"Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine."--Henry David Thoreau
Democratic government is breaking down, and we are reaching a crisis point in American society. Increasingly, America resembles a police state. Everywhere we go, we are watched as the government amasses massive data files on us. We are plagued by a faltering economy and a monstrous financial deficit that threatens to bankrupt the country.
Black oil continues to poison the Gulf, devastating the environment and those who depend on it for their livelihood. Overtaxed Americans are losing their jobs and homes. Small businesses are preparing to deal with the bureaucratic nightmare of red tape arising from Congress' health reform legislation. State governments are struggling to remain operational. Partisan politics has put a stranglehold on any real hope for governmental reform. The Supreme Court has adopted a pro-business, pro-government, pro-political correctness mindset that bodes ill for individual freedom. And to top it all off, our elected representatives in Washington DC are jetting around at taxpayer expense, enjoying perks the likes of which the average American will never experience.
This is more serious than a government that is simply malfunctioning. These are symptoms of a government that is out of control, and a government out of control is one that won't listen to its people.
There was a time when Americans would have been hard pressed to contain their outrage. They certainly wouldn't have tolerated such governmental corruption and abuse. But we are no longer the people we once were. From an early age, we have had lessons about conformity and acquiescence to the state drummed into our heads. We have allowed ourselves to be easily placated by technological distractions and entertainment spectacles -- including political spectacles. And we have willingly handed over control over our government and our lives to faceless bureaucrats who view us as little more than ends to a means. The modern surveillance state that invades every arena of our lives today long ago stopped respecting the worth and dignity of its citizens. Now we are seen as consumers and objects of the taxes needed to continue building the web of government control.
In this way, ignorant about our history and our rights, never having learned the lessons of citizenship effectively, we've failed to keep pace with our revolutionary forbears. But it's not too late. We still have an incredible heritage of independent thinkers and freedom fighters to pull from and make our own. In fact, a good person to start with is writer, thinker and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who was born on July 12, 1817.
Here was a man who believed in living according to his principles. For instance, rather than pay taxes to support a foreign war that he believed to be unjust, Thoreau opted to go to jail. According to one account, the renowned author Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" In response, Thoreau retorted, "Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?"
Thoreau's writing teems with a love of freedom that cannot be contained by chains or prisons. His essay Civil Disobedience, written in 1849, is a must read for anyone who wants to exercise their right of responsible citizenship by speaking truth to power. It has inspired countless freedom-fighters over the years. Indeed, it was read by Leo Tolstoy, whose writings influenced Mahatma Gandhi. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. read Gandhi's writings, and in turn inspired millions to take action during the civil rights movement.
Thoreau could well be considered the father of modern civil disobedience, yet he was so much more than a political philosopher. He was an activist who embodied the revolutionary, freedom-loving, independent-minded spirit that was once the hallmark of every American. Indeed, he considered himself freer than those individuals who had never been inside a jail cell. As he writes in Civil Disobedience:
As I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax.
Fond of saying that "government is best which governs not at all," Thoreau was clearly not a fan of government, especially big government. Yet he understood that most people are probably not prepared for the kind of full-bodied responsibility that would be required in the absence of government. Thus, Thoreau settled for the maxim that "government is best which governs least" -- still a far-cry from the nanny state in which we live today.
To Thoreau's way of thinking, government exists to serve him, the citizen, and not the other way around. "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think is right," he wrote. To this end, he was not willing to take any abuse from the government, whether it be the taxman, the policeman or the politician. And like all great dissidents, Thoreau believed that there were few, if any, political solutions. The answer to better government was not to be found at the ballot box. As Thoreau writes in Civil Disobedience:
There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
Barring such a state, which Thoreau sees as unlikely, he posited that true power -- to create change, to administer justice, to seek out societal good -- rests with the people as a whole and individually. We are morally obligated to do these things. Too often, however, we fail to do what is right, opting instead for what is expedient. "The mass of men serve the state, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. In most cases, there is no free exercise whatever of the judgment or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones. Such," he wrote, "command no more respect than men of straw or a lump of dirt." Indeed, "they are likely to serve the devil, without intending it as God."
Ultimately, according to Thoreau, it is up to each person to resist unjust government laws and actions -- even when there is a price to be paid for doing so. If a law requires you to be an "agent of injustice," as Thoreau opined, "then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine." And how exactly does one go about doing so? Thoreau proposes a revolution -- but a peaceable one, what Gandhi and King would later call nonviolent resistance:
If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, "But what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do anything, resign your office." When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished. But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man's real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.