"Civil Disobedience" and Political Cowardice

I dislike Walden so intensely and thoroughly that I’ve somehow avoided reading Henry David Thoreau’s other great masterwork, the much shorter “Civil Disobedience,” until this year. The joke was on me—this essay is far more readable and less aggravating than its younger sibling, maybe due to its length (it’s about one-twelfth the length of Walden) and maybe due to its relative lack of hypocrisy.

Yes, Walden is the work of an utter hypocrite, a man who rhapsodizes about his life of simplicity, a man who convicts his readers for joining the rat race, for owning more than they need, and so forth. And yet Thoreau seems blissfully unaware that his own lifestyle is made possible by that rat race; he’d have nowhere to live if Emerson didn’t let him squat on the land he bought with all that filthy, corrupting money. (Thoreau also had his laundry sent to his mother and ate a chicken dinner with Emerson each week, although these ugly facts are at least not evident in the text. and can be ignored.)

But “Civil Disobedience” is free from that taint, as far as I know. It is the print record of Thoreau’s putting his principles before his comfort; as such, it is everything his more adamant followers claim Walden to be. It inspired two of the twentieth century’s most enduringly heroic figures, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom took at least as much from Thoreau as they did from the teachings of Christ in formulating their practices of passive resistance. “Civil Disobedience” is, in short, the real classic in terms of social influence—as for the quality of the writing itself, it is neither much better nor much worse than that of Walden.

The enduring legacy of the essay is twofold. First, the essay retains its power to convict the reader, even 162 years after its initial composition. Second, it somehow outlives and outlasts whatever specific social movement it is publicly applied to. You could, presumably, disagree with Gandhi’s political mission and still find a kindred spirit in the Thoreau of “Civil Disobedience.”

For a more recent example, look at the Tea Party movement, which occasionally claims Thoreau as an inspiration. As readers of the blog and listeners of the podcast will already know, I don’t have much faith in this movement, their goals, or their tactics in attaining them. But “Civil Disobedience” is a method more than a coherent political philosophy in itself—and thus it remains far larger than any individual application of its principles.

Incidentally, it seems to me that the Tea Partiers are misguided in applying “Civil Disobedience” to their own political philosophy. Thoreau does begin by trotting out the old gray mare that “That government is best which governs least,” a favorite of libertarians everywhere—but his reasons for opposing the government are 180 degrees from those of the Tea Party. He doesn’t oppose taxes on principles; indeed he says that “If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them” (671). Thoreau’s objections to taxation are not out of principle but out of specific application:

All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counterbalance the evil. At any rate, it is a great evil to make a stir about it. [I suspect the Tea Party quit reading before reaching this last sentence.] But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, 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 to soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.

Thoreau’s protest, then, is closer to the religious right’s objection to abortion on one hand and the left’s objection to the United States’ defense budget on the other. It is a protest not against taxes qua taxes but against their use in unjust causes. To the Tea Partiers, I suspect, Thoreau would repeat his mantra from Walden: “Simplify, simplify.” (I can’t hear that admonition without thinking of Coach’s response on Cheers: “Why didn’t he just use one simplify?”)

But the point is not that the Tea Party has Thoreau wrong and I have him right. (For the record, I oppose both abortion and our country’s bloated defense budget, ensuring that both Republicans and Democrats think I’m an idiot.) The point is we’re all a bunch of cowards. For the lesson of “Civil Disobedience” is an existential one, a practical one, not a theoretical one. Thoreau doesn’t seek to tell us what to think or—God help us—whom to vote for; he seeks to tell us what to do about our convictions.

If we truly object to the use to which our tax money is put, he says, we must summon our courage and do something about it. “Oh for a man who is a man,” he bemoans, “and, as my neighbor says, has a bone in his back which you cannot pass your hand through!” The issue here is not that the individual can change the world, as certain American optimists have claimed throughout the centuries; rather, appropriate civil disobedience is built on a private mandate:

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.

One need not own a slave or fight in the wicked Mexican-American War to support these causes; the citizen’s tax money supports these practices. Likewise, a substantial portion of my tax money goes to prop up our bloated military, though as far as I can tell, neither my federal nor my Florida state taxes fund abortions except in the extreme cases of rape and incest.

So what’s an honest man to do? What should I do if I really oppose the War in Iraq, and what should the Tea Party do if they object to taxation on principle? Thoreau’s answer is simple; to use the hoariest of clichés, appropriate in this case, we should put our money where our mouths are. Our votes are not action, he says—“Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail”—and the only protest worth its salt is that which involves a real sacrifice.

I am not sure if the members of the Tea Party have been paying the taxes they so detest, but I know I did (and thoroughly enjoyed my rebate, which could have bought 1/50,000th of a tank!). And to the extent that any protester against the actions of this government is not willing to withhold their required taxes and go to jail for it, he or she is, best I can tell, a political coward, more tongue than truth, as Shakespeare would put it. Protests against the IRS and against the war are easy because they don’t require much of a sacrifice, beyond squeezing yourself into that Paul Revere costume. But the sort of sacrifice Thoreau suggests is hard; no one, it’s safe to say, wants to go to prison.

The examples of King and Gandhi, however, retain their power because they were willing to suffer all the indignities of State and culture in order to push their reforms through society. So was Thoreau. The rest of us are just bags of hot air, full of ideas with no connection to lived reality.

3 thoughts on “"Civil Disobedience" and Political Cowardice

  1. As I said on Twitter: “scathing, but so very true.” I’m a lifelong Thoreau/Emerson fanboy and have often quoted -or, more realistically, hid behind- the words in Civil Disobedience. Although I still have yet to do anything more bold than the occasional tweet or blog in praise of the FairTax, extolling the virtues of libertarianism and subscribing to Reason magazine.

    I once was a revolutionary but under the mask I’m merely as much a coward as anyone else.

  2. Thanks for the plug, Sean!

    Two additional thoughts:

    (a) This blog seems to attract a surprising number of self-described libertarians, especially given that none of the three of us have ever promoted a version of libertarianism on the blog or podcast and at least two of us have straightforwardly badmouthed the movement. This is not to tell you to get lost, of course. I’m pleased at our diverse readership.

    (b) I have to admit that I hope the members of the Tea Party remain cowards, but that’s personal politics. 😉

  3. I should also point out, just in passing, that I consider myself to be rather apolitical, which is the other side of the post here; I don’t have much faith in the system or in our ability to change it, and I’m not sure how much we really want it to be changed. So it feels ironic (to me anyway) that I’m the one who cranks out these posts on politics. I hope no one gets the impression that I’m some sort of hardcore political wonk.

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