William O. Douglas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, could be considered one of the most uncompromising defenders of the individual. A man ahead of his time, he possessed extraordinary intelligence, excessive work habits, and a willingness to be different. Serving on the Court from 1939 to 1975, Douglas’s experiences were drawn from his life of poverty as a youth and battles with polio.
So the question becomes, why talk about him now? Maybe it is because of the state of the county; maybe because we are continually reminded of the gross misuse of power seeping into the crevices of high public offices. Whatever the motivator may be, the multitude of reasons lie in Douglas’s small but powerful book, Points of Rebellion. Written in 1969, and read 49 years later, it is a disturbing reminder to Americans just how far we have NOT come.
Points of Rebellion was written as a somber warning to the American people. Douglas believed that the pollution of the political system would befoul freedom itself.
We can hear Douglas’s battle cry for the individual. He believed that all citizens were entitled to all the rights that the privileged, by virtue of their money, traditionally enjoyed. In 1969 Douglas wrote, “…Any tax deduction is in reality a “tax expenditure,” for it means that on the average the Treasury pays 52 per cent of the deduction. When we get deeply into the subject we learn that the cost of public housing for the poorest twenty per cent of the people is picayune compared to the federal subsidy of the housing costs of the wealthiest twenty per cent … while we spent 870 million dollars on housing for the poor, the tax deductions for the top twenty per cent amounted to 1.7 billion dollars.”
Daily the media reminds us that we are an affluent society. Ads entice us with expensive clothes, fully shelved pantries, and luxury cars. But are we any different from the society Douglas forewarned us against almost 50 years ago? “…We must subject the machine– technology– to control and cease despoiling the earth and filling people with the goodies merely to make money.”
Still the question remains unanswered, why have we not made significant changes in the laws that would be more responsive to human needs? While ideologies are being watered down by special interests, dialogue between citizens and their government is abating. It is obvious that we must reawaken this urgency which was heeded by Douglas. If our government is in jeopardy, then we must remind our leaders that the tools required for change are present but they must have the moral conviction to proceed. The forecast of 49 years ago remains today. Determinedly, we must continue to explore, to find solutions, to cry out as Douglas did; however, now there must be change.