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Marion On July - 23 - 2011
crayon portrait of Henry David Thoreau as a yo...

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When I was a junior in high school, in the middle of Richard Nixon’s first term, I took a course in civics. Back then, this was required of all high school students, usually taken in their junior or senior year. Our civics course was simply entitled “U S and Comparative Government” and was taught by a retired army officer. Col Marshall was an old JAG lawyer, a conservative, an atheist, and one of those singular teachers who encouraged, demanded that students think outside the proverbial box, or at least, pretend to do so.

As required reading for the course, he insisted that we read Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (subtitled “Resistance to Civil Government.”) I’ve re-read this several times since then – quite often, the perspective of a sixteen year-old changes with age and life experiences. Like a lot of things, each time the piece is read, new ideas emerge – things, heretofore, I’d not considered.

Thoreau wrote the essay as a consequence, both of his objection to the Mexican-American War and to slavery. Going back and looking at this essay again, I’m positively astounded that the Tea Party hasn’t picked up Thoreau, instead of or along with Ayn Rand, as a particular hero.

Thoreau thought that the government of the day was corrupt. (Not much has changed then.) His premise was that whenever government asked a citizen to act in such a way that such an action impinged upon his moral reservations, then it was the citizen’s duty to disobey the request, by passive resistence. In Thoreau’s case, it was a matter of refusal to pay taxes. Taxes provided funds for the war, and taxes, for Thoreau, represented a citizen’s tacit approval of slavery, as, then, the institution was upheld by law.

So, in a nutshell, if one disapproved of a law, one broke, via passive resistance, to prove a point of conscience. Incumbent upon this action, was the fact that, as per usual, anyone who broke the law was usually punished, either by fiscal fine or by imprisonment. Thoreau welcomed that. Any sort of punishment meted the offender by the government should be worn, figuratively, as a badge of honour and a means of proving the point that the law, in and of itself, was unjust and wrong.

Put succinctly: Commit the crime and you do the time.

What was unique about the way in which I was taught about the principle of civil disobedience, as a high school student, was how the teacher drew in contemporary and near-contemporary examples of this – from conscientious objectors in the first two World Wars, to Gandhi, right down to Martin Luther King, whose use of Thoreau’s principle was something we’d all seen enacted on our television screens and actually remembered. Years later, when I had occasion to read more about Gandhi and to see the Academy Award-winning film of his life, I remember being struck by the number of times both he, Martin Luther King and their followers were beaten and imprisoned by officials of their respective governments and how they accepted their fates with dignity and aplomb.

Recently, we seem to have a spate of people bucking against what they consider to be unjust laws imposed by a corrupt government on its citizenry, in the name of civil disobedience – but with a difference. Each time these perpetrators are arrested or apprehended by officials of the government, this action is met with great wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garmentry by their supporters and incessant calls for signatures on various petitions against the government investigating and prosecuting the people who’ve infringed these laws. If they’re charged and imprisoned, there are demands for their immediate release, many times from the culprits, themselves.

That’s not civil disobedience. That’s cowardice.

When Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King placed their hand in the fire that was an unjust law, they expected to get burned. That was the entire point of their willful disobedience. They knew the consequences. Their actions and the subsequent reactions ensuing proved a point; and although it may have taken years, these men’s protests were ultimately proven to have achieved what their perpetrators intended.

A year ago, Richard Clarke, in an appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time, declared that illegal cyber activity – otherwise known as hacking – was the new terrorism. Cyberwars. Recently, the Justice Department has identified cyberterrorism as one of their main objectives and warned that anyone suspected, arrested and tried for this crime will meet the full force of the law.

I recognise that the former co-founder of PCCC, who is, ironically, an ethics fellow at Harvard, may have been exercising thoroughly Thoreauvian civil disobedience in his hacking of MIT’s computer systems in an effort, illegally, to download the entire contents of MIT’s JSTOR service, to prove a point. But if he did this and broke the law, then he should also face up to the fact that he’d going to be prosecuted and accept his fate.

So should his legion of supporters, some of whom, themselves, are professional authors and historians, and should, therefore, view this in context.

Otherwise, they’re deceiving themselves and those of us who read and trust their own works.

9 Responses so far.

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  1. The tea party members aren’t the disobeying type. Yeah they whine and moan about big government and personal freedoms, but they are just sheep for the big money people. People like the Kochs who tell them what they should think. I doubt they realize what a moral objection is. I don’t think genuine morality is one of their strong points.

  2. ADONAI says:

    Rule #1: Don’t get caught.

    Rule #2: If you are caught, don’t bitch about it.

    Rule #3: Don’t get caught.

  3. Here’s a great irony if I ever saw one. Just across the road from the entrance to Walden Pond is a parking lot with a sign at the entrance;

    In dedication to Henry David Thoreau and Ralph W. Emerson

    parking $5.00

  4. Caru says:

    What an interesting line of thought. You have intrigued me! I must read this essay of Thoreau’s.

    Though I do wonder about your conclusions:

    Firstly, the majority of acts of civil disobedience -- that is: acts, which while criminal, are justified because of the unjustness of the law -- have been, throughout history, violent or otherwise aggressive. This can be seen in the use of mobs in the latter era of the Roman Republic by populist politicians to push for the reformation of a corrupt land-owning system. Therefore such aggression and outrage is hardly recent.

    Secondly, in light of my first point it can be seen, in an historical context, that the cases of Gandhi and MLK are the exception rather than the rule. Therefore while similar actions can be hoped for by those who agree with them, they should not be expected.

    Thirdly, I am at a loss to explain your decision to label this “great wailing” as cowardice. Cowardice of that sort requires both a level of inner and outer awareness and reflection that is generally absent from mass movements. Most likely their actions can be explained by either their ignorance or non-acceptance of Thoreau’s proposition.

    Again, this is a very interesting piece and I’m glad that you’ve written it.

    • Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience came long after the Roman Empire. Thoreau was talking about an individual act of civil disobedience in accord with one’s moral beliefs. Like the example of the abolitionist not wanting to pay taxes to a government that allowed slavery to exist.
      The anti-war movement in the sixties used civil disobedience and passive resistance quite regularly. And effectively.

      • Caru says:

        I was talking about the Roman Republic, not the Roman Empire. Also, I was simply using it as an example of aggressive civil disobedience and I can point to many similar examples after Thoreau. Moreover, I highly doubt that Thoreau was the first to come up with the idea of not obeying authority of there was a conflict with your beliefs.

        As I said, I haven’t read Thoreau’s essay yet and I was not critiquing his idea. I was, however, critiquing Marion’s application of his ideas and her conclusions.

        Again, while actions similar to the AW movement can be hoped for by those who agree with their methods, they should not be expected.


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