by Jarret S. Lovell. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 272pp. Cloth $75.00. ISBN: 9780814752265. Paper $23.00. ISBN: 9780814752272.

Reviewed by Jennet Kirkpatrick, Department of Political Science, University of Michigan. Email: jennetk [at] umich • edu.


CRIMES OF DISSENT is an unusual, at points intriguing, academic book. Its unconventional character stems from the fact that CRIMES OF DISSENT is part scholarly exploration, part handbook on the pragmatic concerns of activism, and part impassioned defense of the American tradition of dissent. The book has a number of attending aims and it is, at turns, scholarly, pedagogic, and disputatious. In addition to exploring the contemporary American subculture of dissent, CRIMES OF DISSENT is something of a how-to book of disobedience (how to generate jail solidarity, how to advance the Nuremberg defense, how to adopt a strategy of pro se legal representation, and so on). Its overriding normative message laments Americans’ passivity toward dissent. Its author, Jarret Lovell, urges Americans to assume greater skepticism toward centripetal sources of power, namely the state and corporations, as well as to develop greater esteem for centrifugal sources of power like protest organizations, affinity groups, and the American people themselves.

In terms of its scholarly contribution, CRIMES OF DISSENT offers a window onto a subculture of what might be called “hardened criminals” of dissent. Trained in criminal justice, Lovell used snowball sampling to interview 21 activists from across the political spectrum who have been arrested numerous times (some upward of 50 times). He augments these interviews with his own participant-observations. CRIMES OF DISSENT annotates the moral and political issues that have generated dissent from the latter half of the twentieth century (the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, abortion) to the early twenty-first century (animal rights, globalization, the war in Iraq, and tax resistance). CRIMES OF DISSENT also illuminates the perspectives of seasoned disobedients on dissent itself. Activists elaborate on a range of topics including their political motivations, the state of American democracy, their conceptions of higher law, and their own measures of the effectiveness of dissent. Readers, in turn, gain a sense of who these folks are (the “Activist Profiles” in the Appendix are especially helpful), what kind of lives they lead, and how they understand the relationship between their political and moral obligations.

Lovell has a discerning eye for quotations, a skill put to particularly good use in the second half of the book when he turns to exposing the lives and motivations of disobedients. Lovell reveals the dedication and sacrifice of disobedients, as well as the extent to which dissent permeates their lives and [*7] political subjectivities. One interviewee, a tax resistor, explains his efforts to avoid detection by the federal government in terms that are both mundane and striking: he must refuse all salaried forms of employment, negotiate his financial arrangements without the benefit of a bank account in his own name, and forgo ownership of a car or house. CRIMES OF DISSENT exposes the complex relationship between activists and law enforcement, as disobedients recount violent treatment, tell stories of sympathetic police officers and judges, and explain the bitter futility of the now widespread law enforcement practice of constructing “protest pens” (fenced areas that are far removed from the event, figure, or group being protested). A penchant for self-serving hyperbole is also on full view when, for instance, protestors of the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City name a temporary detention center on the Upper West Side “Guantanamo on the Hudson.”

The joi de vivre of dissent is apparent as activists recount the sense of vitality, pleasure, and solidarity they experience during disobedience. A particularly compelling quotation comes from an elderly, life-long activist who recounts hearing freedom songs while jailed in a Mississippi penitentiary in the 1960s. Echoing Thoreau, he realized, “there’s no other place I should be but right there in the cell block with those people.” The source of his conviction was not individual morality alone but also a feeling a unity. “I felt a human solidarity with people I didn’t know and couldn’t see, and we all felt the same thing.” Asked about his persistent calling as a protestor, he explains, “I’m looking for that feeling again, that feeling of human solidarity that comes from taking a real risk to make social change.” (p.153)

In addition to providing this intimate portrait of dissent, Lovell constructs a defense of disobedience. As he sees it, dissent is a form of popular power that exposes the failures of American democracy and prompts reflection on the democratic ideals as its foundation. In this respect, CRIMES OF DISSENT fits into a genre of an American apologia for civil and uncivil disobedience. This genre: 1. Regards the criminal justice system and/or the federal government as progenitors of injustice, 2. Decries the amount of direct civic participation afforded by American political institutions, 3. Criticizes voting, representation, and the bounds of legal obligation on the basis of democratic principles (especially the principle of popular sovereignty), and 4. Prescribes domestic unrest and violation of the law as a mechanism to revitalize self-governance (Kirkpatrick 2008). CRIMES OF DISSENT does not engage with this genre as such, but it does expose one of this genre’s most intriguing traits – that is, the tendency to justify extreme political actions through conventional, even mainstream democratic ideals.

Passionate about the possibilities of dissent, Lovell wears his normative commitments on his sleeve and one can sense his zeal on virtually every page of this ambitious book. At times, Lovell’s enthusiasm gets the better of him. Rousseau, though responsible for many wonderful turns of phrase, did not coin the phrase the “tyranny of the majority” (p.45) The issue of violence among American disobedients has historically been more violent and contentious than [*8] Lovell lets on. Thus, CRIMES OF DISSENT is oddly silent on Shays’s Rebellion (as well as the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries’s Rebellion), the regulation movements in the early republic, the fugitive slave rescues, the brute force abolitionism of John Brown, and violent history of the American labor movement (especially the Molly Maguires, the bloody strikes in Coeur d’Alene and Pullman and the dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times).

As a window onto the contemporary American subculture of dissent, CRIMES OF DISSENT is a fascinating read. The current American microcosm of dissent – which is at turns strange and familiar, idealistic and pragmatic, ludicrous and lucid – is revealed in full glory.

Kirkpatrick, Jennet. 2008. UNCIVIL DISOBEDIENCE: STUDIES IN VIOLENCE AND DEMOCRATIC POLITICS. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Jennet Kirkpatrick.