For Thoreau, civil disobedience was the best weapon against official incivility.
One man's civility
Civility is nice. So is knowledge good and so on.
One wonders how Henry David Thoreau might have viewed the civility of 21st century governance in the U.S. Is civility expected only in the behavior of the underdog, the powerless? Would Thoreau ignore invasion by 21st century drone warfare and robotic weaponry unleashed in other nations on behalf of “the people” of the U.S.? Cannot legislation – lawmaking – take on very uncivil aspects when it defies collective health and humanity, as it has in Wisconsin?
The term “soul searching” has been widely used to describe what the presumed losers of the June 5 Walker recall election are required to do in Wisconsin. Apparently, soul searching is intended make the ongoing tenure of Scott Walker more palatable. After all, Walker invited some Democrats over for brats. Do you think that Walker, the Fitzgeralds, Stephen Nass, Rebecca Kleefisch, and Glenn Grothman are searching their souls, conscience-stricken with the realization that they have acted in opposition to a huge percentage of their constituency?
The clamor for civility, noble as it is, can’t replace the need for continued and heartfelt resistance to politics and lawmaking that are, in Thoreau’s words, “inexpedient.”
“The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it,” wrote Thoreau in the remarkable essay "Civil Disobedience," in 1848. That year Wisconsin achieved statehood, and the Mexican war ended.
In Mexico the war was called, among other things, “primera intervención estadounidense en México,” United States’ first intervention in Mexico. Thoreau wrote of it: “Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.”
Post-recall civility is the subject of a well-crafted “Call for a Season of Civility in Wisconsin” from the Wisconsin Council of Churches (WCC) and signed by dozens of religious leaders. WCC calls for respect, honesty, understanding, integrity, and truthfulness “without betraying our deepest convictions.” That’s a critical point for progressives to keep in mind: the possible betrayal of our convictions.
There’s a heavy-breathing impulse afoot to forge some species of new politics certainly relying on social media as though it had a brain, and to belittle references to the lessons of history and the occasionally notable examples of figures of the past, such as Robert M. LaFollette and, probably, Henry David Thoreau.
The lessons of history are informative, not because they must be emulated, but because they are references to be used to break the molds which seem recurrent in the experimental infancy of the United States.
Thoreau’s essay, written 164 years ago, speaks precisely to civility. His observations led him to conclude that civil disobedience, practiced by not paying taxes for unjust wars or slavery in his time, might include jail time but, in the end, liberated him. “It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience,” Thoreau wrote. “Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue.” Were comments like those Thoreau’s foreknowledge of Citizens United?
“A common and natural result of an undue respect for law is…a file of soldiers…marching…to the wars…against their will…” Was that Thoreau’s premonition of the wars of my generation and yours?
“Unjust laws exist,” Thoreau stated. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
His overnight stay in jail for refusing to pay taxes for unjust purposes was Thoreau’s “definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” Notably, in the "Civil Disobedience" essay, Thoreau said he was willing to pay taxes for highways and schools, but not for wars and slavery.
Thoreau’s eloquent description said his brief time in jail “…was like traveling into a far country…it was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before.” After being bailed out by someone who interfered and paid the taxes, Thoreau wrote, “I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived.” Not wishing to judge his neighbors harshly, he simply concluded "most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.”
Imprisonment is said to take many abstract forms, but none can compare with the reality of being held captive in a barred cage. Thoreau learned that lesson and treasured it, while realizing a lack of awareness in those around him. He made progress in jail, as have other heroes like Nelson Mandela, Dr. King, and Aung San Suu Kyi.
The debate will likely continue about how to be civil in Wisconsin, and it should include how to be civilly disobedient if that’s our preference. The debate should also include consumer boycotts and various public displays of progressive values and standards. It’s a worthwhile debate, re-kindled and in need of nourishment.
June 17, 2012
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David Giffey is a freelance journalist and FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Arena. He is the author of "Long Shadows: Veterans’ Paths to Peace" (Atwood Publishing), "Struggle for Justice: The Migrant Farm Worker Labor Movement in Wisconsin," and "The People’s Stories of South Madison."