Ralph Young, author and history professor at Temple, has long been an advocate and chronicler of protest movements in America. In 2015, he authored Dissent: The History of an American Idea, a comprehensive account of our nation's history from the standpoint of the protest movements that helped shape it. Since its release, however, a tumultuous social and political landscape in America has made Young take a deeper look at the values that comprise meaningful dissent.
"I was thinking about events like January 6th and how a lot of Republicans claim they were just protesting, and it made me reevaluate my entire definition of dissent in America," says Young.
The result is Young's new book, American Patriots: A Short History of Dissent, to be released in January of next year. American Patriots comes as a more concise, updated edition of Dissent, focused down to about half the length of the 600-page original. The new version hones in on the 20th century and current day, with new content and sections written in the wake of more contemporary protest movements, including those that Young does not qualify as productive political dissent. Young notes:
"The basic thesis of both books is that the United States is a product of dissent. In the 18th century, political dissenters were fighting against English taxation policies, and this led to the American Revolution, an ultimate act of dissent, to protest against Britain. Then we put the right to protest into the Constitution and Americans haven't shut up since. We've been protesting everything: women protesting for the right to vote, abolitionists protesting against slavery, workers protesting for the right to unionize."
American Patriots digs deeper into this premise with a question: "Is it dissent if one is protesting against an injustice that does not exist? If one is motivated by lies, disinformation, and conspiracy theories? If one is fighting a delusion?"
"When I look at the videos of January 6th, I have an image of Don Quixote fighting windmills. They're fighting against something that doesn't really exist," Young explains. "What they were essentially doing was trying to overturn votes that represented the majority of the American people. They were trying to take away the voting rights of the people that voted for Biden on the false premise that those votes were stolen."
There lies the crux of Young's case. What were the founders thinking when they wrote the First Amendment? What were the values and principles of dissent that they were protecting?
Young argues, "You have a right to protest to expand your rights. You do not have a right to protest to get other people's rights diminished. You do not have the right to arbitrarily create a society in which only you benefit."
As an educator, Young has made it a priority to provoke these sorts of nuanced conversations among his students. His Dissent in America course tackles America's tradition of protest movements, and he runs a weekly series of Friday afternoon Teach-ins at Temple. For over twenty-two years, the Teach-ins have welcomed guests to engage students in dialogues about controversial contemporary subjects. As a result, Young has had a front-row seat to shifting perspectives among younger generations.
"I think a lot of students today are frustrated that some of the big problems are not being addressed as quickly as they ought to be, like for example, climate change. This is the world you're inheriting. Is it going to be worth living in when you're 60 or 70 years old?" says Young.
"That can maybe give them a cynical, 'well, I can't do anything about it' attitude. But we have to realize that we all have to try to make a difference in the world that we're in. What I try to do is to get students to think that they've got to be a part of their own time, that they have to do what they can to be part of a solution and not part of the problem."
American Patriots: A Short History of Dissent of Dissent is available January 9th, 2024 from NYUPress.