I spent some time yesterday assembling a version of Thoreau’s Slavery in Massachusetts on this site. I added links that help explain the back-story. It is difficult to know what Thoreau is going on about unless you have some idea of what “the Sims tragedy” was, some inkling of what the Missouri Compromise and Kansas-Nebraska Act were, and know at least a little bit about the symbolism of the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington & Concord, for instance.
This essay is in one sense very much locked to its time: it was meant to address a very specific event — the legal kidnapping and reenslavement of Anthony Burns in by officials of Massachusetts. It is full of pointed and specific reference to the events, heroes and villains surrounding slavery, the Fugitive Slave Laws, political compromises, and abolitionist resistance.
But the essay also escapes these locks. We don’t have to make a costume party out of it and pretend that we’re abolitionists gathered at a to appreciate what Thoreau has to say. His speech is more motivating to me today than a thousand contemporary rants and exposés. Today’s ostensible anti-war movement would be well-served by closing the browser on the latest MoveOn petition, putting down the collection of Noam Chomsky essays, and giving it some serious study.
All around the country today you can hear people who say they want to do something to stop the war, shut down the Dubya Squad, and perhaps redeeem the name of their country — “but what can we do?” And so the peace movement continues to dither and hold parades and support vaguely the sort of choreographed dances with police officers that pass for civil disobedience today.
Yesterday I was invited by a publisher to review a copy of a new book called “The Case for Impeachment.” I declined. I’m of the school of thought that arguments that Bush should be impeached are like arguments that the hijackers should be disciplined by the FAA — laughably out of scale to the crime and unlikely to amount to anything.
So much energy is going into this impeachment campaign — this hope that Representatives in Washington, who have (please remember) cooperated whenever asked in all of Dubya’s crimes, will repent and begin the long and difficult process of releasing the country to the redeeming mercies of Dick Cheney.
Other right-thinking folk curse the makers of voting machines and expend their energy trying to make sure that every vote gets counted correctly in the next election. (But I counted all the votes in the last election, and of one hundred and twenty-two million ballots cast, I counted one hundred and twenty-one million votes to continue the war in Iraq and the torture policy — that was enough to make me stop losing sleep about whether the voting machines in Ohio might slip a digit.)
All of this because people think the problem we have is in the White House, and the solution too must be nearby in Washington, and that the problem is with the politicians and the solution too must be with the politicians. Thoreau faced the same attitudes, and told his audience in Massachusetts to reel themselves back in from Washington and Nebraska because slavery is right here at home, and to stop being so foolish as to wait, periodically voting and petitioning, until politicians finally get around to giving justice their formal approval.
The fate of the country does not depend on how you vote at the polls — the worst man is as strong as the best at that game; it does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.
Most people who are asking “but what can I do?” seem to me to really be abbreviating a longer question: “what can I do that doesn’t involve personal risk or inconvenience and that puts the burden of behaving justly on someone else’s shoulders?” And the answer to that question is: “keep dithering and parading and petitioning!” For the few people who mean something more than this, my answer begins, “first, read Thoreau…”