Why Thoreau Is Still Relevant
Our American story on this subject begins in1846 when a man was jailed in Massachusetts for failing to pay his poll tax. At that time Americans were fighting in the Mexican War. Slavery at the time existed and a minority of Americans advocated the abolition of slavery. The man who was jailed was Henry David Thoreau. He refused to pay his poll tax and was jailed. If a relative had not paid the tax for him he would have remained in jail longer than one day. He spent a night in jail behind “walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light.”
Thoreau did not pay the poll tax because he believed the government was wrong to support both slavery and a war with Mexico. The crux of the matter for Thoreau in his essay Civil Disobedience was “the government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure”
Thoreau states concepts and ideas in Civil Disobedience that are often concealed on public airwaves from the citizenry today by media corporations allowed to increase or maintain their profits by favorable legislation as well as public and private institutions subsidized by government largess.
“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the state to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceful revolution, if any such is possible.”
“There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”
“Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.”
“All men recognize the right of revolution; that is the right to refuse allegiance to and to resist, the government, when its tyranny and or inefficiency are great and unendurable.”
“A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight.”
The two political parties and their emissaries vying for power often cloud the waters for elucidating the most effective and efficient use of national resources contribute to a Disunited States of America, a division favorable to the entrenched political parties. This chronic political squabbling over some issues masks an essential discussion over the best role of government as well as the costs of government, which are looming over the country like a dark cloud.
The essay Civil Disobedience was published in 1849 predicting a world of wooden men:
“The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. They are the standing army, and the militia, jailors, constables, posse comitatus, etc. In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.”
Our government has spent trillions of dollars on national security and the military including robot and drones. Thousands of military personnel and innocent civilians have perished and been maimed in two optional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which trillions of dollars will ultimately be expended with unknown repercussions. Nationally elected political leaders have fogged up these wars in patriotism, a flimsy chord of reason to justify superpower pre-emptive wars, though patriotism often strikes the right chord of emotion for war.
Who is guilty of the crime at the World Trade Center? Nineteen men. A terrorist group. Was the country or government of Saudi Arabia responsible for its eighteen citizens who participated in the attack on the World Trade Center? Or Egypt because the apparent leader of the attack was an Egyptian citizen? Has it been established or proven that the Afghan and Iraq governments were complicit in this crime? Has collective punishment in optional wars become a strategy for initiating war to further the concept that foreign occupiers bring stability?
Thoreau’s abiding interest was nature, the trees, creatures inhabiting the wilderness, flowers and the mountains and everything in between. He minded his own business and went about his life. How does such a man become an advocate for peaceful revolution? Thoreau explained it in Civil Disobedience, “I was seized and put into jail because I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of the state which buys and sells men, women and children like cattle at the door of its senate—house…… I was never molested by any person but those who represented the state......Wherever a man goes men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.”
Civil Disobedience is an instrument of democracy that Thoreau used and passed on. It is a legacy for the citizenry to uphold the challenge of democracy. He asked the ultimate question about humanity on this planet: “What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”
Is Government like a beast that must be tamed, for if it is not tamed will it subdue, subjugate or intimidate the citizenry? The first President of the United States, George Washington, understood governmental power, for he stated that government was not reason but force. Is it the duty and responsibility of the citizenry to supply that reason for a United States of America? Who is the public servant today? The citizenry or elected representatives.
How much turmoil is government allowed to create in domestic and foreign affairs: financial mismanagement of government and major programs, pre-emptive wars and restrictions on freedom in the name of security? Have the two major political parties and their representatives ever calculated the countless billions of dollars they have lost to waste, fraud and abuse since the elective or optional war in Vietnam? Is effective and efficient government achievable by the two controlling political parties?
Is America like a giant tree unable to see the forest and unable to perceive the overview of the world because it is mired in itself with an emotional attitude that its culture and nation are superior to all others while manufacturing wooden men who are guiding the ship of state?
These are questions Thoreau might ask today.
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Raul A Garcia - 9/15/2009
What a great eccentric and essay! Years later Gandhi himself would pay tribute to that American and his essay and how that bolstered his own vision of non-violence and ahimsa. Thank you for such a timely article.
Pete J. Perry - 9/14/2009
When the government behaves criminally, the people must act. Oct. 5th we will be acting in the great tradition of Gandhi, Dr. King and Dorothy Day. Cindy Sheehan will be with us, won't you as well?
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