Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On Civil Disobedience

That government is best which governs least.
Henry David Thoreau [1817-62], American writer, poet and philosopher

The defiance of established authority, religious and secular, social and political, as a world-wide phenomenon may well one day be accounted the outstanding event of the last decade. 
Hannah Arendt [1906-75], German-Jewish political theorist,
in Crises of the Republic (1969)

Non-violent resistance implies the very opposite of weakness. Defiance combined with non-retaliatory acceptance of repression from one's opponents is active, not passive. It requires strength, and there is nothing automatic or intuitive about the resoluteness required for using non-violent methods in political struggle and the quest for Truth.
Mohandas Gandhi [1869-1948],
Leader of India's Independence Movement

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote an influential essay, Civil Disobedience, which looks at when you ought to follow your own conscience. This essay ought to be read, since its relevance resonates beyond the time it was written, its verse universal. As Wendy McElroy writes in Henry Thoreau and Civil Disobedience:

Civil Disobedience is an analysis of the individual’s relationship to the state that focuses on why men obey governmental law even when they believe it to be unjust. But Civil Disobedience is not an essay of abstract theory. It is Thoreau’s extremely personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law. Because he detested slavery and because tax revenues contributed to the support of it, Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel. There were no income taxes and Thoreau did not own enough land to worry about property taxes; but there was the hated poll tax – a capital tax levied equally on all adults within a community.

Thoreau declined to pay the tax and so, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed. He was supposed to remain in jail until a fine was paid which he also declined to pay. Without his knowledge or consent, however, relatives settled the “debt” and a disgruntled Thoreau was released after only one night.

The incarceration may have been brief but it has had enduring effects through Civil Disobedience.
Many have read Thoreau's essay, including Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Buber, The Austrian-Jewish philosopher, who commented on its importance as follows:
The question here is not just about one of the numerous individual cases in the struggle between a truth powerless to act and a power that has become the enemy of truth. It is really a question of the absolutely concrete demonstration of the point at which this struggle at any moment becomes man's duty as man.…
—Martin Buber [1878-1965], in Man's Duty As Man (1962)

Greenpeace Invites You To a Black Tide Beach Party: Protesters from Greenpeace, covered in sludge, protest at the World Energy Congress in Montreal on September 12, 2010. Julian Vincent of Greenpeace International says:"We desperately need an energy revolution, moving beyond oil and other dirty fuels to power our future with clean, renewable energy."
Photo Credit: Sheldon Levy, 2010, www.flickr.com/photos/12147720@N04/
The obvious question is whether we have reason to protest today, as these young earnest environmental protests recently did. To be sure, the question of whether one ought to act with civil disobedience is one of conscience. The answer is a qualified yes, in that peaceful protests are more effective than violent protests, which serve the interests of a few and do not advance any cause.

Recent examples of successful peaceful protests were the protests and pressure put on the former Soviet Union to free Jews from Russia, so-called Refuseniks, during the 1970s. Issues of human rights and dignity always call for action on the part of all peoples with a conscience.

This includes deep concern for the viability of our planet, and protesting business-as-usual practices. We ought to applaud and protest, by word or deed, any practice that has a deleterious effect on our quality of life. These young protesters are acting with their conscience, drawing attention to what they sense is wrong with the world, and aiming to correct it. To do good. So, yes, environmental protests fit into the idea of civil disobedience.

They join an illustrious list of personages, including Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who have listened to and acted on their conscience. Such peaceful and diligent actions of the conscience always (eventually) lead to societal change for the betterment of all humankind. That's always good.

Note: I would like to hear your stories and views on what you consider important, whether it's the economic crisis, the erosion of democracy and humanity or anything that affects the human spirit. Many of us are going through very difficult economic and trying times. The Poor, the working poor, the struggling family should not be stigmatized. You can help make a change and a difference in society. Everyone should be able to live life with dignity. I love to hear your stories.