Civil Disobedience: Good in theory, nearly impossible in practice unless you have critical mass

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Ms. Wu

American Literature

31 October 2008

Civil Disobedience:

Good in theory, nearly impossible in practice unless you have critical mass

In his groundbreaking essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), Henry David Thoreau argues that the best government is one that “governs not at all” (1). He urges his readers—every man with a conscience—to challenge the American government that has thus far pandered to the interests of select individuals posing as the voice of the masses and transform it. His call is not to the government to reform itself (although he would like to see the government “rapidly and systematically” decrease its oversight and essentially work itself out of a job); rather he speaks to the individual man and insists that he speak out loudly for the “kind of government [that] would command his respect” (1). He places the onus of change on the individual and instructs him to be wary of the perceived strength of the democratic majority who is merely physically not morally stronger. Who then should preside over government? The individual man, of course, according to Thoreau. In other words, to borrow the U.S. Army’s campaign slogan, Thoreau exhorts every man to become an army of one, the voice of justice, and—if that were not enough—the government’s moral conscience.

While I agree with Thoreau’s premise that an individual has the power and responsibility to speak out against the government when it legislates immoral or unjust actions, I take exception with his notion that an individual man can singularly engender the necessary transformation in government that will bring justice and goodness to society while serving as its authoritative moral conscience. While being “men first and subjects afterwards” sounds compelling, Romantic even, I remain unconvinced that an individual can effectively change the world on philosophy, conscience, and moral fortitude alone (2). Call me a pessimist or, worse, cynic who has lost faith in the power of the individual (apologies, Super Man), but I contend that true societal, cultural change must have critical mass in order to overhaul an old institutional practice and replace it with a new or at least improved one.

Consider the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, Rosa Parks refused to follow Jim Crow law and give up her seat on the bus, a noted individual act of resistance which is credited as the catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement during the late 1950’s and 60’s; however, she had help. There was the Montgomery NAACP for which Parks was secretary, the Montgomery Improvement Association, the Congress of Racial Equality, Student NonViolent Coordinating Committee, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, countless churches, and leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who worked tirelessly over the span of thirteen years to bring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and later 1968 to pass. Rosa Parks was by no means alone in her convictions. Only after thousands of people mobilized and worked together to conduct repeated non-violent acts of civil disobedience did the civil rights cause gain momentum. Critical mass energized the movement which by nature of being a movement needs people. In the 1950’s and 60’s, enough individuals shared the same convictions about racial equality and civil rights that they formed a powerful plurality that gained the attention of the democratic majority which eventually led to institutional change.

While I concede Thoreau’s point that an individual’s moral conscience may be more discerning and reliable than the government at large or even the democratic majority, I challenge Thoreau’s premise that an individual’s isolated act of resistance, i.e. spending a night in jail due to tax evasion in protest against the Mexican War, is sufficient to create a “better government” that will ultimately spawn no government. Even the most extraordinary individuals like Rosa Parks or Ghandi need kindred spirits who share the same deep passion for social justice to spark the revolution they dream of seeing. An army of one, while appealing to the ego, is impractical and nigh impossible to yield successful results. However, an army of many ones—now that is an idea that has proven effective and inspirational. Perhaps Thoreau could concede that point.

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