Friday, September 29, 2006

A stretch of river XXI: Resisting Thoreau

(Cross-posted at (and thanks to) Sine qua non's Journal)

This blog's long-time reader(s) know(s) of my deep affection for Thoreau--and, my occasional Thoreauvian affectations via paraphrase wherever, it seems, I can work stuff by him in a post, no matter the subject. So it should come as no surprise to you/y'all that I teach "Civil Disobedience" as part of my Comp I class and an excerpt from Walden as past of Comp II.

By now I've become used to the mental eyerolls some of my students give me when Thoreau rears his head: "He's that guy that lived by himself in the woods." "He spent a night in jail for not paying his taxes." Yup. They know that much, at least. They also offer the, um, observation ("complaint" is such a harsh-sounding term, so I'll not characterize it as such here) that he's difficult to read. That's true as well: Thoreau is not a cookie-cutter kind of writer.

I often suspect, though--especially when we talk about the Walden excerpt--that in this that's-so-5-minutes-ago culture we live in these days, that the grounds for the eyerolls is the question of Thoreau's relevance. That's a valid one, of course. And so it was that as Scruffy and I took our morning walk in a darkness that seemed especially oppressive within the context of last night's events, I found myself thinking through both "Civil Disobedience"'s particular historical moment and its core arguments to see if I could find some reason to drop the Concord Curmudgeon from the syllabus with the goal of making my class's assigned readings more relevant, more so-10-minutes-ago than like, ancient history. So: though this exercise comes too late for this semester's Comp I classes, I hope that, should they happen to visit this post, they can take some comfort in knowing that they and the legions who preceded them have prompted this little examination.

We all know that the central event that sparked the writing of this essay was Thoreau's arrest for not paying his poll tax. What's less well known, though, is that his essay was originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government," the title being a rebuttal of the title of William Paley's famous essay, "The Duty of Submission to Civil Government." Well, I think: Paley is an equally-moldy guy; who pays attention to HIM anymore? And if no one pays attention to HIM, then that would eliminate a reason for paying attention to Thoreau, wouldn't it?

I quote Thoreau quoting Paley:

[S]o long as the interest of the whole society requires it, that is, so long as the established government cannot be resisted or changed without public inconveniency, it is the will of God . . . that the established government be obeyed,--and no longer. This principle being admitted, the justice of every particular case of resistance is reduced to a computation of the quantity of the danger and grievance on the one side, and the probability of and expense of redressing it on the other.

Hmm. Given recent events in the House and Senate--you know: some Republican senators negotiating a compromise on the recent detainee bill with President Bush that ends up letting him do whatever in his wisdom he sees fit to decide with regard to determining who is a terrorist and, meanwhile, Democratic senators in their equivalent wisdom doing nothing to impede its passage beyond offering fine speeches last night (cutting and running of another sort, Thoreau would say, that old cynic)--it seems that a whole lot of computation (read: counting of potential votes this November) was going on. And there's also that linkage of obedience and "the will of God."

But wait: Thoreau responds to Paley. Can he trump Paley's sudden political relevancy?

(just as a heads-up, it's going to take a while to determine whether we can (or should) resist Thoreau.)

But Paley appears never to have contemplated those cases to which the rule of expediency does not apply, in which a people, as well as an individual, must do justice, cost what it may. If I have unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself. This, according to Paley, would be inconvenient. But he that would save his life, in such a case, shall lose it. This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people.

I don't know, Henry: pretty sneaky of you to be quoting Jesus when some Christians have declared themselves to be in support of this bill that passed the Senate last night. But then again, something I've observed over and over again among adherents of certain strains of Christianity that also ally themselves with the current administration is that they are quite adept at quoting from, say, Leviticus and Paul's letters and Revelation but appear to be less handy with quotes from the Gospels to buttress their arguments. I don't know. Being Lutheran and all high-church and all myself, we're so hopelessly rooted in tradition and ritual that perhaps word hasn't reached us yet that What Jesus Would Do is apparently (or conveniently) irrelevant when some Christians seek to have the law and courts codify their particular version of what the American social contract should look like. But that's a matter for another post.

So, okay: Seeing as politics these days seems to be practiced by members of both parties so as to cause as little inconvenience as possible to their chances for reelection this November or to their future political ambitions, it seems that we can resist and therefore reject Thoreau on those grounds alone and should be reading Paley instead--"See, Class, this is how government REALLY works!"--and still have a text in the syllabus that is both, like, old AND hip and now. But, responsible instructor that I am, telling my students that it's best to offer as many reasons as possible in support of an opinion, I need to find a few more before we can rip Thoreau out of our anthologies.

It just so happens that I've found my next one in the very last sentence of that passage I just quoted: "This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people." Slaves?? War with Mexico?? What sort of world is that?

Let's find out: As these entries in Wikipedia's article on the Mexican-American War make clear, its beginnings can easily be read (and have been often, on both sides of the border) as having been directly provoked by U.S. military actions in disputed territory rather than the Polk Administration's argument that U.S. troops had been attacked on U.S. soil. Moreover, though the war declaration passed unanimously in Congress, there was far from unanimous agreement regarding its particulars or its actual motives for being fought, either within the Congress or among citizens. Abolitionists were of the opinion that, Polk being pro-slavery, his true motive was to seize for slaveholders the territory between Texas and what would become California that was south of the line established by the Missouri Compromise as being the northernmost boundary for future slave-holding states. Thoreau was certainly of that opinion:
[W]hen a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.

Hmm, I think again. No slaves these days, so no relevancy there. But what nations has this country invaded lately, and under what announced and actual pretexts? I should say here that it's my underinformed opinion (and not by MY choice, I might add) that those announced pretexts have proven to be so various--because they have had the annoying/unfortunate fate (you may choose, depening on your politics) of turning out to have been demonstrably untrue--that I have long ago lost the power to imagine what the actual pretext(s) might have been or whether they too have since changed. How I think many (I would hope "most") of my fellow citizens, upon hearing what our nation's actual rationale was for invading Iraq in March of 2003, would join me in bitterly asking those responsible for ginning up that rationale, in our best Dr. Phil-like manner, "And how's that been working for you?"

And I think some more . . . I'm Not A Lawyer (INAL), but it seems to me that the denial of habeus corpus to detainees and the President's new power to declare as non-combatants any U.S. citizen found, in his (or is that "His"?) determination, to have been guilty of providing, apparently, any sort of aid to terrorists (hard to say exactly what would/would not consititute "aid"--these new powers and their limits are a wee bit vague, the consensus seems to be, and besides: it's the President's call, according to the bill, not Congress's and not the courts') and thus making them subject to the terms of the new powers in this detainee bill seems not all that far distant from the sort of powers implicit in the various Fugitive Slave laws and Alien and Sedition Acts. Or am I, a happily heterosexual, practicing-Christian male who, in appearance, physically and ethnically pretty darned closely corresponds to the Aryan ideal, just being a wee bit paranoid or, for that matter, too overly concerned about completely innocent people picked up and sent to various unsavory places on the most circumstantial of pretexts and with no means given them to prove their innocence? Well, frankly, I'm not so sure (though this timeline comforts me, seeing as the man in question isn't from my country, merely some guy innocent of any crime or complicity with terrorists and so someone whom my nation, apparently, feels no obligation to even publicly apologize to, seeing as the Canadians have taken care of THAT).

No--I haven't forgotten: we're talking here about Thoreau's essay's continuing relevance, or lack thereof, for whatever Generation of students happens to be darkening my classroom's doorway. And I have to say, in reading over that last paragraph, that that could be used by some wiseacre student as an argument in favor of relevancy. So let's get away from cases, shall we, and have a look at a larger philosophical underpinning of Thoreau's hopelessly-out-of-date essay (there--it felt good to cast some doubt on its relevancy even before I've actually decided the matter).

Many of my students, a bit of Ayn Rand under their belts, already know or heartily agree with Thoreau's most famous statement here, "That government is best which governs not at all." They read that, and they're ready to stop reading and go throw some rocks through some windows. But Thoreau goes on: "and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they shall have." He goes on for a bit to explain that (short answer: He doesn't seem to think too highly of "men," which makes the women in my classes feel smug and important--and seeing as I'm all for encouraging women to feel empowered, I admit that Thoreau has some value there). But it doesn't get any better for his cause when he starts talking about the bedrock principle of democracy, rule by the majority:
After all, the practical reason why, when the power is at once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right [. . .] but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? [. . . .] Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, as for the right[. . . .] Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.

Then comes some more typically-Thoreauvian yammering about men-as-machines and suchlike talk, and then this, which, in view of the now-changed legal landscape of our nation, might be the strongest reason of all for not teaching this essay:
How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.
(emphases are Thoreau's)
There you go: yet more no-longer-relevant talk about slaves. But here's something even more dangerous: even if one were tempted to argue that certain similarities exist between Thoreau's particular historical moment and our own--as, I acknowledge above, one might be able to argue, though it'd require some heavy-duty squinting in certain maliciously-intended and/or cynical ways--that bit about not recognizing that organization as my government seems, um, seditious. If we tried to make connections between Thoreau's time and our own, it even could be read to imply that the terrorists have already won, seeing as they hate our government and seek to sow dissent among us about the rightness of our cause. Especially seeing as it presents the idea of the potential injustice of rule by the majority.

Not only is Thoreau out of date, he's dangerous besides. Two very good reasons for relegating "Resistance to Civil Government" to the Dustbin of History. And while we're at it: seeing as at the conclusion of his essay Thoreau writes, "The authority of government[. . .]is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed," we'd do well to have a close look at certain other texts as well.

We won't miss Thoreau, I don't think, what with his silly rootedness in a past that bears no resemblance to our own times, which themselves didn't exist, we're told, before September 11, 2001. And speaking of our own times, in yesterday's White House Briefing (free sub. required), Dan Froomkin offers up this bit by President Bush, which would seem to suggest that the particulars of what will become The Past don't much matter when one is talking about the Bigger Picture:
For the record, Bush was talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN last Wednesday about all the carnage in Iraq when he said: "I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there's a strong will for democracy."
Ann Telnaes's cartoon would seem to argue for a certain permanence to those commas, though, even as we read through them to find out when and how all this will end.

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Raminagrobis said...

I loved that. I could really sense the barely-contained rage bubbling beneath the surface. This post reached such a pitch of sarcasm towards the end that I thought my monitor-screen might explode. Good stuff.

John B. said...

Thanks, Grobie. I was hoping it'd translate across the Pond, if not here.

Paul Decelles said...

Of course Paely is famous for his argument for design embodied in the bad analogy of a person walking along a beach and finding a watch. Even if a person has had no experience with watches the person would conclude that the watch is designed.

Of course this argument was demolished in philosophy by Hume and science by Darwin. Isn't it interesting that the Bushists seem to espouse the modern version of both Paley's beliefs about government AND design. Coincidence?

John B. said...

To be honest, about all I know about Paley is what Thoreau says about him in his essay, so your comment is news to me. Thanks for sharing that bit of info.
I'll be frank: In the first place, Democrats share in the blame for this bill, via sins of omission, for not engaging in some sort of parliamentary tactic to at least stall it; the final vote indicates, for example, that they very likely could have filibustered it successfully. The only reason they didn't that I can fathom is that they too were channelling Paley's theory of governance--though I seriously doubt either they or the Republicans had that particular passage from Paley in "Civil Disobedience" in mind as they chose to act or not act.
No one says it's easy to stand on principle; it is indeed "inconvenient" to do so much (most?) of the time. But then again, it wouldn't be worth very much if it WERE always convenient.

Andrew Simone said...

There was nothing left to be said John, so I gave you linkage.

Sine.Qua.Non said...

John......... thank you, thank you very, very much.

John B. said...

Ms. Qua Non,
You are most welcome. And
Thank You as well.