Sunday, October 5, 2014

Reflecting on Civil Disobedience

I recently posted an article with 50 reasons to vote,
#21-“A wise man will not leave what is right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.” – Thoreau
Boy did I get it for that one.
"# 18. “The ballot is stronger than the bullet.” - Abraham Lincoln"
 They are both pretty ironic. bout
"# 39. To ensure representatives who are:
“…the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” – James Madison, Federalist #10"
There is a tragic sense of irony when comparing our current state of patriotism and values to that of the people who were high on the sense of accomplishment that came by freeing themselves.

If we had to, could we free ourselves now?

Do you have the constitution to stand up for those who suffer injustice?

Would we have the sense to ponder the right questions and act on the right answers?

Let us take another look at Thoreau's Civil Disobedience and critique it, a bit from his own time, but mainly from our present culture. 

First, Thoreau's objects of political discontent were aimed mainly at slavery and the US/Mexican War, which he saw as an oppressive occupation.

At first glance do we have situations to compare this to?  I argue that we can still see the specter of slavery as racism, and that the specter of imperialism that haunts us can be seen in SAP's (structural adjustment policies attached to IMF and WB loan programs), a pattern of regime change as a foreign policy and our dogmatic loyalty toward the state of Israel.  

His sentiments were this:  

One is a man first, with capabilities of  knowing right from wrong.

People should be made of a sturdy character, able to stand up for 'the right thing.'

If men are moral and just, there is no need for government.

If a government is unjust, it is the duty of people to practice civil disobedience.

Let's take it from the top of Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau (1849):  

Thoreau starts with a famous saying,
"Gov't is best which governs least" and takes it to the extreme saying,
"Gov't is best which is not at all."

His meaning is not that we should not have a government, but an idealistic belief that ALL men can exercise a sense of moral justice and righteousness, and when ALL men can do this IN UNISON, under the banner of peace and love, people will need no gov't.

Of course, people don't act this way, and it is unrealistic to imagine such a thing happening.

So, Thoreau explains a line over which we should not cross one another- a limit to freedom that is informed by some innate 'knowing' between right and wrong.

Maybe this is the same thing as Justice Ginsberg saying that freedom and justice are knowing where one's arm ends and another's nose begins; or the same line called injustice, talked about by Simone Weil, that starts the moment someone says, "They are hurting me."

Thoreau posits that sometimes there is an immediate need to voice opposition to some unjust action being robotically, methodologically, taken out by a government- a gov't out of control, acting on autopilot as a function of our republic governance.

Thoreau does not blame this mire on leaders not responding to the will of the people, but rather, on their self-interested actions with which they lead the country.

He blamed the Mexican War on,
"...comparatively few individuals using the standing government as their tool."
Thoreau blames the those who profit from slavery for keeping it alive by abiding by rules that returned slaves to their owners, even if they had escaped to the north.  He blames a self interested faction and the masses who are too easily goaded. 

This point was addressed more than half a century earlier in Madison's Federalist #10, which I quoted in the recent post, On Being a Republic

Madison wrote: prevent tyranny of the masses or factions...

"It may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people."
In any case, the prescription for both is enshrined in 'the people' or even 'a person' who is of free will and free mind to make expectations known and stand up against the immoral actions of their own government- whether caused by mass acceptance or a small faction of people.

There were two main instances Thoreau showed his discontent, or disobedience: by refusing the church tax and the poll tax.

Could you imagine being taxed by the Church today?  In fact there is a growing voice of some citizens calling for the Church TO pay a tax, because they are becoming too involved in government.  The church doesn't tax us today, but they are crossing the lines, arm and arm with the Republican party, between a personal sanctuary and a voice raised for a theocracy. 

Should we pay any allegiance to a political authority claiming their G-d comes before the law? or that just laws can only be deciphered by their G-dOf course not.

New conservatives are increasingly equating their G-d with a singular morality, and accusing those who do not believe in their G-d as, well, you try and make sense of it.

Listen to Thoreau's argument for why the tyranny of his gov't had reached a critical point of inefficiency, which was great and unendurable:

"...when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.  What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact, that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army."

And he goes on to say,

"There are thousands who are in the opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing; who even postpone the question of freedom to the question of free-trade, and quietly read the prices-current along with the latest advices from Mexico after dinner, and, it may be, fall asleep over them both."
 Thoreau delineates the line of resistance again, he says that if a law "requires you to be the agent of injustice to another" then disobey the law, "at once."  His belief being that reform through normal channels is too slow, possibly lasting more than a man's life.

Hear! Hear!

Certainly for those instances in which our government, by habit, or by corruption become the harbinger of injustice, incremental debate CAN take a lifetime, think of the rights of any man or woman, even our country's founders.  How many lifetimes is it taking for minorities to gain the right to vote, or to be treated equally, as our constitution declares is the natural right of men.

In considering the quote from Civil Disobedience, which I included in my 50 reasons to vote,
 #21-“A wise man will not leave what is right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.” 
I argue that, though Thoreau is, in context, lamenting the ineffectiveness of a vote in the face of an injustice not affected by the vote, he is not appealing to the people to NOT VOTE, he instead says,
"Cast your whole vote.  Not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence."
Thoreau talks about a vote against slavery not counting until the one who cannot cast it does...well we have already come a long way since the mid 1800's in that regard...the voting rolls are not only propertied white men anymore.

He also laments,
"No man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America." 
...but there was one coming...

Those propertied white men fought their own battle to be free, as did slaves, women, and 'others' afterward, all upon the promise of liberty and equality...and the battle continues still.  

next time:  More on voting and civil disobedience.  

Make a great day! 

extra: a tale of racism from my neck of the woods...

and it just so happens, Israel's Netanyahu pulls some more doublespeak propaganda just today