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Reading Thoreau in Mexico

28 August 2017

Thoreau has been interpreted in many ways … which is only right, given that as a New England Transcendentalist, one’s intuition about an experience is the path to wisdom.  Given that On The Duty of Civil Disobedience was written largely in reaction to his own protest against the U.S. invasion of Mexico, it is only to be expected that our writers’ intuit Thoreau’s political stand as more relevant to this country than even his better known Walden.

Juan Manuel Roca’s “Evocación de Thoreau” from the 27 August Jornada Seminal. My translation*

Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience strong influenced both Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi:. Together they would become icons of an otherwise iconoclastic movement: anarchism.

Inclining towards anarchism, Thoreau is, at core, a pacifist, but his pacifism is pacifism, an active pacifism, involved with politics in a real way.

Born in Massachusetts in 1817, in the 21st century his reputation is mostly as a pioneer in the ecological and environmental ethics movements. He gives testimony to his love for nature in his beautiful Walden, a book about life in the woods that he published in 1847 and which tried to reconcile the split between man with his natural environment.

But, On the duty of civil disobedience is perhaps his greatest political legacy. In 1846 Thoreau refused to pay taxes, in protest both to the war against Mexico and to slavery in the United States, and was sentenced to jail. From there was born his famous treatise, in which he declares as one of his main concepts the idea that governments should not have any more power than the citizens are willing to grant it, even proposing the abolition of all government and in the same vein, opposing all power.

He then declares himself, like any good and true anarchist, an enemy of the State. His influence over the ensuing years has ranged from the Beatnicks to Martin Luther King to the late American environmentalist Murray Bookchin.

Reflecting on Thoreau, the elderly Henry Miller said he was “the best sort of person that a community can produce”. Someone who would have preferred the non-existence of governments if I was in a hurry to define his book. I could say that it is a classic of insobordination, a manual for the disobedient, useful for reinforcing the healthy and necessary ideas of dissent.” Miller himself evoked D. H. Lawrence when he said that Thoreau was a “aristocratic spirit,” which Miller reinforced by saying that “he is closer to an anarchist than to a democrat, a socialist, or a communist.”

When he wrote Of the duty of civil disobedience, he most certainly did not think that the conditions at that historic moment in his country were inalterable. He warned about how, over and above the will of one people, the US government – like so many others – will continue to give rise to “abuse and prejudice before the people can act”.

As an example he presented, “…the current Mexican war, the work of relatively few people who use the government established as an instrument, even though the people would not have authorized that measure.”

It is history as repetition, a macabre caricature that would re-emerge its imperial mood in the Vietnam War and of course in the Iraqui war, which was enthusiastically supported by a spurious government of this country.

Thoreau should be considered a hero in Mexico and deserves tp have a monument to remember him by, as surely as we have one of Gandhi.

* Working from the original Spanish, and not having Henry Miller’s works handy, I can’t vouch for the Miller quote. Thoreau’s, of course, I took directly from the published 1849 text.

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