Prisoners of ideas

A few years ago I visited three different classrooms in Montana high schools on the same day. All three classrooms featured a poster with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

Few professions appear more like a herd of nonconformists than that of today’s English teachers.

I suspect that were that good gentleman to find himself thrust into the mêlée of contemporary American culture he might be saddened to learn that the people he hoped would free themselves from the old authorities so they could move toward transcendental understandings of eternal truths have simply turned him into an old authority--and, what’s sadder, one who in their minds condones indifference to those transcendental principles he was so sure might guide us.

He might be dismayed to see that, as the old authorities have been forgotten, people are ever more tightly bound by the limits of the present, with all its opposition to truth.

Here’s an Emerson quote I would like more young people to ponder: 

I believe the Christian religion to be profoundly true; true to an extent that they who are styled its most orthodox defenders have never, or but in rarest glimpses, once or twice in a lifetime, reached. I, who seek to be a realist, to deny and put off everything that I do not heartily accept, do yet catch myself continually in a practical unbelief of its deepest teachings. It taught, it teaches the eternal opposition of the world to the truth, and introduced the absolute authority of the spiritual law. Journal, December 27, 1834.

Or this:

As soon as beauty is sought not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker. “Art,” Essays, First Series, 1841.

And what would Emerson’s young acolyte, Thoreau, think of tree spikers who claim his good name as authority for their pranks?

I imagine they learned about him from books much like the literature anthology I was provided to teach juniors. It includes a 3,000-word excerpt from his 10,000-word essay “Civil Disobedience.” Nowhere in the background material or the followup “shaping interpretations” and “extending the text” questions is the slightest hint that there might be anything problematic about the idea of disobeying laws that you don’t like. It’s all offered as unquestioned nobility.

I would think that in the wake of the ”Battle of Seattle” and dozens of like events, people who like peace and government by those who have actually won elections might consider the case for order worth at least mentioning.

For myself, I’ve been suspicious of street politics since Elliot Gould’s character in the 1973 movie Paper Chase pointed out that “riots are sexy” and that quite a lot of civil disobedience and protest had more to do with getting laid than with any enduring principle. When they aren’t just partying, protesters quite often come across as obnoxious thugs trying to impose their views by force--intimidating officials who won elections and jamming processes that quite often derive from the consent of the governed.

They like to speak the language of democracy, but if they could win elections with their points of view they wouldn’t need to tip over cars and scream obscentities.

James Lopach and Jean Luckowski have correctly noted the unbalanced and somewhat thoughtless way the teaching of civil disobedience is handled in school. They observe that

Traditional civil disobedience has usually combined deep spiritual beliefs with intense political ones. And while appreciating the differences in the two worlds—render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s—practitioners respected both. Gandhi, for instance, while leading a massive populist movement against British occupation of India (in the 1930s and 1940s), grew distrustful of mass demonstrations because participants were unwilling to go through the difficult process of purifying their actions; that is, grounding their activism in religious faith and human dignity. Martin Luther King, who warned that civil disobedience risked anarchy, went to jail “openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

The discussion of civil disobedience should include also, at minimum, a discussion of the rule of law, of the social contract, and of the difficulties inherent in setting oneself up as a judge of one’s own case.

There is little depth in most of the materials I’ve been able to find for teaching Thoreau’s ideas of civil disobedience. Most seem to be written by twenty-something teachers enthralled with the idea of a noble intellectual resisting the forces of the state. It’s a fun posture for young people who have not yet learned how fragile government of the people and by the people can be.

Here are a few readings that might help in deepening the understanding of what is at stake in acts of civil disobedience:

First things First
Insight on the News
The Future of the End of Democracy

I would welcome readers sending others.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/08 at 11:51 PM
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