John G Bell


Fall '03 - Gomez & Unsel

Week 4 – Critical Integrative Comment

Market Revolution and the Question of Labor: The Institution of Slavery

The denouement of Amistad shows Martin Van Buren distractedly comparing the sound of an ideal bell to the out of tune plucked strings of a harp, and finally placing a calming hand on the red, white and blue strings to silence the discord. The filmmakers seem to be suggesting Van Buren as a Nero to the coming conflagration of Civil War, threatening to burn the republic.

This process of tuning is present throughout the film, as ideals are compared against reality and then attempts are made to reconcile the two toward harmony. The legal tradition is one of ever increasing refinement. From the lower courts, the process of appeals acts as a check against the ideal of justice and the tradition of precedent. The act of making an appeal is a function of dissent, and essential to the process of refining the outcome of the judicial system.

If we fail to recognize the important synergy between traditions and dissent we risk becoming just another Nero. However, there's also damage done when those voices of tradition and dissent are too extreme and absolute. In the movie, John Calhoun is shown as being righteous and is the voice of an absolute position. In the reading for next week, Roger Taney is shown in Dred Scott taking an increasingly positional stance that seems to become one of the major pivot points tumbling the country down to warfare.

The movie Amistad seems to suggesting that Martin Van Buren could have acted to calm the coming storm. The imagery suggests he might have been able to bring the discord into tune with a careful use of ideal and a calming executive hand.

When people take highly positional stances, higher levels of coercion are necessary to get them to a negotiation, to participate in honest and effective compromise. I wonder how much longer slavery would have continued in this country if the Civil War had been avoided. If, for example, Martin Van Buren had been able to do what the film suggested he did not, the war would not have forced the issue. I'm not so sure he could have changed the course of the country, and I'm not sure that prolonging the agony of slavery would have been better than war.

This is the question of whether evolution or revolution of social systems is necessary to effect real change. Within a social system, acts to alleviate the ills, to re-tune the harp, ameliorate the effects of the dysfunction, and prolong the ill. Resorting to revolution, an exercise, mentioned in the Supreme Court decision, of the right of insurrection, seems to create a greater opportunity for change.

These two options are neither ideal. The process of amelioration merely prolongs the suffering of people, and the tacit acceptance of the power elite with positions of powerlessness for the rest, by not addressing the causes of injustice, while bandaging the symptoms. The act of revolution tumbles down the existing leadership but often results in authoritarian governments bent on retribution without the skills necessary for organizing government and real enfranchisement.

However, the work of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. suggests this is a false dilemma. A strong tradition of non-violent dissent can develop a coercive resistance to injustice while creating the tools for an organized governance within the resistance movement. The ability for dissent to create real change without violence is a composition of robust and well-played notes in an orchestra of the public sphere.

Perhaps it is not the suppression of dissent nor the supremacy of dissent that creates harmony. It is the faithful practice and ennoblement of both tradition and dissent that creates a sustainable future that is not wracked by seizures of injustice and war.