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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Column: Where’s Walden?

Protests are all the rage now — literally and figuratively. My home, the Yay Area, has been making news cycles with images of police clashing with Oakland and Berkeley protesters, Occupy Wall Street remains a fixture in daily news and Tea Partiers continue to crash political events and institutions.

To the horror of some, the jubilance of others and the confusion of few, authority is being challenged from all sides. And yet, these sides have not found a common enemy in their common enemy.

Perhaps the best example of this was found in a recent episode of National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More”. Host Michel Martin brought together a representative from the Tea Party, an Occupy Wall Street participant and a public intellectual invested in the idea of these groups working together. What could have proceeded as a round table discussion on shared values and potential alliances quickly devolved into an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show”.

From this I learned two things. First, public radio really can be scandalous. But more important, these are two groups who deny their allegiance to either political party but are unable to work together because of the old left-right split. Both representatives spoke to the fundamental, philosophical difference in their form of civil disobedience. That’s not surprising, as the concept of civil disobedience itself has a complicated genealogy.

Neither bad-ass founding father nor patriotic revolutionary introduced the practice of civil disobedience. Of all people, civil disobedience is attributed to Henry David Thoreau, a poet and author best known for Walden, or his reflections from living the simple life in nature on the land and dime of his buddy, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

His essay Civil Disobedience was the product of his frustration with the American practice of slavery and recent imperialist move to expand into Mexico. In it, he begins with the claim that government cannot be justified and writes, “That government is best which governs least.” This is the Thoreau conservative protesters like to channel.

He then moves to scrutinize democracy, arguing that rule by majority hardly produces virtuous rule. He wonders on paper why he should “… resign his conscience to the legislator.” Thoreau argues that everyone has a conscience for a reason, and that reason is to do what he or she thinks right. Maybe this is the Thoreau channeled by Occupy protesters, who have balked the system to set up their own mode of autonomous existence.

Later in the essay, he calls for revolution in order to challenge an inherently unjust system. His form of revolution, often associated with the title of his essay, calls on the reader to disengage from the government, to cease following the government’s unjust laws and paying taxes used for unjust purposes.

Decades later, his readers would include Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom were clear in identifying their demonstration tactics with the conclusions reached by Thoreau. Gandhi placed Thoreau among the “most moral men America has produced.” The Reverend King noted in his autobiography his tendency to frequently reread this essay, drawing the conclusion that “… noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

Recently, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street have identified their role in carrying forth that legacy. Where there was an opportunity to find common ground, many attacked the Tea Party’s claim to King, citing a fundamental difference between the Tea Party’s message and the ideals of the Civil Rights Era. The Tea Party, for its part, sent out e-mails last month comparing images of flag-bearing Tea Party protesters to grungy Occupy Wall Street protesters, apparently to suggest a fundamental difference between the distinctly American spirit of revolution and Occupy.

Although Thoreau’s praxis of civil disobedience has been associated with protest movements for different reasons by both the left and the right, I’d like to think his brand of revolutionary change was apolitical, unconcerned with what side of the aisle the chips fell. If current movements are turning their back to each other, maybe this shows that our movements for change aren’t as invested in change as they think.

You can protest RAJIV NARAYAN at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.


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