Uncivil Obedience

by A. A. Borovoy,
ISBN: 1895555086

Post Your Opinion
Keeping a Sense of Humour
by George Kaufman

EVERYTHING YOU NEED to know about Alan Borovoy is expressed in this line from the preface of Uncivil Obedience: "Thus, the tactics discussed (in the book) should be able to help those with whom I disagree as well as those whose views are closer to my own" Yes, Borovoy is the quintessential middleclass liberal, that increasingly rare creature whom everyone - from radicals to conservatives to other liberals - loves to denigrate.

But Borovoy doesn't care what you think of him: he sees himself as an integral part of the workings of democracy, and his resume backs him up. As point man for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for the past two decades, Borovoy has spent his time in the trenches of the major and minor civil liberties battles fought in this country, from equity in housing and hiring to abortion and forced retirement. This book is a valuable distillation of all the lessons learned from those legal skirmishes. To his credit, Borovoy seems to have learned as much from his losses as from his many victories, and he includes it all here.

Uncivil Obedience is exactly what the subtitle promises: "the tactics and tales of a democratic agitator." Borovoy provides example after example of how to pressure, cajole, irritate, or bulldoze an opponent into seeing things your way (as long as you have the law on your side). His examples range from simple surveys (such as with hiring practices) that can be released to the media, to organizing and executing legal challenges that reach all the way to the Supreme Court. Many of his campaigns seem obvious and even laughably simple in retrospect, such as the time he sent a white couple out to rent in buildings that guaranteed they were "free" of nonwhites; any building managers who gave that assurance were in instant trouble. Still, it's the sort of on-the-ground legal slogging that works, and Borovoy has the proof

The tone of the book is unexciting and pragmatic, as befits a textbook, as the author painstakingly lists tactics, results, and the underlying philosophies upon which they are all predicated. If Borovoy occasionally slips into a modestly boastful voice, well, the man is entitled. As the great philosopher Dizzy Dean once said,

"It ain't braggin' if you really done it"

The best advice Borovoy has to offer, though, is the least technical: keep your sense of humour. His own wry wit shines through Uncivil Obedience, both in his stories and, more to the point, in his setbacks and frustrations. His good humour and sense of perspective are vital tools too often forgotten by others bent on changing society. In fact, Borovoy often saw his campaigns as extended practical jokes on those he worked against; when the jokes backfired occasionally, he was able to see the humour (and the lesson) in that, as well. Borovoy's is convinced that "uncivil obedience" (bending the law) is healthier for individuals and democracy than the more familiar tactic of civil disobedience (breaking the law on a matter of principle). His fears about the potential damage of civil disobedience were raised during the Oka crisis, when he found an alarming number of people ready to accept the idea of armed opposition to a perceived wrong. He sympathized with the Natives' cause, but lamented the resort to guns without exhausting the many other, potentially more productive, tactics first. His case is simple:

Picking up guns is obviously a dangerous business. It risks the lives and limbs of many people - the completely innocent as well as those more directly involved. And it undermines the rule of law and the process of democracy.

Rather than simply decry the use of arms, Borovoy characteristically sat down and wrote this book, expanding on his conviction that there are numerous more productive and inventive ways of attaining the goal of social justice. Uncivil Obedience may be one of the few positive things to come out of the sad events at Oka. It deserves a wide readership among those concerned about the future, not only of this Country, but of democracy itself. That may be a simple-minded sentiment, but as Borovoy points out, "There appears to be a widespread lack of familiarity with the way the democratic system operates. This is a problem that requires priority attention:' This book should help remedy that situation.


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