September 4, 2007

MY EARLIER REMARKS ON TAR AND FEATHERS have generated some interesting email. And they actually sprang from a conversation I had with colleagues a while back. Traditionally, Anglo-American political philosophy allowed for what Gordon Wood called “out of doors political activity” — behavior that was extralegal, but not exactly unlawful, in response to overreaching by authorities. Pauline Maier’s excellent book, From Resistance to Revolution, documents this during the colonial and revolutionary eras, but it actually persisted for some time afterward. The thinking was that government officials couldn’t always be checked via law, because they controlled the law and its administration — thus the need for citizens to (in the words of the Tennessee Supreme Court) “keep in awe those who are in power.” The out-of-doors activity wasn’t necessarily violent: generally, property was targeted first (think Boston Tea Party), and efforts against officials were generally designed to be embarrassing or humiliating rather than seriously dangerous. (Actually, back in the days when tar had to be heated over a fire, tarring and feathering was more serious than it is today, toward the end of the spectrum rather than the beginning.)

In my conversation with colleagues, we speculated that the Internet takes on part of this role, with humorous photoshops and YouTube parodies — along with the ability to simply repeatedly criticize government officials by name (think Mike Nifong) undercutting the usual bureaucratic diffusion of responsibility — taking the place of some of the older techniques. The response to that, of course, might be efforts to shut down Internet criticism. But that might simply encourage a return to older techniques. . . .

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