Sunday, May 16, 2010

Teaching nonviolence: A Thoreau analysis

In our field of study of civil resistance and in the texts on nonviolence, we often include the germinal Thoreau essay, On Civil Disobedience (not the original title). There is much to admire about it and there are some limitations.

Thoreau was not a pacifist, though he did not pick up a gun himself. He wrote in favor of John Brown--a Christofascist who chopped off arms of opponents in Kansas and famously attempted to ignite an armed slave rebellion in his attack on the Harpers Ferry military post in 1859, instead helping to ignite the US Civil War two years later. While Thoreau wrote approvingly of the American Revolution, Thoreau never volunteered for armed service, though to be fair he died of tuberculosis just as the Civil War was fully ramping up in 1862, when he was just 44. His entire nonviolent resistance, admirable though it was, consisted of refusal to pay a poll tax and his grand price for this was one night in jail.

Why do we canonize his essay? It's brilliant and it's an American original. It's anti-imperialist (against the clearly expansionist Mexican American War) and it's a call for resistance to paying for such war and for any defense of slavery. It is also a challenge to act on conscience and it sets out an argument that one person of good conscience operating against immoral policy of any government is operating justly. His views were expressed with great eloquence and he had the academic's rare gift to also speak to regular folks.

So when we study civil resistance we ought to understand that Thoreau wrote toward strategic nonviolence in the sense that his stands were not pacifist in philosophy but that he happened to choose a nonviolent method--refusing to pay his tax that supported a war with which he did not agree. But was he attempting to organize a movement? Was he a campaigner? Perhaps in his own vague way he was, and he certainly has given the generations fodder for their own attempts to organize Americans toward offering civil resistance when it's called for. But Thoreau was not part of any organizational efforts. He was a persuasive essayist and chronicler of what Richard Gregg would much later call voluntary simplicity in the tradition of the Stoics and some of the Cynics in ancient Greece and Rome (Thoreau, a Harvard-educated scholar, translated from the original Greek and Latin). Thoreau was much more an individualist, a Yankee who advocated with great cogency for freedom and who believed in freedom for all.

As we teach our students to use critical thinking, we use our own in evaluating the context of the primary texts we offer to our students. Thoreau is a great gift to America and to the world; let's not misappropriate his beliefs, but rather use them as accurately as we can in the light of what we teach from each of our perspectives.

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