During the Bush era, a lot of Progressives engaged in faux civil disobedience. They marched and screamed, periodically hanged or burned Bush effigies, and even allowed gay marriage, secure in the knowledge that they’d suffer virtually no consequences. Actual vandalism might get imprisonment or a fine, but everything else allowed them to sleep in the beds at night, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow’s papers and news magazines would applaud their “heroic” histrionics. Real civil disobedience is a little different, because it contemplates willingly accepting the real consequences meted about by a manifestly unjust government.
In the middle of the 19th Century, Henry David Thoreau articulated the notion of civil disobedience. He didn’t create it, because people have always engaged in it, but it was he who most clearly stated what constitutes civil disobedience.
Thoreau’s landmark treatise on civil disobedience was rooted in his opposition to both the Mexican-American War and slavery. When the taxman came to collect his unpaid taxes, Thoreau refused to pay on the ground that he would not financially support a government that engaged in illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional activity. He was eventually jailed — a risk he knew he ran — although he spent only one night in jail before a relative paid the taxes so as to get him released. Upon his release, Thoreau penned his magnum opus, which was finally published in 1849.
I had forgotten until I re-read it today how turgid and unstructured Thoreau’s essay is but, if one has patience, it still offers a perfect definition of true civil disobedience. Here are a few choice paragraphs:
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men, generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to put out its faults, and do better than it would have them? Why does it always crucify Christ and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.
When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that, whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of the question, and their regard for the public tranquility, the long and the short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection of the existing government, and they dread the consequences to their property and families of disobedience to it. For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State.
Thus the state never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior with or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to live this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live?
The authority of government, even such as I am willing to submit to — for I will cheerfully obey those who know and can do better than I, and in many things even those who neither know nor can do so well — is still an impure one: to be strictly just, it must have the sanction and consent of the governed. It can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it. The progress from an absolute to a limited monarchy, from a limited monarchy to a democracy, is a progress toward a true respect for the individual. Even the Chinese philosopher was wise enough to regard the individual as the basis of the empire. Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which I have also imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.
The primary principle animating civil disobedience is that it’s not just about violating a law because you’re a law-breaker (e.g, an armed robber) or because you think you can get away without punishment. Indeed, civil disobedience demands punishment as a way of making the point that the law you are disobeying is an unjust or unconstitutional law. As Thoreau said in one of his few flights of pithiness, “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
Although I doubt Gandhi studied Thoreau, he too understood that the only way to fight injustice was for the just man willingly to violate the law so as to expose that injustice to the world.
But…. (And there’s always a but.)
Many people will contemplate civil disobedience when the price is imprisonment or loss of worldly goods. In its purest form, though, civil disobedience demands that those opposing injustice willingly throw themselves into the flames to make their point. Gandhi understood this. He didn’t personally have to face those flames, but he was perfectly willing to advise the Jews under Nazi control to do so: