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Civil disobedience demands courage of convictions

Jeremy Sammut | 11 January 2013

Anti-coal protestor Jonathan Moylan became a cause célèbre in some quarters this week after issuing a fake press release, the contents of which precipitated a temporary plunge in the value of Whitehaven Coal on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Greens leader, Christine Milne, was quick to praise Moylan’s antics as ‘part of a long and proud history of civil disobedience, potentially breaking the law, to highlight something wrong.’

ASIC is now investigating – it raided Moylan’s ‘camp’ in northern NSW on Wednesday morning – and the proper authorities will rightly determine if any laws have been broken.

If criminal charges are laid, we may well see the Greens and their fellow travellers on the Left launch a Julian Assange-style outcry against the persecution of an innocent, well-meaning activist.

As with the global campaign for the leader of WikiLeaks to escape trial in the United States for publishing classified intelligence documents stolen from the Pentagon, these efforts to evade the legal consequences of illegal behaviour will profoundly misunderstand the principle of civil disobedience.

Any anarchist, vandal or malcontent can disobey the law. What makes civil disobedience morally and politically powerful is the willingness to pay the penalty for an act of conscience protesting unfair or immoral government policies. By demonstrating the courage of one’s conviction, the aim is to sway opinion and convince governments to rectify the injustice that motivated the self-sacrifice of liberty.

This was the principle of civil disobedience at the core of Gandhi’s campaign of passive resistance against British rule in India. The Mahatma ordered his followers to submit to arrest and obey all subsequent orders from the authorities.

He also practiced what he preached and, when arrested by the British, asked to receive the highest penalty under the law. Had Gandhi sought to evade imprisonment by fleeing the country, say, acting like the proverbial thief in the night would have diminished the moral force of his anti-colonial movement, and it is unlikely he would have become an international figure and rallying point for Indian independence.

In complete contrast to Gandhi are the modern agitators and their supporters who want a get-out-of-jail free card for acting illegally for the self-proclaimed greater good.

To truly belong to the ‘long and proud history of civil disobedience,’ Assange and his like should display the courage of their convictions and willingly surrender to lawful authority. Like Gandhi, maybe Assange would do greater service to his cause (whatever that is) banged up in the US penitentiary instead of hiding in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Jeremy Sammut is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.