Thursday, October 21, 2010

Henry David Thoreau

"Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?"

-Henry David Thoreau

"the popular thing is not always right likewise the right thing is not always popular."

-Howard Cosell

I love Thoreau, and I love this work by Thoreau the best, for the explicit reason that I love any piece or literature, any essay or any treatise whose soul purpose is to be critical of the government. When I was young and I first read "Resistance to Civil government", I was awestruck that it started this early. I had this image in my head of American history being a bunch of shady white men who basked in seats of inscrutable power, upholding this ideal of a government which could do no wrong, while they hid the truth from the citizens and from each other at any cost. While the second half of the 20th century was the first generation to take that first step in a long journey of change for the better. I imagined the 60's at the turning point, where people STARTED questioning the government. If I only knew how wrong I was! It was beautiful for me to see someone who lived so long ago who was able to not only see through the haze of bull, but also write so eloquently about it. On top of this, he was a white man, and not just a white man, but someone who's writings survived and were upheld in very high esteem. Not a minority they tried to push out of the way, and not just a footnote in history either, but a real and prevalent political critic who was not steamrolled or censored, and who's writings stood up to the test of time. Thoreau was my very first taste of this world, and as such, he and his writings hold a very special place in my heart and mind. While I carry all these fond memories or reading Thoreau in my youth, on the flip side it's kind of horrifying how true how words ring still nearly 150 years after his death. For someone who is so celebrated, it's amazing that the establishment he was so critical of has yet to make very many changes towards the better, despite his popularity.
What's even more unsettling is that Thoreau's message seems so relatable, to think of a person who can read Thoreau, and somehow disagree with him brings to mind an image of a man who longs for enslavement, and that's just silly.
Thoreau's message seems simple enough to me, and has been echoed endlessly through the generations. "the popular thing is not always right likewise the right thing is not always popular." This is a very famous quote by sports announcer Howard Cosell, who said it in defense of Muhammed Ali, who refused to let himself be drafted when the Vietnam War was overtaking America. Whether or not Cosell was the originator of this quote is irrelevant, but what is relevant is the poignancy and the coincidental nature of this quote. Ali risked his fame and his career, to be a conscientious objector to the war, a philosophy that Thoreau makes pretty clear in even the first few paragraphs of "Resistance to Civil Government". I can't say for sure that Ali read or knew of Thoreau, he never made any public statements on the matter, but let's assume for a moment that he didn't The very fact that Ali was a conscientious objector at all is a testament to Thoreau's penetration into culture. Ali wasn't the only one, there were thousands upon thousands of people who risked it all for their beliefs that the draft was wrong, and especially that the invasion of this small south eastern Asian country was wrong. Some of them were bound to have read "Resistance to Civil Government" at some point.
Sadly, since the essay is of such revolutionary nature, here we are 150 years later, and still very little of what Thoreau spoke of in these pages has been taken to heart on a mass scale. Since he is so ingrained into our culture, there are still people out there, who feel compelled to fight the good fight, and keep the dream alive. But will our government, or the governments of the world ever want to make the change? ill the most powerful men in the world suddenly one day decide that the way of the philosopher king is the ideal road to world peace? Only time, and our eternal vigilance will tell.

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