Ex Libris's Reviews > On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
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Sep 02, 10

Read in September, 2010

A thought provoking book that invokes the paradox of American political history and it's long preoccupation with the triad of freedom/slavery/taxation and an interesting read in the time of the Tea Party.
On the one hand, Thoreau has clearly identified two of the great evils of American political history, slavery and, here in the guise of the Mexican American War, expansionist warfare. His desire to sever himself from any complicity in these wrongs is laudable, as is his willingness to seek out deep complicities instead of focusing on low hanging fruit. His stubborn, anarchistic, Bartelby the Scrivener type refusal is easy to appreciate.
But his dismissal of the power of the vote and his impatience with politics strikes me as naive, as does his willingness to embrace revolution and his very simple ideas of what possibilities that may unleash. It strikes me as pretty clear that revolutions are uncertain and that a great many (from the French and Russian to the Iranian) modern revolutions end up with governments at least as tyrannical as those they sought to replace. I suppose I'm inclined to work towards reforming the devil you do know rather than putting much hope in the chaotic forces of revolution.

He is also quick to erase the manifold ways in which the government he rails against enables his nonconformity. That was true of Concord then and is even more so now as the state provides more and more of the background conditions of life.

I also question his vision of freedom, defined here primarily as a negative freedom from taxation. This is the great American version of freedom -- don't take my money. God knows my taxes pay for things I hate, but taxation also provides the basis for many kinds of positive freedoms opened by access to health care, social security, abundant wild places, clean water and air, education, and a vibrant economical and cultural life. These are real freedoms, real opportunities that taxation enables and which a Thoreaun perspective must ignore.

By asserting an individual right to pick and choose his willingness to contribute to the socius, Thoreau could easily be adopted by the Tea Party. Their reasons for protest are of course much less noble and more confused then Thoreau's, but the principle of refusal is not so far from a kind of Ayn Rand individualism, except that Rand at least acknowledges what Thoreau misses, which is that in the American political tradition, the greatest beneficiary of doctrines of individual rights is the corporation, not the individual.

I empathize with Thoreau, root for him as I read, and feel the tug of his courageous and uncompromising stance. He wisely notes the distinction between prudence and wisdom, but I wonder if he misses the distinction between wisdom and guilt
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Dana Very well written review, insightful and fair. I especially appreciated the treatment of the Tea Party & corporations. As a Ron Paul fan, these comments were helpful to me in examining my own beliefs.


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