Free Thoughts: Freedom of Aloofness, Part I

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, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1849)

Often the biggest “threat to national security” is not a “foreign” or external actor, but a critical mass unwilling to live in fear.

Sometimes the “threat” comprises only one disbeliever.

One disobedient one.

A Walk in the Massachusetts Woods (2021)
A Walk in the Massachusetts Woods (2021)

In July of 1846, on his way to Concord, Massachusetts to run an errand, Henry David Thoreau, naturalist, Transcendentalist, and future author of “Walden” was arrested by the local sheriff, Sam Staples, for failure to pay a poll tax.

Thoreau believed the tax supported the Mexican-American war and the expansion of slavery into the Southwest, and so stopped paying it in 1842. The sheriff left him alone for a few years, and it’s unclear what prompted Thoreau’s arrest that July.

Despite Thoreau’s belief, the poll tax was a hyper-local levy, and actually had nothing to do with the Mexican-American war. That said, arresting him for tax evasion was illegal. Massachusetts law only empowered Sheriff Staples to confiscate Thoreau’s goods and disburse them to pay debts, not to throw him in jail.

News of Thoreau’s arrest spread throughout the region, and later that afternoon an anonymous woman (thought to be a relative) arrived at the jail to pay Thoreau’s tax. For an unknown reason, though, despite the debt being cleared, Sheriff Staples didn’t let Thoreau out of jail, and kept him locked up overnight.

Sheriff and naturalist seem to have had a long-standing beef, but who knows.

Thoreau was not happy about being cleared, having hoped to use his jail time and refusal to pay the tax to raise awareness about the connected issues of the Mexican-American war and slavery (all the conquered territory would be made into slave states). When Staples went to release him the next morning, Thoreau refused to leave, and then had to be thrown out of jail.

How does it become a man to behave toward the 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.
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1849)

His arrest and jailing for acting on his conscience inspired Thoreau to write an essay that argued for nonviolent, passive disobedience to protest unjust government actions.

“Resistance to Civil Government” was first published in 1849, and later reprinted under the title “Civil Disobedience” after Thoreau’s death.

Thoreau’s work “Walden” was part of my High School Freshman year English class. Four years later, in 1987, I encountered the “Civil Disobedience” essay in a Senior year English class. Its quiet, calm call for peace as the animus of a civil government still resonates with me.

Thoreau’s missive was well-received at the time of its publication and inspired peace and non-violence activists from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, to Vietnam War protesters of the 60s and 70s to Tiananmen Square dissenters in the 80s. You don’t hear about it much now.

Strange how those same folks who marched against Nixon and LBJ to end war using Gandhi and MLK as role models, joined with their “enemies” to fund endless wars in every corner of the globe, and make cuddle puddles with bureaucratic descendants of Tiananmen’s crackdown cadre ― all at the expense of curbing hunger and poverty, and of advancing the best of the human spirit.

Thoreau was a great writer, philosopher, poet, and withal a most practical man, that is, he taught nothing he was not prepared to practice in himself. He was one of the greatest and most moral men America has produced. At the time of the abolition of slavery movement, he wrote his famous essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. He went to gaol for the sake of his principles and suffering humanity. His essay has, therefore, been sanctified by suffering. Moreover, it is written for all time. Its incisive logic is unanswerable.
― Mahatma Gandhi, “For Passive Resisters” (1907)

Lol see me now charged and jailed for violating the 1917 Espionage Act just for pointing all this out, like they did with Eugene V. Debs in 1920.

My mind, however, cannot be jailed. That’s what Thoreau’s essay, in the end, taught me at 17. Contemplating his night in jail six years later, he came to pity the state as a half-wit, and saw his own liberation contemplating the jail’s walls from the inside.

I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1849)

Fwiw, Kurt Vonnegut, another of my POV demigods now cast to the outliers of the American literary canon, taught me of Eugene Debs.

A former locomotive man, Eugene Debs ran for president of the United States four times, the fourth time in 1920, when he was in prison. He said, “As long as there is a lower class, I’m in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I’m of it. As long as there’s a soul in prison, I am not free.” Some platform.
― Kurt Vonnegut, often

Thoreau and Vonnegut are not part of a lot of core high school curricula these days. In a related story, the line between “free-thinker” and “apostate” now floats on authoritarian whim, evolving with every news and fiscal cycle, defined by arbitrary politics and media, not by education or spiritual parameters.

There’s not much rhetorical room now for reflection. I could add another line to Debs’ platform today without blinking: “As long as there is a mind silenced, I am not thinking.”

Thoreau, Vonnegut, Debs, Gandhi, MLK, and Tank Man are among many of my guiding lights. The rights to free thought and individuality form the underpinning of enlightened and civil society.

through a cone of confusion
lateral diffusion
jets descend overhead
truth blown by the wind
trains coming round the bend
you know how these stories end

RIP Berta Cáceres and Bassel Khartabil.

The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies. … In most cases there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement or of the moral sense; but they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones; and wooden men can perhaps be manufactured that will serve the purpose as well.
― Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1849)

In the half-century or so since the freeing of the Pentagon Papers and the enacting of the Freedom of Information Act, all the flaps over classified documents and secrecy (Snowden, Assange, Manning, Winner, et al.) continue to prove that civil government should be barred from holding secrets.

Secrets are weapons, in that they are double-edged swords. They can protect the vulnerable, but they can also entrench the powerful. Political rhetoric will always offer the former as the excuse for classification, whereas the latter is always bureaucratic secrecy’s real purpose.

You and me (average joes we are) deserve to know everything that goes on – the good, the bad, and the alien.

The opposite of transparency is not secrecy, but suppression.

The opposite of freedom is not oppression, but secrecy.

We’re given limited windows on the truth. Would that you and me had the power to keep them clean from the outside.

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