Happy Fourth of July. In my thinking about the day, it occurred to me that this may be the first and only nation that actually formed around the notion of dissent. We do more than tolerate dissent, we view it as the absolute bedrock of a democracy.
Then I recalled an all-time great American, Henry David Thoreau, who, in July 1846, spent a night in jail because he refused to pay six years of a delinquent poll tax at a time when American was waging what he viewed as an unjust war (the Mexican war) and while slavery was still practiced.
According to some accounts, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?”
Emerson missed the point of Thoreau’s protest, which was not intended to reform society but was a pure act of conscience. If we do not act on our discernment of right from wrong, he argued, we will eventually lose the capacity to make the distinction.
Prior to these events, Thoreau had been living a quiet, solitary life at Walden, an isolated pond in the woods about a mile and a half from Concord (reconstruction of the place below looks pretty nifty to me). Perhaps the sudden collision with the affairs of the world was a jolt to him: “The State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit 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.”
Toward his jailers, Thoreau expressed sadness: “They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are under-bred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. … I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.”
Apparently, Bronson Alcott had been taken to prison for a similar refusal, but was sprung by a friend who paid the tab. Hence, he wrote, “I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.”
Too often the importance of respecting dissent, not quashing it, gets lost in a big busy country. On my Facebook page this morning I posted a comment from Robert Reich, “True patriotism isn’t simply about securing our borders from outsiders. It’s about coming together for the common good.” I added this thought: Let’s make this a special Fourth of July. Left-wingers – go hug a right-winger. Right-wingers – go hug a left-winger. Try to listen to a point of view not your own. You don’t have to adopt it, just hear it out, trying to understand where the other is coming from without refutation, denigration, or ridicule. Try to see the other person as someone who also has a collection of life experiences and who is also fighting a tough battle. Put aside hatred, not just for today, but forever. Try to enjoy the cacophony of voices that make up a democracy. Any takers?
Meanwhile, here are a few words from Jerome Lawrence, one of the two playwrights (the other is Robert Edwin Lee) who wrote the very successful The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail: