Henry David Thoreau – Civil Disobedience (read by Mark Ruffalo)

Many people are euphoric about Obama winning the election. What amazes me is the degree of excitement even in our country, Germany. I predict that next year when we are asked to the ballot box in order to vote for our own government, the excitement will be nowhere near as big as it was during the US election week. But at the moment people all over the world seem to believe that with the new President world peace will suddenly break out. (Christopher Hitchens warns of “the cousinhood of euphoria and hysteria” about this.) At the least, I am afraid that the the expectations of Obama are to high not for him to fail.

Over the last eight agonizing years, when we were not outraged, we Europeans have developed a tendency to lean back and smirk at what was going on in the US. This attitude has never been very becoming to us.

Re-reading Thoreau’s amazing essay from 1849 was important before the election. I am convinced it is just as important to read now, after the election. And it should be read all over the world. It should be read to remind us and the people in power that it was a tax on tea that made the colonists start a revolution.

Below I provide the text with omissions as Ruffalo reads it.

“I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe–“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. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. 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. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure. […]

Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart. They have no doubt that it is a damnable business in which they are concerned; they are all peaceably inclined. Now, what are they? Men at all? or small movable forts and magazines, at the service of some unscrupulous man in power? […] 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.

All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable. But almost all say that such is not the case now. But such was the case, they think, in the Revolution of ’75. If one were to tell me that this was a bad government because it taxed certain foreign commodities brought to its ports, it is most probable that I should not make an ado about it, for I can do without them. All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough good to counter-balance the evil. […] But when the friction comes to have its machine, and oppression and robbery are organized, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer. In other words, when a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a whole country is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is that fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”

from: Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, in: Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience, New York et al. 1983, pp. 385ff.

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