercy of Hutu genocidaires.

Examples where the relevant parties are still alive (and therefore available for interview) are preferable, but historical ones are good too. Drop suggestions in the comments—and thanks in advance.

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  1. This is a quibble, but Dallaire was a Belgian general.

    There’s no such thing as a UN General. I don’t imagine the American soldiers in the Sinai or the Balkans would like to be referred to as UN soldiers.

  2. Downloading music that you don’t own for free.

    But I’m pretty sure you’re looking for something that’s not, ahem, a victimless crime. Still, it was the first thing I thought of as soon as I read that. Though the crusaders here are the RIAA, and they don’t exactly emote a lot of sympathy in most people.

  3. Whatever, lefing. Just because you want so badly for property rights to not extend to the world of digital media doesn’t mean that they don’t.

    Theft is not a victimless crime; no amount of spin and self-justification makes that go away.

  4. I don’t think either absolute side of intellectual property qualifies for “?not just morally wrong, but ought to be pretty obviously so to anyone with a normally developed moral sense?” People with normally developed moral sense can disagree.

    Clean Hands,

    Your argument also applies to people who violate government mandated agricultural quotas. Those too are property rights.

  5. 1.) Don’t neglect the many situations in which no hero arises, like the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. She might have survived, but the many witnesses to the crime didn’t get off their butts.

    2.) In my opinion, Judith Rich Harris is currently an insubordinate rebel in the Galileo and Darwin sense.

  6. This is a quibble, but Dallaire was a Belgian general.

    Actually, joe, no. Dallaire was a Canadian general.

  7. Those too are property rights.
    How do you figure?

    On topic: the Tianamen Square dude springs to mind. There must be a few Vietnam vets who refused to burn villages and such. Did any of the men in the My Lai massacre refuse to kill kill kill?

  8. There’s always American slavery. And the various unauthorized experiments on people in the U.S.–LSD in the 60s and that whole give-black-men-syphilis deal. Not sure who objected, but maybe someone did. And certainly the military and/or intelligence agencies were peachy with those programs.

    And, of course, there’s the Federation and its immoral Prime Directive. Thank the Organians for Kirk and his principled defiance.

  9. Very cool idea, Julian. I’m looking forward to some interesting stories.

  10. Clean Hands,

    I know. Property rights do (or, at least, should) extend to the world of digital media. But in my particular circle (ie. pretty much everyone under 25), you’d think digital rights was an invalid, silly concept, like santa claus or paris hilton’s claim to fame. An article on that would pretty much alienate any young readers, it would seem. Good to point out, but probably bad for business.

  11. In one story I heard about Dallaire, he (a devout catholic) came to believe after meeting one of the Hutu leaders that he had come face to face with Satan himself. He took to unloading his pistol before going to meetings with Hutus because he was sure that he could easily shoot one of them right between the eyes.

    Dallaire became completely unstrung after his Rwandan experience but considering the resources he had he held it together for a lot longer than most others could have. He and his troops (at least most of them) deserve a lot of praise.

  12. Possibly a more complicated story than you are looking for, but how about Thomas More? Much of his motivation for dissenting from Henry VIII was to protect Catholic monks and clergy. From Utopia: “…every man might be of what religion he pleased, and might endeavour to draw others to it by the force of argument and by amicable and modest ways, but without bitterness against those of other opinions; but that he ought to use no other force but that of persuasion…”

  13. John Newton, the slave trader who found God, wrote Amazing Grace, and became an antislavery advocate.

  14. How do I figure? I don’t. It’s a matter of definition, not logic.

    A quick googling yielded a page that mentioned that people even paid property tax on tobacco quotas.

    You can also look at a legal dictionary, or ask a lawyer. I’m not one, so perhaps I’m wrong.

  15. This isn’t quite as heavy, but what about advocacy organizations? There are TONS of people who work for places that advocate for ideas, policies, etc., who are morally opposed to them — yet stay and do nothing because they just want to keep their job.

  16. Nancy Reagan, for Just Saying No.

  17. Captain Ian Fishback and the torture of detainees.

  18. The 10% of us who were against Bush’s invasion of Iraq from the moment he first proposed it?

  19. anon2:

    Forgive me, I was thinking of logic, not the law.

  20. You might want to look on the desire to be “respectable” and how it inhibits the ethical response. Many people, looking to be “respectable” hand out their critical faculties to other.

    I do not think that it is a coincidence that Schindler was more than a bit of a rascal, with a tendency to break rules which did not agree with him.

    You might want to consider the experiment Ronny Deustch carried out in one of his shows. He staged mock children abductions to see how many people would react to them. Most people who came by pretended that nothing was wrong, but two black dudes with dreadlocks, the kind that most people shink from, sprang to action.

    There is also General Ben Butler, who when told to the outset of the Civil War that for political reasons he was supposed to return escaped slaves, he took it upon himself to declare the slaves “contraband of war” and thus consfiscable..

  21. How about seeing if you can find a dissenting councilman or whatever in some of the eminent domain cases like Kelo?

  22. The residents of the French villages of Prelenfrey-du-Gua, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and Thimory (among others) defied the Nazis and Vichy collaborators and hid jews in their homes. They stuck to their convictions even when threatened with certain annihilation.

  23. This is probably useless, but I remember reading about a member of the royal family in Denmark or Holland that let 1000s of jews get out in defiance of the Nazis after occupation, and he admitted doing so. Sorry can’t remember the name.

  24. Jim March.

    The California activist who is (simultaneously, even) taking on the utter hackability of electronic voting, and the racism of the methods used to issue concealed carry permits in California.

    Though he’s not an inside of either of those. He’s just pointing out the injustice and spreading the word.

    His webpage is here.

  25. doing something that’s not just morally wrong, but ought to be pretty obviously so to anyone with a normally developed moral sense.

    Sounds like a very apt description of Congress. Unfortunately I don’t see a minority really standing up against it, though I suppose you could make a good case for Ron Paul.

  26. Ronald Ridenhour: an interesting nexus between the Milgram experiments and My Lai. See:

    http://www.sniggle.net/Experiment/index.php?entry=31Dec03

  27. More: Per Anger and Raoul Wallenberg, two Swedish diplomats in Budapest working under the Nazis’ noses, granted temporary Swedish citizenship to thousands of Hungarian jews, saving their lives.

    Dr. Ho Feng Sha served as the Chinese consul general in Vienna from 38 to 40. He issued a few hundred visas to Austrian jews that got them to Shanghai, saving their lives.

  28. Clean Hands’s argument implicitly relies on the “property” portion of the phrase “intellectual property.” He calls the violation of intellectual property “theft”, but by that definition, growing some amount of a plant beyond the amount you’re allowed to grow is also “theft”, and neither are victimless.

    He could just as correctly said:

    “Just because you want so badly for property rights to not extend to the world of [agriculture quotas] doesn’t mean that that they don’t.”

    I’d have suggested Filburn to Julian, but Filburn certainly doesn’t meet the “pretty obviously so” test.

  29. The many millions of customers at speak-easys during prohibition: and at least some probably drank for the sheer defiance of it. [Kinda like so many teenagers today]

  30. You could do worse than mentioning California’s Insurance Commissioner scandal, where a whistleblower got documents to the California Assembly detailing how then Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, and some folks at the top of his administration were shaking down insurance companies accused of wrongdoing, and making them give money to scam nonprofits run by the Commissioner and/or his cronies.

    A brief background is on wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cindy_Ossias

  31. How about Sherron Watkins, the Enron whistle-blower? Not as dramatic as Rwanda, I concede, but there are probably a number of people in the Enron/Worldcom/Global Crossing wave of financial scandals that either did the right thing or left their companies.

  32. Isaac B, no fair qubbling with my quibble!

    Nonetheless, I stand corrected.

  33. The authorship and publication of this article:
    http://starbulletin.com/specials/bishop/story2.html
    publicly exposed issues that everyone had known about and no one wanted to publicly discuss, leading to a state investigation, removal of the trustees, and changes in the system.

  34. How about those California bar owners who, the second after the smoking ban went into effect, openly advertised their bars as places the public could smoke? They put signs up in their windows and everything.

  35. Hazel O’Leary, U.S. Secretary of Energy who launched the campaign to publicize documentation describing secret government-sponsored radiation experiments during the Cold War (feeding radioactive milk to retarded children, irradiating prisoners and pregnant women, etc).

  36. Am I the only person who thinks the real finding of the Milgram experiments was how naive Milgram was to think he really had those subjects fooled?

  37. It’s astonishing. Hugh Thompson recently died at the age of 62…it was in the papers and everything. He was a helicopter pilot who landed his ship between US soldiers and fleeing villagers at My Lai and ordered his crew to turn their machine guns on the murderers.

    And you libertarian diehards are bitching about evil smoking bans?

    Chris Hedges, in his brilliant “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” tells the story of a Muslim farmer named Fadil Fejzic who, amid the famine during the siege of Gorazde in the Bosnian War, gave a half liter of milk every day to Serbian neighbors with an infant in the house. The mother was starving and could not produce milk. They fed the newborn tea for five days while all around them infants and the elderly were dying. Hearing the crying, Fejzic was moved to help, despite the furious protests of the other Muslims. The Serb militias were attacking the city and Muslim babies were dying. Why would he help their enemies?

    Nonetheless, for over a year the illiterate farmer did what cranks do: ignored everyone around him and did what he thought was right. He refused payment for the milk despite the skyrocketing prices in the city. When the siege was lifted, the neighbors went to Serbia and did not see him again.

    When Hedges investigated the story, he found Fejzic ruined, his apartment block destroyed, the cow slaughtered for meat, selling apples he picked up off the ground in a ruined orchard. He had no regrets. “How is the baby?” he asked.

    On a lighter note, let us consider the case of Beau Brummel, who resigned his British Army commission when his unit was posted to Manchester, arguing that “he was not prepared to go on foreign service.” Men of such principle are so rare these days.

  38. I’m inclined to agree with James. Smoking bans and the Kelo situation are unjust, but does standing up against them in a country where you can be assured of your safety really compare to hiding Jews from Nazis or refusing to allow genocide to be carried out?

  39. I second Shem and James.

    Sheryl Watkins and other whistleblowers are admirable, sure, but they don’t compare to people who genuninely put their lives on the line. Dallaire is a genuine tragic hero, at the Shakespearian scale.

  40. Shem, James and Mac:
    He was looking for people he could actually interview.
    Geez, pill of chillness. Take.

  41. How about the people who oppose the death penalty, which has wrongly put to death countless of innocents?

  42. More: Per Anger and Raoul Wallenberg, two Swedish diplomats in Budapest working under the Nazis’ noses, granted temporary Swedish citizenship to thousands of Hungarian jews, saving their lives.

    Those two are, without a single doubt, two of the greates heroes that we have ever had here in Sweden. However I’m not really sure if they fit the theme discussed here. They where not part of the system they fought.

    A better and example, not as obviously heroic and noble, is Kurt Gerstein. The fact that his fight was in vain and that he also helped to administer the atrocity he tried to oppose makes it a less clear cut story than the other examples mentioned.

  43. Rosa Parks, obviously. Also, Jacobo Timmerman, the Argentinian Jewish journalist who was a thorn in the side of the Argentian state and then emigrated to Israel, where he became a thorn in the side of the Israeli state.

  44. I nominate that great Class Traitor and salvation of millions of destitute Americans…

    A man who endured no end of grief, suffering the end of life-long friendships and vituperation from those he had spent his lifetime among…

    Merely for standing up to the plutocratic class he came from as they attempted to use the language of “laissez faire” to protect their own privilige in the midst of unheard-of suffering…

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

  45. erin brockovich. jesus christ.

  46. Look, a lot of you folks are missing the point. Julian isn’t looking for ‘heros of the revolution’ or such, people that opposed something you don’t like.

    It has to be an institutionalized activity. Something groups of people are engaging in. AND it has to be something MOST of those people find morally repugnant, so it has to be so obviously wrong that even the people doing it know that it’s wrong. AND he’s looking for someone on the INSIDE, who would have been expected to go along with the status quo, refusing to participate (any more) or actively defying the system.

    People who do not qualify:
    Music downloaders
    Judith Rich Harris, or Darwin. But yes to Galileo.
    People against the war in Iraq
    Jim March
    People who oppose the death penalty
    FDR???

  47. Oops, quit too soon
    Erin Brockovich is also not worthy

  48. Hazel O’Leary, U.S. Secretary of Energy who launched the campaign to publicize documentation describing secret government-sponsored radiation experiments during the Cold War (feeding radioactive milk to retarded children, irradiating prisoners and pregnant women, etc).

    That was done as part of a whole campaign on the part of the Clinton Administration involving an advisory committee that was overseen by the energy department, which was overseen at the time by Ms. O’leary. Not exactly a case of “courageous wistleblowing.”

    The same O’Leary, btw who got slappe by congress for exceeded her spending and travel allowances and who received suspicious donations from Chinagate’s Johny Chung…donations Janet Reno refused to investigate. Oh, and she let the Chinese steal missile designs from us, too.

    Yeah, I’m gonna nominate her.

  49. “how about Thomas More?”

    Getting that interview would be a hell of a scoop!

  50. I suggest looking at the book Encounters with Unjust Authority by William Gamson, Bruce Fireman & Steven Rytina.

    The book is based on an experiment in which subjects participating in a focus group were gradually led to believe that they were being asked to aid an unethical corporation in a law suit.

    The Milgram experiment remains one of the most fascinating social science experiments of all time. However, most popular accounts miss some of the most interesting details, which are found in Milgram’s book Obedience to Authority.

    The two “peer series,” in which subjects were part of a team (with the other members being confederates), are particularly interesting.

    Milgram was able to create some of the highest levels of obedience by having the subject play a subsidiary role in the experiment (rather than delivering the shocks). (However, even some of these subjects rebelled.)

    Subjects were much less likely to obey if their teammates were disobedient.

    Milgram also included almost comical variations, like having the “learner” demand to be shocked (since his friend did it) while the “scientist” tells the subject to stop; and one in which the scientist ends up strapped in the chair while the “learner” demands that the subject shock him.

  51. It seems to me that consequences should count for whether someone meets the definition. There’s a million-in-one chance that some kid downloading music will get sued by the RIAA, but it’s not like those consequences are all that immediately and urgently on the kid’s mind. Though he can’t be interviewed for this project, Hugh Thompson is a good example because he had to decide whether or not to put himself in the position where he might have to get in a firefight with his own troops in order to protect some helpless villagers. Think about it: you have only a few moments to decide, and the right course (the course Thompson took) could lead you to unimaginably severe consequences.

    That being said, there’s something to be said for people who disregard small stupid injustices as well as big stupid injustices. Like a the owner of Woody’s Pub in Montreal (Mordecai Richler’s favorite hangout), who got fined every time he chalked “fries” instead of “pommes frites” on the outdoor sandwich board, but did it anyway, because screw the language laws. It’s not saving a village, but it’s still something.

  52. When they came for the “fries”, I did not own a burger joint, so I said nothing…

  53. I immediately wondered if there were Catholic priests/lay leaders who opposed the Vatican policy of reassigning pedophiles to fresh parishes.

    • A big group, Check.
    • is involved in doing something that’s not just morally wrong, but ought to be pretty obviously so to anyone with a normally developed moral sense, Check.
    • in fact, many of the participants probably do realize it’s wrong. But either from fear of reprisal, or respect for authority, or conformist instinct, the large majority go along, Check.
    • a minority (maybe a minority of one) do not, Check, maybe.
  54. Ah yes, the great Class Traitor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose confiscatory taxes smashed an incipient economic recovery and extended the Depression by several years. Even if you believe in the existance of a Capitalist Class involved in doing something that’s not just morally wrong, but ought to be pretty obviously so to anyone with a normally developed moral sense, I don’t see FDR fitting the entire request parameter while holding the office of President.

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