On civil disobedience

When I went off to college, I immediately got involved with the movement to do away with nuclear weapons; I was a religious pacifist, I was attending a Quaker college, it was a natural thing to do. Some of the other students were planning to engage in civil disobedience, and I began to consider doing so myself. I wrote to Pat Green and asked his advice. Pat had been the assistant minister and the youth advisor at my church, and I remembered that he had talked about being arrested for engaging in civil disobedience while protesting the Vietnam War. “Somewhere in the FBI files,” Pat had said, “there’s mug shots of me wearing one of those conical Vietnamese hats.”

By then, Pat was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. He wrote back quickly, and said he would not advise me to engage in civil disobedience. He felt his arrest had not had any effect on United States war policy; the only thing it had done was to give him a criminal record; the price paid was not worth the end result. Maybe he thought that he had to say that to a seventeen year old kid, but I doubt it: Pat was terribly sincere, and I think he really meant what he said.

Two and a half years later, I saw some friends of mine getting arrested trying to blockade the entrance to Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire. That same weekend, I also saw that the greatest effect of our protest at Seabrook was to polarize opposition, and reduce the possibility of meaningful dialogue about nuclear power plants. I was at Seabrook, partly for the adventure of it, but also because of a dawning systems-level understanding that the nuclear power industry was intimately connected with the nuclear weaponry, not least because of the possibility of weapons-grade materials getting stolen by terrorist groups. That kind of understanding had no place in the rough-and-tumble world of protest politics, where often the most that happens is that people yell at each other and get ten second interviews with the news media.

I just went and re-read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” I had forgotten how deeply personal it is. I had also forgotten how deeply spiritual the essay is:

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up.

Not flesh and blood and bones, but something more than that. Thoreau paid no poll tax because he did not want his money funding the Mexican-American War, an unjust war that was, as he saw all too clearly, nothing more than a pretext for the United States to make a land grab, a way to open up more land to become future slave states. At the end of the war, the United States was able to force Mexico to cede all claims to territory covering parts of present-day Wyoming, Kansas, and Colorado, and all or most of present-day California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

When faced with vast, reeking political injustice like that, anyone would go to jail rather than pay a poll tax — that is, anyone would do so if they could go beyond the usual simplistic viewpoint of politics and propaganda, and get to a point where they could see what was really going on in that war. Thoreau goes well beyond even that point of view, and as is his wont speaks in extremes — for like so many New England Yankees, he was well-schooled in the art of the tall tale — saying that he owes no allegiance to anyone. He owed no allegiance to anyone, but he lived for most of his life in his mother’s house, eating the food she cooked. He owed no allegiance to anyone, but he worked for years in his father’s pencil factory, the fine graphite dust aggravating the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. Thoreau owed allegiance only to a higher power:

Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and this American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?

Sometimes I wish I had engaged in civil disobedience when I was seventeen. One student at that same college, another pacifist who was a couple of years older than I, got arrested for throwing blood on the steps of the Pentagon. I was jealous. He went on to become a mainline Protestant minister, so his arrest record was something to put on his resume. Maybe that act of civil disobedience continues to have an effect: I hope he uses it to teach his congregants that Christians can and should have a greater allegiance to the ethical precepts of Jesus than to a government that spends half its budget on “defense,” that is, on war.

But I didn’t engage in civil disobedience when I was seventeen. I think what I got out of Pat Green’s advice was a criticism of protest politics. Protest politics sees the Constitution and the law and the courts and the American government from a fairly low point of view, while Pat looked at things from a higher point of view. Hhe tried to get me to see things from his somewhat higher point of view. He made me ask myself: What am I really trying to accomplish? Can I stick to it over the long term?Will an act of civil disobedience really accomplish what I am trying to accomplish?

Pat spent a good part of his adult life quietly working on prison reform. Eventually he left Unitarian Universalism. He once said to me that the thing that most frustrated him about Unitarian Universalists was that they flitted from one cause to another — “cause-of-the-month club” was the phrase I remember him using — often abandoning one cause, and moving on to another cause, before any real progress had been made on the first cause. I always wondered if he left Unitarian Universalism because he got tired of the cause-of-the-month-club phenomenon.

Pat Green wound up dying of a heart attack when he was about my age; someone said it was due to overwork; his marriage had dissolved by then, and he was living alone, so it was a day or so before anyone found him. As for Thoreau, after someone paid his poll tax for him and he was released from jail, he obeyed a higher law once again, and went with a bunch of friends to pick huckleberries. By the time he was my present age, he had been dead of tuberculosis for five years. Not to belabor the point, but there is little time to waste on unimportant matters.

5 thoughts on “On civil disobedience

  1. Jean

    ? ???? ??????,
    ? ?? ????? ?????,
    ? ?? ?????? ????,
    ? ?? ????? ???????,
    ? ?? ?????? ??????.

    Ars longa,
    vita brevis,
    occasio praeceps,
    experimentum periculosum,
    iudicium difficile.

    [The] art is long,
    life is short,
    opportunity fleeting,
    experiment dangerous,
    judgment difficult.

  2. Jean

    Oh, poo. That was meant to be original Greek. Anyway — nice post, Dan. I remember Pat also. He was an incredibly decent man.

  3. Heather

    This is very helpful, particularly for someone (like me!) coming into the UU tradition of social witness, trying to understand all the whys and whats and hows of it.

    It is easy, for a beginner like me, to see the the most visible form of witness and think, “Well, that’s what I need to be doing.” And to ignore the contrary whispers inside me, dismiss them as fear or uncaring.

    Your post (and the recent posts from Polity Wonk) helps me to listen to those contrary whispers, to give myself permission to ask, “Now, why are we doing this? How will this make a difference?”

    I don’t have good answers for myself yet about UU civil disobedience in AZ. One thing it has done, though, is to spark thoughtful conversation about civil disobedience, effective protest, social witness, etc. It has pushed us to do some of that “study” we promised at GA to do (the CSAI). And that is a good thing.

  4. Dan

    Jean @ 2 — Oh, rats! If you had only managed to include something in Greek I’d have the most intellectual blog ever! Such a shame that your Greek text turned to ???? ??????, but as Heraclitus said: φυσς κρυπτεθαι φιλει (The real constitution of things (physis) is accustomed to hide itself).

    You can include modern Greek characters by so-called ampersand characters (see this link). But I don’t know how to include the special accent marks used in ancient Greek text. I think you have to have special plugins for your Web browser or something.

    Heather @ 3 — “I don’t have good answers for myself yet about UU civil disobedience in AZ.”

    Neither do I. I think the UU civil disobedience was mostly a good thing. But I’m quite sure that it was not the right place for me to be, in spite of the peer pressure many of us felt to go.

  5. cUrioUs gUUrl

    Food for thought, Dan.

    When I was in college, people were staging die-ins in front of the administration building to protest the first Gulf War. I couldn’t ever figure out how that would be helpful in stopping the war.

    But not paying taxes, that seems like a bolder statement. Especially these days when getting thrown into prison for an indeterminate amount of time, possibly years, is a somewhat different endeavor than in Thoreau’s time.

    I’ve never been much of an activist myself, being on the cynical side about it’s effectiveness. I hate to say that I think Arizona is going to continue on until the Feds step in, if the Feds step in, but perhaps recent protests there will affect how the Feds step in, even if they don’t change the mind of the AZ governor.

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