Thoreau’s Lessons, Applied to the American Dilemma


The eyes of government are subtle and myriad; the steel of police riot shields lathered in thick black paint is a common sight in the news; a new war is on the edge of existence, regardless of the people’s will; and the words of scholar, hermit, shaman, and wise-man Henry David Thoreau echo unheard: “’That government is best which governs not at all;’ and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have” (Thoreau 964). On June 5th, 2013, the American people were alerted to a new and bizarre threat to liberty (Aljazeera 1). It was not a threat of terrorism or war, no foreign power threatened the star-spangled borders; it was a threat much more insidious. It was revealed to the people that their government, their protectors, had been watching their every thought, given to another in supposed privacy. Nobody knew what to do; some protested, some scrambled for better forms of encryption, yet others embraced the new state. The freedom of data was another casualty in a war the American people had previously not even known they were fighting. The people’s right to protest was already in jeopardy, as all about the country peaceful protesters had their right to free speech stripped from them by police running amok, armed with military grade equipment (Wolf). The growing police state imposed by the government was often thought before the revelations to apply only to the more radical elements of society. However, with the knowledge that each and every person was being watched, it was blatantly obvious that everyone was at risk. Recently the government has justified its actions in the name of self-defense, arguing that hidden foes exist everywhere, whether domestic or abroad. The military state that begins to form is grotesque in the extreme. For years the atrocities committed in the name of the American people have grown steadily worse, yet the individual remains ignorant by choice. Thoreau’s inspirational fight against the evils of his time is an unseen banner, no longer giving the people strength to fight on. However, in the face of such modern dastardly atrocities Thoreau’s wisdom is more needed than ever. Thoreau’s lessons teach that however miniscule the change they can make, however insignificant it may seem to them, each and every person must stand up to these injustices on their own.

How is a man to be a man when he is not allowed to be alone with his own thoughts? How is a moral revolution to begin when the people are always under such close monitoring? Thoreau would have said that the people must withdraw from the oppressors, the society about them, refuse to feed that hand that abuses. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison” (Thoreau 972). Each and every citizen could refuse to pay their taxes, as Thoreau once did in protest of the government’s condoning slavery, and the government would have to buckle. Yet even Thoreau admits that this tactic is not possible for every fervent believer (Thoreau 973). Unlike Thoreau, many conscientious objectors have families, households that require their presence. Further, the modern world has changed in ways Thoreau could not have comprehended from his vantage point in the nineteenth century:

The decades following the publication of Civil Disobedience saw the United States change from a mainly agricultural nation to a major industrial producer[…] If we accept Thoreau’s apparent view of the relationship between money and virtue, then the rise of American prosperity was a long slide into corruption. (Bankston 9)

Even though his great work, Civil Disobedience, was intended for a different era with different issues, the underlying principles of it stand the test of time. This means that Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience should be interpreted as a living document, taking the modern world into account. The document must be sifted for Thoreau’s intent, adjusted to the modern day, just as it has been when quoted as inspiration for great political figures respected by the modern moralist. Thoreau believed in the isolation of the self for the purpose of seeking a clear sighted view of the truth, and though physical isolation may be difficult in the modern world, the isolation and obfuscation of data is equivalent to gain a more truthful perspective of the world and the self. In that service there are hundreds of free forms of encryption readily available online and projects like Mailpile’s open alpha, which while currently dysfunctional, attempts to make encryption of communication even easier for the masses (Mailpile). Though the decryption of data is possible, especially in the modern day where most programs are riddled with back-doors, it is still a time and effort consuming affair. If each and every person were responsible in their correspondence, it would be a daunting task to decrypt each and every message, creating a situation where mass government surveillance is no longer an effective strategy. Most of the attention focused on the government surveillance is toward the legality of it. It was suggested in Political Quarterly that the argument should move from the legality, to the morality of it: “But even if it [Programs like the N.S.A.’s P.R.I.S.M.] is legal, the question in a democracy is whether it should be” (Political Quarterly 435). Thoreau would agree that the debate should not be about the legality of surveillance, it should be about the morality of it. Whether or not there is legal precedent for the N.S.A.’s surveillance, it is morally flawed, and it clamps down on the people’s ability to think, which is something Thoreau would have never stood for.

Thoreau’s opinion on government, and civil disobedience, was new and revolutionary, believing that change must begin in the self, a lesson desperately needed in the modern day. With recent protests such as Occupy Wall Street seeming ineffective in instituting a change in legislation, it seems obvious that mass scale protest is not the ideal option, and therefore many have given up on the possibility of change altogether. Thoreau knew as fact that without pushing boundaries and personally making a change, nothing happens; “Thoreau grew impatient with the politicians’ urgings of civility and trust in democratic norms and procedures. He grew tired of the rhetoric of suasionist reformers and their calls for restraint, justice, charity, peace, and fraternity” (Mcbride 35). Thoreau would have said that every citizen has a sacred duty to actively object. Change cannot be initiated upon the people, they must begin the change themselves. Every conscientious citizen must come to the understanding that the transmutation of the self will be reflected in the transformation of society.

To Thoreau, anyone willing to leave moral decisions to the will of the majority is not really concerned that right should prevail. When resisting the poll tax, he did not consult the majority; he acted. If he had allowed the majority to decide whether or not he should pay, by his own standards he would have shown no regard for what is right. (McElroy Paragraph 50)

Thoreau would not have wanted each and every person to wait for the rest of society; he would have wanted them to take their first steps on their own.

When the government has terrorized its own people, forcing them into a cowering position of submission, the entire potential for change is bound in the self; every person is like a seed of change, ready to be planted. Thoreau stated: “If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man” (Thoreau 974). Just like any tree, given the room, man can grow. Clearly, Thoreau believed that given the room to develop opinions, thoughts, dreams, each and every person has potential. The modern dilemma, however, is that those very thoughts and opinions can be used as evidence against them, as those words, given in the strictest confidentiality, are gathered and used to form arrests. Consider, for example, armed SWAT raids, which are becoming a more frequent object in the news. In the fiscal year of 2014 the combined police departments of just the state of Maryland conducted 1689 SWAT raids (Maryland Swat Report 3), 38.9% of these raids ended with no arrests (Maryland Swat Report 11), making them unnecessary exercises in human trauma. Indeed, the citizens of the United States have reason to tremble in terror. In deathly fear of their own government, the first action the American people need to take is to create the room to think clearly. The people need to be able to talk to one another, to share information so that all individuals can come to their own conclusions, rather than blindly accepting what they are given. Once they have taken the first step independently, they can start to help the country as a whole; all of that potential is bound up in the individual, and they first have to recognize it before they can go on to make a change.

Thoreau’s writings on passive resistance inspired great figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. (Bankston 1), but his teachings are little followed today. Kept in the dark by an oppressive media, and terrified by the horror stories of police brutality, the words Thoreau spoke should still hold relevance: “Visit the Navy Yard, and behold a marine, such a man as an American government can make, or such as it can make a man with its black arts, a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity[…]” (Thoreau 966). Concerns similar to today’s government dehumanization of its operatives can be seen all the way back when Thoreau published his paper Resistance to Civil Government in 1849, and before. Ever since there were soldiers, governments have stripped them of their humanity, making them more efficient at their work. The United States police force is in the process of arming even its civilian police with military grade weaponry, setting them apart from the people. Even college campus police are being armed by the Department of Defense:

Campus police departments have used the program to obtain military equipment as mundane as men’s trousers (Yale University) and as serious as a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (Ohio State University). Along with the grenade launcher, Central Florida acquired 23 M-16 assault rifles. (Bauman)

The genuinely disturbing part is how readily the United States criticizes police brutality and militarization in other countries and times, but defends it here and now. In Thoreau’s time there was brutality and bloodshed; it seems likely he would be disappointed with the modern citizen’s denial of the bloodshed around them.

It might be argued that there are greater threats to the liberty of the people: terrorist organizations that wish the fall of the United States. But compared to the violence and treachery on star-spangled shores, these look insignificant. Compare the number of fatal incidents caused by acts of terrorism to the number of police killings in the name of the people. In ten years, 2002 through 2012, the New York police department alone had 48 unauthorized firearm discharges (New York City Police 4). In those ten years, an average of 12.8 people were killed by police per year (New York City Police 56). At that rate it would take 231 years, starting the year after the attacks, for the police to kill the same amount of American citizens that died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. However, this is just New York City police. The number of civilian casualties nationwide annually is sadly unavailable due to bad records and a lack of legislation, but the numbers can easily be projected from what data is available. The number of civilians killed by the United States military is, however, readily accessible. As of 2011, an estimated 116,657 civilians were killed in the United States’ War on Terror, triggered by the 9/11 attacks (Manach para 1). How can the establishment be said to defend liberty when they are even more ruthless than those they would fight against? Then there is the consideration of the other liberties infringed upon, such as the right to privacy. How much are the American people willing to give up for a sense of security, undermined by those who would protect them? By definition, it is impossible to disprove a negative. It is impossible to prove that acts of terrorism have not been prevented by this heightened state of security, which is of questionable effectiveness. However, in a case about the surveillance in question, federal judge Leon stated: “[the government] does not cite a single instance in which… the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the government…” (Toxen 50). At a point it must be asked if the bloodshed, the blatant government overreach, the colossal war machine that the U.S.A. is becoming is an even trade for a false sense of security. It seems evident what Thoreau’s answer to this question would have been. In Thoreau’s most sage of papers, Resistance to Civil Government, he states: “The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. 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” (Thoreau 964).

Thoreau’s disapproval of the modern dilemma would be palpable. In the nineteenth century Thoreau held firm against the atrocities of his time, espousing the principles of nonviolent resistance in his scathing rhetoric to the masses, calling all self respecting citizens to passive resistance. In the modern day, the realization that the power to resist is within each and every person is a necessity; yet day after day passes and the people of the United States continue about their business with only petty pleas of salvation, while taking no action themselves. A new era needs to be ushered in, an era that embraces Thoreau and his contemporaries’ faith in the self, an era in which Lady Liberty is not draped in heavy chains forged by the empowered. The rising police state that is the U.S.A. can only support itself upon the backs of its people, without them it is nothing. The shivering masses need to fortify themselves, remembering that corrupt regimes have fallen before. The difference now is the intrusiveness of surveillance. The American people need space to think, to organize, they need the facts of the matter. Every man, woman, and child needs to recognize the true antagonist that has entered the ring, and needs to be able to feel safe in their thoughts, needs to recognize the situation on their own. This freedom will not be given to them by someone else, they have to reach out and take it for themselves. They need to encrypt their thoughts, and obfuscate their motives. They need to perform their own research and stop placing blind trust in the news they are hand fed from their televisions. Lastly, Thoreau would agree that they need to stop being afraid. However lethal the government’s operatives are, however close to omniscient they are, and however disregarded the voices of the people are, the citizens of the United States of America must not lose hope. They must refuse to lie down and be part of the great machine, they should throw a wrench in whatever miniscule detail they can. Even if all they can muster is abstaining from the government’s intelligence machine, they must do that. That is what Thoreau can teach the modern American. Change cannot be given as a gift, it must be earned.

Works Cited

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