Columnist Joe Gannon: Henry David Thoreau and civil disobedience

  • FILE- In this May 23, 2017, file photo, actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., a board member of the Walden Woods Project, applauds during the dedication of the U.S. Postal Service's new Henry David Thoreau postage stamp at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. Thoreau is being honored on the 200th anniversary of his birth. The U.S. Postal Service says it plans to hold a special dedication of the recently released stamp of the 19th century American philosopher and naturalist Wednesday, July 12, at his birthplace in Concord, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Friday, August 11, 2017

I am a curmudgeon, or at least a contrarian, when it comes to certain cultural touchstones.

For example, I believe Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatest speech was not “I have a dream,” with its palatable but still unfulfilled dream of multi-racial handholding, but rather “Why I am against the war in Vietnam” (“I seem to hear God telling America, ‘You’re too arrogant!’”).

I also believe John Lennon’s greatest song was not “Imagine,” with its Kumbaya-like “all we are saaaaaying” feeling, but rather “Working Class Hero” (“They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool/till you’re so [expletive] crazy you can’t follow their rules…”).

But rarely am I more a contrarian than when it comes to Henry David Thoreau, our homeboy whose 200th birthday was last month. Thoreau is mostly famous now for writing “On Walden Pond,” his treatise on fleeing to the woods to live close to nature. But I believe his “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” should be the treatise for which he is remembered. It is required reading now more than ever.

“Walden” as his legacy masks Thoreau’s essential radicalism the same way “Dream” and “Imagine” mask the radicalism of their authors (Indeed, “Civil Disobedience,” first published in 1849, echoed so strongly down the decades it inspired both Gandhi and Martin Luther King).

The pamphlet began as a speech Thoreau gave to explain why he’d spent a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax levied by Congress to finance the war against Mexico, a bald-faced imperial land grab, which annexed the southwest and California to the Stars and Stripes. He refused to pay the tax because he believed the war to be “illegal” (And don’t certain U.S. Senators wish they’d thought of that back in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq).

In a passage which could not but take the breath away of any American who reads it today, Thoreau used the metaphor of a drowning man to explain the duty of all citizens to overthrow the two great moral wrongs of his time — slavery and the war against Mexico — though both profited his nation:

“If I have unjustly wrestled a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him, though I drown myself…” he wrote. The American people “must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.”

Thoreau was not one to trumpet “My country right or wrong.” His motto would have been “do right, never wrong.”

His radical vision is of a democratic citizenry that does not turn its fate and fortunes over to a political class of “editors and politicians by profession.” A sentiment most remarkably applicable to our politics these past few presidential election cycles — I mean, are there no Hillary Clinton supporters out there who wish they had reviewed the conventional wisdom that it had to be her turn, rather than, say, a certain Vermont senator?

In fact, part of Trump’s electoral “magic” was that he was precisely the candidate NOT chosen by the “editors and politicians by profession.”

But Thoreau languishes unclaimed by progressives, I think, because his legacy has been taken over by conservative libertarians owing to a shallow reading of the treatise. “Civil Disobedience” begins with the famous line, “I heartily accept the motto — ‘That government is best which governs least’… I also believe that ‘Government is best which governs not at all.’”

It is easy to see why right-wing libertarians like Sen. Rand Paul, or the Tea Party and their Koch Brothers backers, would adopt the motto and the man as their patron saint. But they can do so only by a shallow reading of Thoreau, for he was more anarchist than libertarian. Because he makes clear that “…unlike those who call themselves no-government men, I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”

There is no bridgehead between Thoreau’s sentiment and that of the “no-government men” of the GOP, Tea Party, and Freedom Caucus, who aim to paralyze government in dysfunction to demonstrate that government is bad.

Thoreau was more an evolutionary anarchist who — some 170 years ago — could see that the only way for the United States to achieve the goal of less government infringement on liberty was to first perfect the art of governing. And that required citizens to employ their own morality at all times, and not turn their conscience over to the political candidate chosen for them by the political class.

Thoreau is a radical thinker for our time. “Civil Disobedience” still resonates today and has more to say to us, politically, than “Walden Pond” ever will. One final example: Thoreau thought conscience was at the heart of democratic politics, for individuals as well as companies: “It is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience, but a cooperation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.”

I have a dream that we can imagine Henry David Thoreau as one of our most important political philosophers.

Joe Gannon, author and teacher, can be reached at jgannonoped@gmail.com