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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > March 2013 > Perpetual Acquiescence: A Reading of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

Perpetual Acquiescence: A Reading of Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

Friday 1 March 2013, by Michael Sabelli

When reading spirited texts written over 150 years ago about the goodness of individuals and the impeding role of government in their lives, the effect of romanticizing these words has an exceptional influence on the reader. Any reader with even a touch of activist will read Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay post-humorously titled “Civil Disobedience” and rhythmically nod their head concurring throughout.

It’s a similar phenomenon when media puppets, and truth-dodging politicians weave up rhetoric with quotes from the forefathers; except in this case the masses swallow up the emotion without contextualizing the content.

However, the difference between reading an essay quietly over a period of time and having a television shout snippets of information at alarming rates is significant. Reading is an intellectual exercise, an open dialogue with the writer with room for disagreement, whereas talking heads on television programs will try to influence and manipulate emotion leaving you none the wiser to the issue.

An even worse developing phenomenon is that of fan support through hate: tuning into a political pundit’s views only to passionately disparage them. A value system becomes entrenched in a frenzied emotional response to the opinions of some sensationalist commentator. And by actively hating on a person like Rush Limbaugh for example, he gains their support through ratings and continues to broadcast his message to an even larger audience.

In Thoreau’s time mass media hadn’t been conceived and illiteracy was common. But it’s not a stretch in his discourse to claim that reading and watching TV are at opposite spectrums like how a responsible, conscious individual is at one end and the unquestioning, patriotic citizen the other.

Thoreau is classified as a transcendentalist. He believed in the strength of the individual and the higher law of nature. Any organized spirituality or political institution weakens and corrupts the individual to the point of becoming a reliant mooch, an apathetic neighbour without a proper sense of responsibility for their community.

Society can have a numbing affect on the individual’s conscience, creating a government whose true power lies in keeping their citizens in a state of perpetual acquiescence. This, Thoreau argues, transforms the individual into an agent of the state, doing their bidding blindly, supporting their injustice by obediently paying their taxes in silence.

Massachusetts of 1849, the year Thoreau first published “Civil Disobedience,” was a northern state that blamed the southern states for slavery and the Mexican war. It looked to be cleansed of any blame for the problems of the union, but at the same time consented to be proper law abiding citizens.

And like how nowadays we speak of voting with our dollars, it’s been well known since Thoreau’s days that paying taxes legitimatized and then supported government policy, transforming the individual into a collaborating citizen of injustice.

“Practically speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians at the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico, cost what it may. I quarrel not with far-off foes, but with those who, near at home, co-operate with, and do the bidding of, those far away, and without whom the latter would be harmless.”

Economy will make collaborators of us all. Issues are presented in a cost-benefit analysis that detaches the individual from their conscience and chains them to their tax-breaks.

No longer are the problems of slavery and expansionist wars so transparent – they have evolved into human trafficking and the war on terrorism. The human rights Thoreau fought for was something to be attained. Today, Western governments disguise wars as a defence of freedom and democracy, to safeguard our human rights against those who will terrorize society to inhibit their actualization.

But even unpopular wars are supported by the people financing them: the consent of law abiding tax-paying citizens. Thoreau was infamously jailed for refusing to pay his poll taxes which went to the government, though he supported initiatives such as the building of roads so he paid his highway taxes that went to the public works he deemed worthy.

It is in jail where his essay on civil disobedience would be inspired. A line that stands out: “The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war.”

He calls on citizens to reverse their identity back into the right order. That we are individuals first, man and woman, and then we are citizens. He questions, “What comes first, rights in law or rights in themselves?” Rights aren’t dependent on a government granting them, but on individuals acting on them.

Therefore, resistance is necessary for a conscientious individual to become a counter force to the government’s machine of injustice. Disobedience against civil society was Thoreau’s method.

Some men interpreted civil disobedience in a pacifist frame, defining civil as form of politeness. Ghandi read it in this way, but who’s going to fault him for that?

Thoreau then questions rhetorically, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavour to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?’

Civil disobedience hovers around the periphery of society. In Canada, we see it in environmental movements where individuals block loggers by staying in trees, or tar sand protesters rallying at parliament’s doorstep.

Writers have dubbed that the protests in Montreal on May 22, 2012 against bill 78 was the largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Canada: 500000 marchers strong. The Occupy movement continues to be a global resistance movement that uses civil disobedience to deprecate government injustices and growing social and economic disparity.

But civil disobedience was also used by the pro-gun lobby back when Chretien was trying to impose a gun registration. It is a tool that individuals on both sides of the political spectrum will employ, and these sides will find mutual understanding in the motto Thoreau was so partial to, “That government is best which governs least.”

Obedience should be earned, not forfeited. As individuals we have to stand for what’s right, and not support injustice in a guise of apathy. Even if that means having injustice perpetrated onto you.

But Thoreau also believed that it was at our own prerogative when he writes, “I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”

The choice is yours, should you choose to acknowledge it.