Captain Blood, to the extent it is mentioned today, is remembered as a 1935 movie that made the career of Errol Flynn. The story was originally this novel, published in 1922. It is the story of an Irish physician who, in the late Seventeenth Century, settles in the southwest of England, in Somerset, after wandering the world for a decade. He is caught up in the Monmouth Rebellion, in which a bastard son of Charles II rebelled against James II and lost the 1685 Battle of Sedgmoor, the last battle fought on English soil. Captain Blood (his name is Peter Blood; the title is not a nickname, as one might think of a pirate novel), treats a man wounded in the battle. He is therefore dealt with as a traitor, even though he took no part in the rebellion itself, but his death sentence is commuted to being sold into slavery in Barbados.
All this, other than the figure of Blood himself, is standard history, and it’s well written and evocative (and a reminder that even in the English speaking world, slaves were made of all races). Taking advantage of various wars, declared and undeclared, among the British, French and Spanish in the Caribbean, Blood escapes and becomes a famous pirate (modelled in part after Henry Morgan). The book is both an exciting read in its own right, and also an interesting slice of history, showing the complex relationships among governments and privateers, who shaded more or less overtly (largely depending on your point of view) into pirates. Captain Blood ends the book as Governor General of Jamaica, and lives happily ever after, having overcome the usual trials and tribulations. Perhaps America should go back to the privateer system to implement foreign policy—after all, among the enumerated powers of Congress in the Constitution is the power to grant “letters of marque,” allowing private individuals to prey on enemy shipping for their own gain. But that discussion is for another day.
So far, so good. I recommend this book. But what I really want to talk about is rebellion in the modern world. Captain Blood is full of rebellion—the Monmouth Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution (a key plot point), mutiny on shipboard, mutiny on land, and various other acts of violence against men in authority. American history is full of rebellion, too—the War of Independence and the Civil War, of course, but also unsuccessful smaller-scale rebellions—Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, John Brown’s assault on Harper’s Ferry, and the leftist rebellions of the 1970s.
We can conclude that rebellion is relatively commonplace and that it arises from different causes. What I want to talk about is when it is intellectually and morally justified. We will examine theory and practice, Aquinas and Rogue One. I am sure that writing this will probably get me on some list, or rather some additional lists, and prevent my being appointed to any government position—at least, in the current dispensation. But since I doubt if the current dispensation will last, this is probably not the hobbling it seems.
Definitions & Nomenclature
To discuss rebellion, we must define rebellion. For purposes of this analysis, I will use the OED definition: “Organized armed resistance to the ruler or government of one’s country.” “Ruler” does not apply in the United States, which has no single ruler or identifiable set of individuals who rule, so we will focus only on “government.” I will use “violence” as a general synonym for “organized armed resistance,” with the proviso that this means here only violence that is directed at the existing government that is planned in some fashion and directed at a political goal, not random or spontaneous. Thus, personal grievances are excluded, as are spontaneous acts of rage ending in violence even if driven by purely political considerations. I also confine the analysis (but not, of course, the history) to the modern American scene. Furthermore, I include within possible forms of “rebellion” one-man actions—this can be “organized,” in the sense of planned and following a plan, and can also be the most effective type, since as Benjamin Franklin said, “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
Not only definition, but also nomenclature, is important, since the most common use of words today is to obfuscate and lower the quality of discourse. Proper delineation of terms prevents this. Thus, for example, the word “terrorism” is, for the most part, empty of content in today’s world. It should not be used in a discussion of political violence except in its sense of “pure” terrorism—what the OED defines as “A policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted.” That means actions designed to terrorize the population at large by violence directed at civilian individuals chosen at random, or mostly at random, or indiscriminately, even if aimed at achieving a political goal. Terrorism in this sense is not rebellion; there is too diffuse a connection to “armed resistance,” which implies a focused target connected directly to the government or a government policy. Thus, planned attacks motivated by Islam that are made upon United States soldiers are not terrorism, but rebellion; similar attacks upon random civilians are terrorism—although, of course, the government won’t draw these fine distinctions, and probably shouldn’t, for its goals are order and control, in varying proportions, not definitional questions.
Finally, violence does not have to be directed directly at the government to be rebellion. Violence narrowly designed to instill fear in specific, limited individuals or groups is rebellion, if the real target is the government or its policies, and the people at whom the violence is directed are part of the government or its policies. But if there is no meaningful connection between the targets and the government, it is mere terrorism.
Of course, there is a strong odor of Shakespearean “none dare call it treason” when talking about rebellion. That is, a rebellion that succeeds tends to acquire an odor of righteousness, a rebellion that fails, less so. But this is not always true—John Brown has the odor of righteousness, and in some ways his failed rebellion was ultimately a smashing success. Nat Turner, likewise (although there the details tend to be glossed over in order to achieve that odor). And the leftist revolts of the 1970s were never punished; their perpetrators and enablers now occupy the highest echelons of American society and power—they tend not to focus on their violent rebellion, but it was a critical element of their rise to power, and they only have the luxury of forgetting and making everyone else forget because they now control all the relevant levers of power and opinion. If they did not, they would continue to use violence, just as all leftist movements throughout history have done, and do. Still, we can stipulate that except in rare circumstances, the actual perpetrators of unsuccessful rebellions are harshly punished by the authority against which they rebelled. What is a “perpetrator” varies over time—it had a very broad definition under James II, and a narrower one in 1859, where John Brown’s financial backers, the so-called “Secret Six,” weren’t punished at all, although they had to keep their heads down and the issue was not free from doubt. But (like the Weathermen and Bill Ayers), within a few years they were lionized—so it’s all about your side winning.
In this way all rebellion is like the Chinese Mandate of Heaven—if someone wants to rebel, his core claim is that the gods have withdrawn the Mandate of Heaven from the Emperor. If the rebel succeeds, QED. If the rebel fails, well, he was wrong about the gods, wasn’t he? Thus, for thousands of years in China, from the Zhou overthrowing the Shang onwards, nothing has succeeded like success. Much the same principle applies in the West, and in America. But I want to leave this hindsight bias effect out, and analyze rebellion abstractly, or prospectively, without consideration of the effect success would have on any given theoretical rebellion.
We can analyze rebellion, it seems to me, through a variety of frameworks. The first, of course, is simply the caveman frame: might makes right. If Ugg is tired of Bunga being in charge, he hits Bunga with a rock, and if Bunga falls over, there you go—Ugg is now in charge. Most of us in the West don’t find that particularly satisfying, because we view the world through moral frames, whether we are willing to admit it or not. Cynics who regard all moral frames as merely shadowplay covering an Ugg-Bunga relationship may leave now, though certainly most moral frames, and all modern moral frames, are infected with shadowplay to some degree, and Leftist post-Christian moral frames, from Rawls to Nussbaum, are wholly shadowplay. Failure to use any frame results in intellectual incoherency, which inevitably degenerates into might makes right. Thus, the Mandate of Heaven mostly boils down to a gloss on might makes right, which is not surprising, given that China has never, ever, had the rule of law or the complex moral frameworks developed in the West under Christianity. But we in the West have used a variety of moral frameworks, and I will continue that here.
So, I turn second to the most coherent, well-developed and well-analyzed framework relating to the morality of political violence, Catholic just war theory. This framework is used, for example, by conservative commentator Ross Douthat in his notable column on why (supposedly) “The Pro-Life Movement Opposes Violence.” Violence against abortionists is a form of rebellion, though not one I analyze here (I intend to analyze it elsewhere), so Douthat’s column is in essence a statement of the morality of rebellion. It is not relevant that this is a Catholic framework; it summarizes a major thread of Western moral thought and is not closely tied to specifically Catholic doctrine as, say, is doctrine on the Eucharist. As taken from the Catechism (2309), to meet “the strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force,” four factors must be met:
a) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
b) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
c) there must be serious prospects of success;
d) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
The focus of this framework is, in large part, on the “common good.” (Thus, military service is inherently morally acceptable, because it contributes to the common good.) Importantly, the Catechism also says that evaluation of the conditions is entrusted “to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” This concept of the “common good” underpins all moral frameworks relating to rebellion, explicitly or implicitly.
But this specific framework is actually not the right one through which to analyze rebellion. First, it focuses on defensive, responsive actions, and rebellions may be responsive, but they are never defensive in the narrow sense. Second, it only obviously applies when the actors are states, or at least corporate bodies, which by definition are not the actors in a rebellion. Third, the framework only directly applies to full-scale war, which has a clear beginning and end. “Success” in a war is usually fairly obvious. In a rebellion, success might mean changing the entire form of government, or the identity of those in power. But it might also mean achieving a limited political objective, such as ending a specific injustice, and not require any change at all in the form or identity of government. Success could be political success (changing the system or changing the law) or a practical success (incentivizing a group to stop a behavior, even if the actual system or laws are not changed at all). Thus, this framework is not terribly useful for reviewing the morality of rebellion, even if Douthat (badly) applies it in his analysis, which as I say I will address elsewhere than this current review.
The Catechism does, however, offer a mostly overlooked alternative framework (2243) that is similarly representative of a closely related strain of Western thought: “Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible reasonably to foresee any better solution.” Oddly, there appears to be little commentary on this section, perhaps because it is similar on the surface to the section on just war. But it is different, first because it explicitly legitimizes individual and group violent opposition to existing political authority, a very different thing than war between states, and second because it does not discuss who is to evaluate the “common good” in this instance, implying that the rebels themselves are to do so. Necessarily, they must also evaluate what is “oppression,” though presumably in a manner formed by the opinions of others
Continuing on the Catholic theme, we can examine what St. Thomas Aquinas had to say about rebellion. Aquinas views rebellion through the sin of sedition (Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 42); he defines “sedition,” distinct from mere “strife,” as “tumults tending to fight . . . between mutually dissentient parts of one people. . . . Since sedition is opposed to a special kind of good, namely the unity and peace of a people, it is a special kind of sin.” Citing Augustine, Aquinas notes that “wise men understand the word people to designate not any crowd of persons, but the assembly of those who are united together in fellowship recognized by law for the common good.” Again we see a focus on the common good. Therefore, sedition opposed to the “people” thus defined disturbs the common good, and those “who defend the common good, and withstand the seditious party, are not themselves seditious, even as neither is a man to be called quarrelsome because he defends himself.’
Sedition is, Aquinas says, a mortal sin, which at first would appear to end the discussion. On its face, this analysis implies that those “recognized by law” are never to be rebelled against. But Aquinas continues, “A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but rather to the private good of the ruler [citing Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics]. Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Indeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely . . . .” Therefore, sedition against a tyrant is not sedition at all, and therefore not inherently wrong (and arguably compelled, in the same way a just government is obliged to suppress sedition for the common good). Aquinas, however, does not discuss the locus of such action against a tyrannical government—for example, are individuals permitted to act against a tyranny, or only corporate bodies of some sort that represent authority in opposition to tyranny?
Elsewhere, Aquinas similarly notes that tyrants are not always to be obeyed, which implies they may be attacked, since rejecting the authority of a tyrant necessarily means placing oneself in an adversarial position. He says (Scripta super libros sententiarum, Article 2), in answering “Whether Christians are bound to obey the secular powers, and tyrants in particular?”, that “[O]bedience consists in the observance of a command which it is our duty to observe.” We have no duty to observe “authority not of God.” If the person in authority is merely “unworthy,” his authority is nevertheless “of God.” But if there is a “defect in the means by which power was acquired,” and if that method is violence, “anyone can reject such authority when the opportunity arises.” Similarly, authority can be “not of God” “because of the use to which the authority is put.” This is true either “when what is commanded by the ruler is contrary to the purpose for which the ruler was appointed: for example, if some sinful act is commanded contrary to the virtue which the ruler is ordained to foster and preserve,” or “when what is demanded goes beyond what the order of authority can require.” In all these cases, Aquinas seems to suggest, rebellion is proper (though presumably limited in various ways).
In some ways, life was simpler in the times of Aquinas, making his analysis more straightforward in his times. The tyrants of “classical” states engaged in private injustice, seeking, as Aquinas says, “the private good of the ruler.” But they lacked even a tiny fraction of the power or overweening desire to control men of today’s states, and they would not have even considered, for example, coercing men to bend their minds to deny reality. People were not simpler, but Aquinas could not have imagined the reach and power of modern state, with its desire and ability to reach deep into the innermost lives of men—the “Cthulhu state,” as I like to call it, and have expanded on elsewhere, with “its vision of man as malleable and infinitely perfectible machine, rather than a created being ordered by something outside himself and containing inherent qualities and limits.” Thus, the modern state has a vastly greater tendency to demand what goes beyond its authority. We should therefore view Aquinas in light of the modern state—not merely its modern totalitarian versions, but its modern versions of supposed “liberal democracies,” with their “freedom to coercion” and atomistic attacks upon the telos of man.
Examining the modern state through the lens of Aquinas, generally speaking, in America there appears at first to be no “defect in the way power was acquired.” Most obviously, elections are generally free from material taint of fraud or coercion. And digging a bit deeper through the forms to the substance, those who really rule our country, the federal judges and the administrative state, also obtained their authority through the forms of our Constitution. Of course, they obtained their authority through the abuse of those forms, backed by the guns of the state, so there is an excellent argument that both the administrative state and the actions of judges are wholly unmoored from the Constitution, which has been re-interpreted to bootstrap their power, are therefore illegitimate in the sense Aquinas uses, because acquired in a defective way. But let’s assume, contrary to evidence, that there is today, here, “no defect in the way power was acquired.” There are still ways, easy to identify and impossible to dispute, in which our real rulers both command wrongful acts and demand what goes beyond their authority. We will examine how this is so in the context of analyzing certain specific applications of the morality of rebellion related to current and prospective political issues.
All this is subject to many problems of practical application, and the two main ones Aquinas adverts to: who is to decide whether the critical triggers are met, such as deciding whether a particular command is wrong or goes beyond legitimate authority, and how can an actor accurately predict whether the “subjects will suffer a greater harm from the consequent disturbance” of a rebellion than they do from the tyrant’s actions, whether from replacement by a worse alternative or failure leading to further repression? I may say that the evil of abortion justifies rebellion—but another, of a different political bent, tending, say, to so-called liberation theology, may say that the oppression of the working class by economic exploitation justifies rebellion. There’s really no way of answering this, except to treat each proposed rebellion as an independent variable, in its own silo. There is an objective answer to each such question, but it will not be given to us in this life, so each man, or corporate body, must make his or its own considered decision.
A second, non-religious, framework is Lockean social contract theory, on which the Declaration of Independence, and therefore the Revolutionary War, are largely based. In fact, the Declaration talks of a “duty” to rebel, and that is echoed in much American political theory of the time. Without going into exhaustive detail, I note that Locke’s basic analysis revolves around the consent of the governed and the legitimacy of the “legislative” deriving from that consent. If the “legislative is changed” without consent, as when “a single person, or prince, sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws, which are the will of the society, declared by the legislative, then the legislative is changed,” then the people have no duty to obey and a right to reconstitute the legislative according to their will, since arbitrary power has dissolved the commonwealth. This seems quite different from earlier thought, but in practical application is much the same—the questions mostly boil down to who decides whether power is arbitrary (Locke says “the people shall be the judge”), and what is actually to be done, and how, keeping in mind that things should not be made worse, rather than better. Like Aquinas, Locke believes that the real rebel, the real man of sedition, is the tyrant, and violent action against him is therefore not rebellion in the sinful (for Aquinas) or negative (for Locke) sense.
This is in essence a natural law argument, which here does not have a religious frame, but is not contradictory to a religious frame. (It does tend to focus on the arbitrary nature of rule, rather than the morality of what the rule demands.) Aquinas also has elements of the natural law: when determining “when what is demanded goes beyond what the order of authority can require,” one possible method is using natural law. You can imagine, for example, C.S. Lewis, who (somewhat oddly) strongly endorsed Lockean political analysis, but at the same time viewed natural law as supplementing and aiding religious belief, endorsing rebellion in largely natural law terms. Lewis was, famously, definitely not a pacifist, which suggests there is no necessary conflict between the frameworks of Aquinas and Locke.
The problem, though, with the Lockean framework is that it is incomplete. It gives a general theory for when rebellion is justified, but with no practical elements, and no balancing of, for example, whether the cure will be worse than the disease, and how that affects the justification for rebellion. Thus, for practical evaluation, Locke is much less valuable than Aquinas, and tends to be used for post hoc justifications, like the Revolutionary War. Still, examining Locke as a supplement to the older tradition, especially in the American context, can add depth and texture to any particular analysis of the morality of rebellion.
Other frames are possible. We could examine Hobbes, for example, with his more restrictive view of action against the sovereign. Similarly, Augustine came close to ruling out rebellion as ever justified. Hugo Grotius, likewise, excludes a “common right of resistance,” rejecting the analogy to the individual right of self-defense on grounds similar to Hobbes (both in contradiction to Locke). But the frameworks I summarize, I think, offer a full overview of Western traditions that do not reflexively and automatically rule out rebellion as potentially justified.
General Framework Application
We can see from even a casual evaluation of any of these frames that, contrary to what is often suggested, it is not the case that a rebellion against a representative government is inherently illegitimate. A representative government can be fully tyrannical (in the Aquinas sense) or “change the legislative” (in the Lockean sense). Tyranny has, since Ancient Greece, has always been seen as the peril (and natural end) of democracy, after all. There is no necessary superiority of representative government, much less is it a protection against tyranny.
But, in any case, we don’t live under a representative government. We live under the oligarchy of the Supreme Court and the courts in general, which is beholden to an aristocracy, and our daily lives are ruled by an unaccountable administrative state. True, the trappings of a representative government that remain suggest caution in assuming that the people are in fact tyrannized, but they by no means make rebellion inherently illegitimate. The frames must be followed whether we are ruled by Negan (amoral villain in the apocalyptic TV series The Walking Dead) or by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if their actions are intellectually equivalent, which they often are.
What is more, “tyranny” is, if you parse these frames, essentially a sine qua non for justified rebellion. No tyranny, no just rebellion. But today’s tyranny is not the easily understood tyranny of the past. A strong argument can be made to generalize tyranny—I argue that in any state, the destruction of the rule of law is automatically equivalent to tyranny. This argument is closely tied to a Lockean analysis, of course, centered on arbitrary, rather than objectively wrong, rule. In its traditional summation, by the British jurist A.V. Dicey, the rule of law “means in the first place, the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power, and excludes the existence of arbitrariness, of prerogative, or even of wide discretionary authority on the part of the government. . . . It means, again, equality before the law, or the equal subjection of all classes to the ordinary law of the land administered by the ordinary courts . . . [and], lastly, . . . that, in short, the principles of private law have with us been by the action of the courts and Parliament so extended as to determine the position of the Crown and of its servants; thus the constitution is the result of the ordinary law of the land.” Or, rephrased by the pseudonymous Lexington Green on the “Chicago Boyz” blog: “Restated, Dicey says the Rule of Law consists of: (1) disallowing arbitrary power, restricting the use of power to what is permitted by law, (2) treating all persons to the exact same law, in the same courts, without regard to their status, and (3) treating the officers of the government to exactly the same law as everybody else.” The rule of law, or its absence, is a useful lens through which to view modern tyranny, because it applies better to the modern state.
Destruction of the rule of law is thus sufficient to constitute tyranny. But it is not necessary—a law can be wholly evil, yet conform totally to the rule of law. Thus, a tyranny can exist with the rule of law—but if there is no rule of law in a government, a tyranny automatically exists.
So, let’s apply these frames. We can apply them in a neutral fashion by examining the original Star Wars through it, along with Rogue One, and then apply it in a non-neutral fashion to examine the morality of rebellion in four semi-hypothetical cases. The first is rebelling against the Presidency of Donald Trump, what is implied in the calls for #Resistance, including (in scattered cases) calls for Trump’s assassination and (frequently) for his extra-legal removal from power. Second, the attempted mass confiscation of firearms from the American civilian populace, along the lines of what has been done in recent years in the UK and Australia. The third is the seizure of children from parents who fail to toe the line on leftist ideology regarding so-called transgenderism, as is currently beginning in Canada. The fourth is the imaginary, but certainly possible, “Muslim registry.” I will ignore the most obvious application of these frames, a modern and ongoing exact parallel to John Brown—that of abortion. I ignore it here because, as I say, I am separately writing a complete analysis of rebellion in that context. These are, of course, all mere thumbnail sketches, susceptible both of further development and of countervailing arguments to my own conclusions.
In applying the frames, it is important to remember that no action takes place in stasis. Every action has a reaction, and usually that reaction cannot be predicted. As Helmuth Von Moltke said, no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is important to remember both to understand the future will never be precisely as you hope, no matter how objective your analysis, and that the social costs, the disorders in Aquinas’s term, may well be greater as a result. Finally, I omit any discussion of the precise tactics of any given possible rebellion, which would need to be determined by the specifics of the situation at the time (and anyway this review is very long already). However, I note that rebellions need not seek the overthrow of the state or the wholesale replacement of its structures; as discussed above, rebellion can consist of any violence directed at the government or its agents with a political purpose.
Specific Framework Application: Star Wars/Rogue One
Star Wars posits initially the existence of a republic, a form of quasi-representative federated legislative government, guarded by a religiously based military order with both a fighting and a diplomatic role but not formally subject to the government, and with an executive subject to the legislature. The republic is suborned by the executive, who assumes total power (ultimately as supreme monarch) and then uses that supremacy to eliminate the power of the military order and, through planetary-scale violence, impose conformity to his will on the states that had been represented in the federated legislature. In response, political leaders of the (former) republic, together with isolated surviving members of the military order and allies of varying stripes and strengths, rebel. This results in an escalating spiral of violence, including the killing of billions, the disruption of the lives of trillions, and the ultimate assassination of the monarch by a two-time turncoat member of the military order, ending in the restoration of representative government.
The movie Rogue One depicts the specifics of rebellion in the most detail. It depicts the disparate elements of the rebellion, from a weapons designer who rebels by hiding from the monarch, that his knowledge may not be used to create a planet-destroying weapon; to his daughter who joins the formal, politically led rebellion; to an outrider rebel who refuses to join the organized, politically led rebellion, preferring direct, independent violence through partisan action. The daughter rebels against the rebellion itself after a tactical disagreement and leads a small team to seize critical information necessary to destroy the weapon built by her father, a possibility created by her father’s own rebellion. The seizure is successful, leading ultimately to success for the rebellion, but every relevant rebel profiled in the movie dies.
Using the frameworks outlined above, it is not at all clear that the rebellion is morally justified. There is certainly plenty of tyranny against which to rebel, both in the Aquinas sense that the authority was gained by violence and is used to accomplish bad ends beyond the legitimate authority of the state, and in my broader, modern sense of destruction of the rule of law, along with multitudinous heinously wrongful acts. There are certainly “grave and prolonged violation of fundamental rights,” and all other means of redress have been exhausted (or are obviously futile, an important corollary). And the legislative power has certainly been changed, by destroying it permanently and rejecting any consent of the governed.
But, even with all that being true, it is not at all clear that resistance will not provoke worse disorders—at certain points in the story arc, the tyrant is in possession of an apparently unstoppable planet-destroying weapon and has shown total indifference to its continued use. Nor is there any well-founded hope of success—the rebels are successful, but hindsight does not change the analysis, and they themselves frequently admit prospectively there is almost no hope of success. On the other hand, it is likely impossible to reasonably foresee any better solution than rebellion—unlike many unpleasant political regimes, there is little reason to think that the tyranny will, in any relevant time frame, be replaced by a non-tyranny, given the power and obsessive ideological drive of the tyrant and his power base (disordered, but extremely powerful, traitorous members of the destroyed military order).
My conclusion is that rebellion in the Star Wars universe is ambiguous as to its intellectual and moral justification. We are conditioned through the movies to see an arc of the triumph of good versus evil, together with a glossing over of the evils indirectly caused by the rebellion, such as the Holocaust of Endor, where, off screen, the small, furry inhabitants of the moon of Endor were destroyed by the destruction of the planet-destroying weapon in close proximity to their moon. So to see the rebellion here as necessarily justified is shoehorning a fairy tale narrative onto what would be a much more knotty problem in real life. If the frameworks we are using have any common caution, it is that heroic, death-or-glory approaches to analyzing rebellion are not adequate, since they displace the common good from being the central focus of justification. I conclude rebellion here is Possibly Justified.
Specific Framework Application: Donald Trump
We have been treated, for the past eight months or so, to continual shouted claims that the Presidency of Donald Trump is “illegitimate.” Usually, this is a summary and not closely reasoned judgment, combining elements of the election being perceived as unjust but structurally valid (the Electoral College) and those elements being perceived as unjust and also invalid (supposed “Russian hacking of the election”). Buttressing these are claims of inherent unfitness of the man (“Alt right!” “Sexual predator!” “Incompetent!” “Mentally ill!”).
The question is, therefore, under the frames I’ve outlined, is whether it morally correct to translate into actual rebellion the cheaply bought virtue signaling of #Resistance on Twitter, while one sips on $20 cocktails in a hipster Portland bar. We can dispose of this easily; the answer is no (even leaving aside that none of these people are actually likely to translate their hashtag frenzy into rebellion).
There is no violation of fundamental rights. There are many other means of redress that are by no means exhausted, from new elections to impeachment. Vastly worse disorders are certain to result from rebellion, and such a rebellion would have zero chance of success. Donald Trump is not a tyrant—even if there was a material “defect in the means by which power was acquired,” that defect was not violence. (The only violence has come from those opposed to Trump.) Nor has Trump commanded any act that can reasonably be deemed adequately “wrongful” to justify rebellion, or demanded what goes beyond his authority—both as shown by his complying with the commands of the courts in opposition to his wishes. Nor has the arbitrary will of Donald Trump replaced the legislative will. The reality is that no substantial injustice has occurred at any point in the rise or administration of Trump, and therefore there is no tyranny or similar illegitimacy in the Presidency of Donald Trump—which is not to say adequate injustice may not yet arise, merely that it has not. I conclude rebellion here is Not Justified.
Specific Framework Application: Confiscation of Firearms
There is no doubt that much of the American Left desires the total confiscation of firearms from the civilian population (see also here and here for proof and explanations of why this is). For current purposes, let’s posit that (a) Congress passes a law requiring, under felony legal penalties, the confiscation of all firearms capable of holding more than one round at a time; (b) there is no Constitutional amendment deleting the Second Amendment, but the courts hold this confiscation is legal; and (c) there is no reason to believe in imminent tyranny or collapse of the rule of law other than this action—that is, this is not 2017 Venezuela (although, of course, tyranny invariably follows in history upon disarmament, but we can ignore that for purposes of the present analysis). This is essentially the form of confiscation already imposed on the citizens of the United Kingdom and Australia; those governments avoided rebellion in part by earlier requiring registration under false pretenses and later using that registration to more easily suppress any possible resistance, and in part by simply having a different cultural mix and vastly fewer weapons in private hands.
Such a confiscation would definitely make the government a tyranny, because in the American context, ignoring the Second Amendment is a gross violation of the rule of law, because overt violations of the Constitution are exercises of arbitrary power (here, as usual, imposed by the courts under the pretense of constitutional compliance). Moreover, confiscation is a “certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights,” both in itself and because the private right to military-style weapons effectuates all the other rights guaranteed in the Constitution. The law “goes beyond what the order of authority can require”; its end is illegitimate under the governing document of the land (and is inherently immoral in that it denies the right of self-defense). All other means of redress have been exhausted if the courts support the constitutional violation; it is futile to wait until the next round of elections because the firearms will have been destroyed (and even if they were not, the government would have unacceptable records of firearms ownership). Mere non-compliance is inadequate to prevent violation of the right and the evils that result, even if enforcement is not aggressive. Similarly, it is impossible to foresee a better solution, since it would be impossible to return to the desirable (relatively) status quo ante. There is a well-founded hope of success, since it is likely that the government will fold upon even a moderate but widespread application of violence in response to its scheme. By the same token, it is unlikely that such resistance will not provoke worse disorder, although it is certainly possible, if, for example, unrest spirals into greater unrest as those with unrelated or tangentially related grievances use the disorder to advance their own ends (if, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement more aggressively began openly targeting police and government officials perceived as embodying structural racism). I conclude that rebellion here would be Wholly Justified.
Specific Framework Application: Seizure of Children From Parents
In most modern states, great power is given to bureaucrats to take children away from environments deemed harmful to them. In some instances this power is actually necessary—given that the modern liberal state has destroyed the social networks that used to assist and constrain families in their raising of children, and has created a vast, atomized underclass that can use government handouts to buy drugs without any need to find employment, thus allowing children to be wholly neglected, it is doubtless true that sometimes children must become wards of the state. On the other hand, given the absurdly low intelligence and abilities of the relevant bureaucrats in most locations, and their typical petty love of power that the stupid who work for the government often have, very frequently they fail to actually address the cases that need attention, because they are difficult and dangerous, and instead focus on the easy cases, where materially poor parents are raising their children in other than the way prescribed by modern liberal pieties. Although I was not homeschooled, when I was young, government bureaucrats frequently persecuted homeschooling families in this way (why homeschooling has become more possible in America is a fascinating topic for another day, although in countries such as Germany aggressive enforcement of forced government education is still the norm).
For the past several years, the Canadian province of Ontario has been a “leader” in aggressively pushing an agenda to destroy traditional Christianity. These pernicious actions have now inserted themselves into the government bureaucracy that has the power to seize children from their parents. Last month, in June 2017, the provincial legislature passed the Orwellian-named “Supporting Children, Youth and Families Act.” This requires bureaucrats assessing family situations to consider the specifics of the Ontario Human Rights Code, a typically disgusting set of left-wing social engineering principles, with the usual litany of terms used to determine conformity to leftist social ideology: “a child’s or young person’s race, ancestry, place of origin, color, ethnic origin, citizenship, family diversity, disability, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.” (The Act also removed the existing provision that a parent has the right “to direct [a] child’s education and religious upbringing,” instead requiring that a parent must raise the child “in accordance with the child’s or young person’s creed, community identity and cultural identity”—which are naturally determined by the bureaucrats, not the parents.)
This so-called Human Rights Code is typically used in Canada to attack commercial establishments that refuse to adhere to the latest leftist obsessions, in a way that would mostly be unconstitutional (for now) in America—but it does include some minor protections for religious liberty, usually ignored in practice. Even those are omitted in the incorporation of the Code to evaluating family situations. Presumably this new atrocity will primarily be used to continue to deny foster parent and adoptive parent status to any parent with even remotely traditional views, but legally it can be, and practically is certain to be, used to remove children from such households—we only have to wait a year or two. In fact, Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services, who introduced the bill, said earlier this year that a parent’s failure to recognize and support a child’s “gender self-identification” is a form of child abuse, and a child in these circumstances should be removed and placed into protection. ““I would consider that a form of abuse, when a child identifies one way and a caregiver is saying no, you need to do this differently. If it’s abuse, and if it’s within the definition, a child can be removed from that environment and placed into protection where the abuse stops.” The government of Ontario, in the mealy-mouthed way typical of government bureaucrats imposing social engineering, responded to criticism by claiming without evidence that the law does not say what is says, and anyway if it does, will not be applied that way. Those are what are technically called “lies.”
So, for purposes of applying the frameworks, let us suppose that (a) there is a Canadian family with five children, one of whom is twelve and decides he is a girl; (b) the parents seek treatment for his gender dysphoria; (c) the Canadian government intervenes and, after investigating, removes all the children from the family to save them from “abuse,” placing them for an undetermined length of time in foster care, and making clear that any possible reuniting of the family depends on the parents signing a statement agreeing to follow the child’s “chosen gender identity.”
This is undoubtedly tyrannical. It is not a violation of the rule of law—the law is evenly and neutrally applied. But it is a “certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights.” The law commits a wrongful act and goes far beyond any legitimate authority of the state. All possible attempts at redress through the courts or the legislature are certain to be futile. No better solution is feasible because of the iron grip of ideology on the government. Success is likely, at least if the goal is not the overthrow of the state, but targeted violence visited upon the agents of the state most responsible to deter them from action, expanding if that is inadequate. Rebellion will probably not provoke worse disorder, although that is always the most uncertain thing to predict, and it is possible the government would use the disorder to advance its ideological attacks even more aggresively. I conclude that rebellion here would be Wholly Justified.
Specific Framework Application: Registration of Muslims
Finally, I turn to a totally hypothetical case, arising from the accusation frequently made against Trump that he has called for the creation of a government registry of Muslims in the United States—i.e., those who believe in Islam, citizens and non-citizens, of all ethnic backgrounds. This is not true, although in fairness to those who say it is, Trump’s loose habits of speech are certainly open to the interpretation that he would, in fact, be fine with such a registry. So, for purposes of applying the frameworks, let us suppose (a) Congress passes a law mandating such a registry and submission of data to it by all Muslims, under felony penalties; (b) the courts uphold this action as not violating the First Amendment (or the Fifth Amendment, or anything else); and (c) the registry is highly confidential and no immediate impact results on Muslims directly from the registry (leaving aside the pernicious impacts of social disapprobation in such a situation).
The application problem here is that this is different from the other cases, because this is really only a prospective tyranny—but with extremely ugly connotations. As with gun registries, any registry of the disfavored is nearly certain to be used for bad purposes as soon as those who pushed the original registry feel they have enough political cover to reveal what was their intention all along, which they hid under anodyne phrases like “it’s just a registry—we need it to find bad people. For the children, of course.” Yes, the rule of law has not been destroyed. Nor is such a registry necessarily a “certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights”—free exercise of religion has not been forbidden, merely hampered by making it inconvenient and potentially risky for the future. Redress through the courts or legislature is possible—a new Congress could simply delete the registry, or a Constitutional amendment could make it illegal and require the same, and such an amendment in the current environment would stand an excellent chance of success. The success of a rebellion would be unlikely—there is no relatively small portion of government upon which pressure could be brought to bear, Muslims are a small part of the population, and they are heavily urbanized and mostly without the tools and tactical background that characterize many gun owners, for example. Rebellion would likely produce worse disorder, most especially for Muslims themselves, both in direct reaction and as politicians used the rebellion as an excuse to reveal their own pre-existing hatreds, and to whip up more hatred for their personal benefit. I conclude that rebellion here would be Probably Not Justified.
Perhaps all this seems like angels dancing on the head of a pin. Maybe so. But the world often shifts unexpectedly in completely unpredictable ways. Intellectual formation around rebellion is valuable both to potential rebels and to those who may ultimately resist rebellion. This is the service I hope this review performs.