Thoreau's Civil Disobedience


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It is more and more clear how horrendous the George W. Bush presidency has been. The Bush administration’s fiscal policies, combined with trumped-up and unjustified War spending are stealing from our children and our grandchildren as the nation’s debt threatens to destroy all of the world’s monetary structures.

Even more fearful than their monetary fiascoes is the assault by the Bush gang on American Civil Liberties. The obviously unconstitutional Patriot Act goes unchallenged by a supine and shamefully weak Congress and Judicial system. None who watched the Supreme Court conspire with Bush and Chaney in their coup d'état, stealing the last Presidential election, can expect much justice from the highest court and last hope for preservation of American ideals.

In spite of my gloomy appraisal, I take some hope in the curious fact that we recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of Walden by Henry David Thoreau. That fact was the cause of some celebration by a large group of so-called Thoreauvian scholars who study the man’s huge body of writings. His personal journal runs to 22,000 pages.

To me however, it is not Walden which is a cause for hope, but Thoreau’s earlier essay, Civil Disobedience, a 22 page essay advocating refusal to obey an unjust ruling power, in Thoreau’s case, “The American Government” of his time.

A defining quote from the work goes, “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. ”

Thoreau wrote the essay after he had spent a single night in jail in 1846 for refusing to pay his poll tax, in spite of the fact that his friends offered to pay it for him. He simply refused to pay a tax to support a government which he considered unjust, in his case because it allowed the outright ownership of human beings by other human beings: Slavery. He was a loudly outspoken Abolitionist.

Whether Thoreau’s writings and frequent public speeches contributed to the American Civil War, the essay Civil Disobedience surely has had a profound influence on the course of human history. His effect has reached the affairs of multitudes that could not have read the work itself, because great men, leaders in actions to change the world, read the essay. Three of these cited Civil Disobedience as a milestone work in the development of their thinking, Count Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

I find it awesome to think that a single brief statement of moral commitment by Henry David Thoreau, a local Massachusetts land-surveyor of very tenuous health, could so shake the world as it obviously has. But, it ain’t been easy. Many will remember Gandhi’s starving himself in hunger strikes to oppose British rule of India, and King’s impassioned, “I have a dream” speech for civil rights in the American South of the nineteen sixties, not long before his assassination. Leo Tolstoy’s writings on the lives of Russian serfs contributed to the thoughts of later Russian leaders who led that nation away from the despotism of the Tsars.

But, now is now in America. We are faced with a deeply divided nation again. The division this time is clearly based upon power and money. The Bush gang is firmly entrenching a financial aristocracy, which they appear prepared to preserve at any cost in the lives of our military and in our civil liberties. If he does nothing more, Osama Bin Lauden will have changed America and the world forever.

Fear has become a political weapon used for the basest reasons. A new title has emerged for suppressing dissent: The War on Terror. The dimensions of such a war elude me. I do not have much understanding of what Bush and Chaney intend when they spout their venom. If I am correct, Terror exists in the minds and spirit of human beings, in this case Americans. We are terrified, and I agree that Bush and Bin Lauden and Chaney and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft have acted in concert to make us terrified of mass destruction. (Although, the most recent great acts of mass destruction, we did the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. )

Thoreau may be looking over our shoulders now, suggesting that we consider the honesty of what we are taking part in, the theft from our children and their children, the acceptance of the destruction of American ideals. I think he would have asked us to not be subjugated by Fear. -30-

Dick DeBold email: rcdebold@mindspring , com Born July 20,1927, New York, NY Married, September 27, 1957, to Marjorie Cope Warren. I son, William John DeBold. Education, The Stuyvesant High School, NYC, 1945, Arista The New York state Maritime Academy, 1947. Ensign, USNR Ships Officer 1947-50 Various ships and steamship companies Licensed as Master, expired due to injury. Naval Officer, Korean War 1950-1953 (Now Lieut. SG. , ret. ) BA, University of California Berkeley, 1957. Phi Beta Kappa, Highest Honors. Major Psychology. MS, Psychology, Yale University, 1958 Ph. D. , Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, 1963. University Teaching Fellow. Teaching Experience: Wesleyan University, Asst, Assoc. Professor 63 67 Harvard University, Visiting Assoc. Professor 1966 Hobart College, Dean of the College 1967 68 Long Island University, Professor 1969 84 Long Island University, Professor Emeritus 1984 pres.


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