Resisting Illegitimate Authority

A thinking person's guide to being an anti-authoritarian --
strategies, tools, and models

Bruce E. Levine

reviewed by Mira de Vries

A great subject. The subtitle is pregnant with promise. But does he deliver?

Levine calls people who resist illegitimate authority and approve of others doing so anti-authoritarian. Which authority is legitimate and which is not? He never actually identifies the dividing line, only provides examples.

According to Levine, a parent preventing his child from toddling into the street is a legitimate authority. But that parent isn't exercising "authority," he's exercising coercion, physically preventing his child from straying into the street, for instance, by grabbing his hand. Levine also considers his car mechanic a legitimate authority and trustingly follows his advice. I'll bet, though, if his car mechanic were not freely chosen but imposed by the state, Levine's trust would decline. Again he seems to confuse authority with coercion. In the end he states, "Contempt for coercion and tolerance for eccentricity are the norms in the anti-authoritarian groups I have studied..." This is circular reasoning. He labeled the groups who have "contempt for coercion and tolerance for eccentricity" as anti-authoritarian before he began studying them.

Perhaps his role models will give us more of a clue. Most of the book is dedicated to recounting the lives of people he considers anti-authoritarian from Baruch Spinoza to Edward Snowden. He includes undeniably great people like the courageous Harriet Tubman, who not only escaped from slavery, but risked her freedom and her life to help other slaves escape through the Underground Railroad. But he also includes people of questionable reputation like Leon Czolgosz, executed for assassinating president McKinley, and Ted Kaczynski, known as the "Unabomber." (If you have a cz in your name, perhaps you'd better change it.) Thankfully, Levine points out that violence is not an effective way to resist authority. Yet to Levine Gandhi was an authoritarian whose non-violent resistance was nonetheless "coercive." One senses that though advising against it, Levine secretly admires violence. And he admires Lenny Bruce, who appeared on stage drugged and naked. Levine approvingly quotes George Carlin as positing that Bruce was arrested and convicted of obscenity because the police, prosecutors, and judges were Irish-Catholics. Were the law-makers Irish-Catholics too? Who called the cops, anyway? Were there Irish-Catholics in the audience? Did they have mobile phones back in 1964? Blaming Bruce's arrest on Irish-Catholics is ludicrous, verging on racist. I can't imagine that anybody would want to pay to see a nude junkie on a stage, though I agree that it should be allowed as long as performer and audience both wish it. However Bruce's asserting his anti-authoritarianism through vulgarity is hardly on a level with Harriet Tubman. Levine still hasn't identified the border between legitimate and illegitimate authority.

Schools are authoritarian, says Levine, and I agree. Non-authoritarian schools wouldn't be schools, and he does not propose abolishing compulsory education. Even at university, he recalls, "most of what was in the text books was either silly or obvious" and in graduate school, "a major goal was ... to establish that we were authorities that should be given social prestige." Yet Levine didn't drop out of school. "[G]aining acceptance into graduate school or medical school and then gaining a PhD or MD... required and extraordinary amount of compliance to authority" but he did it anyway to obtain a degree, social status, and a lucrative living. He did not resist by choosing a career as, say, a baker.

Further obscuring Levine's boundary between legitimate and illegitimate authority are his politics. He is sympathetic to socialism and denounces capitalism. What is authoritarian about free trade, free enterprise, and free contract?

His stand on religion is no more illuminating. He amends it as he goes along. He labels religion authoritarian except when his hero or heroine derives the courage to resist authority from it. "Buddhism" he states, "appeals to many anti-authoritarians" because it is "a rebellion against what is normally considered religion." That is, if one normally considers only the three Abrahamic religions to be religion, and two of the three didn't exist yet during Buddha's lifetime so he can't have rebelled against them. If Buddhism appeals to many anti-authoritarians then there must be very few anti-authoritarians in the USA because there are very few Buddhists in the USA, particularly the kind who were not born into it. He states, "From the perspective of Buddhism, most mental health professionals are trained to be out of touch with reality." His description of Buddhism suggests he has the Westernized version in mind which is redesigned to appeal to starry-eyed hippie tastes. Populations that are predominantly Buddhist like in some Asian countries are not known for their anti-authoritarianism. Religions have authority and in my opinion, (only) when they are imposed involuntarily that authority is illegitimate. But that's not what Levine says. He engages in religioblabla. 

He claims that depression is caused by objection to illegitimate authority. "Depression" is a pseudo-medical term which he fails to define, all the more inexcusable as throughout the book Levine denounces psychiatry as "pathologizing" resistance to illegitimate authority and being unscientific. He likewise fails to credit Thomas Szasz, mentioned nowhere in the book, for being the first and most prolific person to point out the illegitimate authority of psychiatry. Perhaps Levine, who states "Only disobedience can threaten authoritarians," discounts Szasz because Szasz was a law-abiding citizen. As to depression, let's say it means unhappiness. Anti-authoritarians may well be more susceptible to it, but it's unlikely that all unhappiness has the same cause.

Having read this book I feel no better equipped to resist illegitimate authority, whatever it is, than before I read it. I certainly would not want to join the ranks of addicts and violent criminals who march across its pages. Levine may well be right that their self-destructive behaviors are rooted in discontent or powerlessness in the face of illegitimate authority but he offers no alternative non-destructive way of resisting. I do wholly endorse his last sentence before the conclusion, "to love children means recognizing each child's unique personality and individual needs." Beyond that I question Levine's authority.

back to top
book review index

Copyright MeTZelf