If Americans can no longer take pride in our national basketball squad—despite the presence of NBA all-stars, Team USA had to settle for bronze both in the 2004 Olympics and the recent world championships—we can still revel in another, equally homegrown sport: our continuous and contentious history of political dissent.
That tradition is on rich, glorious display in Dissent in America, Ralph F. Young's massive new anthology of "the voices that shaped a nation" by shouting "No! in thunder" (as Herman Melville once said of Nathaniel Hawthorne's nonconformist writings). "Dissent is central to American history," argues Young. "Dissenters are those who go against the grain, disagreeing (rightly or wrongly) with the majority view… Dissent has been the fuel for the engine of American progress."
Young, who teaches history at Temple University, has compiled speeches, essays, court documents and more from the colonial period (the book opens with a section from "The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution," Roger Williams' historic 1644 plea for religious toleration and secular government) up through the current day (writings by Cindy Sheehan). In between are selections from the well-known—Henry David Thoreau, Emma Goldman and Martin Luther King Jr.—and the relatively obscure—a 1688 Quaker antislavery petition, writings by Minoru Yasui challenging the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and Paul Weyrich's 1987 "Conservative's Lament" about the Iran-Contra affair.
Wisely—and refreshingly, given our politically correct times—Young represents virtually all points of view, from the far left to the far right. Hence, the Weather Underground shares space with The Michigan Militia, and birth control activist Margaret Sanger resides just a few pages away from Depression-era radio personality Father Charles Coughlin.
Individual readers can and will decide for themselves whether, say, the lyrics of a self-righteous contemporary protest singer such as Ani DiFranco are up to the standard set by Thomas Paine's world-shattering "Common Sense," but such provocative juxtapositions underscore Young's point about the centrality of dissent to the American experience.
In a country that is actively arguing about expanding the powers of the state to fight terrorism, "Dissent in America" is a timely and vitally important reminder of who we are and where we come from. As Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman senator, wrote in 1950 while protesting the tactics of her colleague Joseph McCarthy, "the basic principles of Americanism" include "the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; [and] the right of independent thought." In giving example after example of those rights being exercised, Ralph Young has performed nothing short of a public service.
This review originally appeared in the New York Post.