The world would come to know him as Henry David Thoreau.
The rustic life of Walden promoted quiescence and solitude. Yet, Thoreau did not live his beliefs quietly or in a vacuum. Both of his essays, Walden and Civil Disobedience stem from deep contemplation on life and liberty and are a commentary on the deeds of American society. While Walden is memoir-like, Civil Disobedience is an impassioned response to the evils of capitalism (a term he did not use, but was
the economic model of nation becoming more industrial and less agrarian) and of slavery. Slavery, aka privately-owned chattel, could only exist within a country that accepted that Black people were equal or lesser in value to the products that they made. To Thoreau it seemed irrational and hypocritical for a country that so fiercely espoused values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to tolerate such a peculiar institution. He compares men, especially those who serve in the military, to machines for they give their bodies in patriotic duty to their country without conscience, neither questioning why they serve and for what higher purpose. They are reduced to small, replaceable parts, subject to the shifting winds of government. Civil Disobedience is a call to reclaim consciousness. In light of the American Revolution, Americans were living with the idea of freedom from monarchy, but not in the reality of freedom, since the government allowed the enslavement of Black people. The opposite of consciousness is the illusion of freedom or fighting for it from forces without (the US was in the midst of war with Mexico during the period of his writing). Fighting to protect national wealth and security, the young country found itself in its first mid-life crisis. Thoreau incisively attacked the government and her sleepy citizens who valued consumerism and decadence over principle, modesty, and justice.
At the core of his writing was the inquiry into living by principle rather than defining the self by the quest for economic wealth and material comfort. For Thoreau, principled living meant that the worth of a man's work was measured by the time, effort, and heart he put into working with his hands and not by how much income could be gathered by production. It also meant that there was a conscious connection between what a man did and his raison d'etre. The feverish pursuance of wealth for its own sake disrupted this connection. Once this disconnection occurs, it is not hard to understand why slavery was justified.
Deep in the illusion of liberty, Americans and those aspiring to be, find themselves trapped in a hole. The American dream is the light above, but way out of reach. We have done this hard work, and we have the calloused hands to prove it. Our ancestors worked harder than us to give us a leg up so we would not have to clean the dirt out of our fingernails. Yet, here we are, ensnared in the web of history repeating itself. Our government is entrenched in mini-wars all over the world that we wish that Mexico would fight us again so we could decide once and for all what do about immigration. Slavery, the institution that once solidified the economy would also confirm Blacks as second class citizens for ever after. Our industrialized world has reaked havoc on the air we breathe and the land we trek. The farm-to-market and locavore movements are not only a nostalgic longing for days of yore, but a necessity for the planet's longevity.
As the roots of the tree of history bear down into the fertile soil, its strange fruit returns: a newly revised version of Jim Crow. Typically, a Constitutional amendment protects the rights of its citizens. However, states like Florida and Georgia are enacting legislation making voting difficult for their most vulnerable and oppressed populations. The Votings Rights Act of 1965 strengthened the language of the 15th amendment outlawing practices like literacy tests. These "exams" are being replaced by mandates to show proof of citizenship and birth. Prior to 1965 some states were still enforcing poll taxes to justify the ability to vote. Many older Blacks living in rural areas do not have birth documents beyond their bibles, so isn't it convenient that these people will need to purchase papers in order to do something that is free.
Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay his poll tax because he strongly believed that he should not have to pay the government for something that was an inalienable right.
He died several years before the 15th amendment was ratified. Civil Disobedience was published four years after his death. He would never know how much his personal inquiry and his writings would inspire later generations and set the stage for a new discourse on what it means to disobey.
Gandhi and leaders in the Civil Rights movement used Thoreau's writings as a blueprint for peaceful resistance. Similar to Thoreau's time, disobedience stems from discontent with the status quo: the condition that dictates that it is okay to dig a deeper hole of debt in the pursuit of a dream and that it is perfectly normal for the most powerful few to control the plight of the masses. In waking up from the reverie of the American Dream, we are left with a nightmare. Our motherland's finances are in disarray. Globalization has made our world smaller, but we know not the intimations of our closest neighbors, and we court psuedo-politicians who have not a clue what Uzbekistan is. Whether supporters are conscious of it or not, Thoreau's indignant spirit lives on in current non-violent protests. I do not need to iterate why the Occupy movement is gaining ground;it is simply an economic model of Supply and Demand. The demand for justice is increasing, but the supply of equity has decreased, thus the market is volatile and subject to fluctuations like demonstrations, walk-outs, and strikes. The dissatisfaction with oligarchy has spawned inklings of anarchy, reminiscent of early 20th century labor reform activism.
For those of us who cannot make it out to participate in the movements, there is another the type of disobedience that hits closer to home. Divested of public displays of outrage and mistrust, it shows up in the daily ongoings of raising children struggling to make a name for themselves in the world of adults. As a parent, I often wonder if it is worth it to keep count of all the times I need to tell my kids to go to bed on time and to stop punching each other. Has anything I have ever said worthy of moral compliance even made it between their ears? Outside of my peripheral vision, do my children adhere to aphorisms like, "Be good" "Love yourself", "Treat others as you wish to be treated?" We hope that our progeny, who look so much like us become the sum of our best and most shiny parts. We teach them about oppression and the wicked and awkward ways of the world, and to stand up for justice, but we do not know what they do with these lessons. Are they really listening when we are trying to have an important chat about what the 99% means while they are only using 10% of their brains to hear what we are saying? Lost in my query, I received a call from the school principal that answered my questions.
My daughter along with a posse of four girls was caught tagging the bathroom walls. I usually get calls from the nurse about fevers and stomach aches, so talking to the principal was an anomaly. He said she was contrite and quickly confessed to her misdeed. According to her and against her better judgment, she felt coaxed into it, and not wanting to be the party pooper, she acquiesced. One girl wrote a threat to a classmate. One scribbled amorous initials, "m.k. plus n.r". The two others wrote things that didn't make sense. What did my daughter write?
"Never deface public property" was not on my list, but my daughter has been listening to me.
As is such, to live a life of principle and with a commitment to justice is challenging. Many of us are just trying to hold down a job in order to pay the bills. To live by principle means that our word is our bond, and if we say we will do something, be there, or speak up, we will not lie. It requires that in our routines we apply meaning and self-awareness to all we do. It means that despite the noise and distraction, we still listen.
In the introduction to Walden, scholar Michael Myer writes of Thoreau,
If we are to learn anything from history, it is that we must make a clean break from the repetition in two ways. The first way is to regain consciousness. There are still too many of us who, fed up with the implosive nature of politics, unplug from the discourse and settle for apathy. We need to keep putting pressure on our elected officials and not be afraid to asks tough question of our government and of ourselves. The second and most important way is to finally do away with the American Dream. Enough with altering the language in order to reclaim it or rename it. It's time to put to death the obsession with the pursuit of material comfort and an imagined could-be life. The American Dream is a lie and an illusion fed to us to keep our wires hooked up to a large machine that when it eventually breaks down, will take us with it."...he clearly shared Emerson's belief that each generation must discover the world through its own eyes rather than than through the eyes of previous generations..."