On "Civil Disobedience" and commonality between Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
July 9th, 2010 DeWang
What's common between Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr? Henry David Thoreau. That's because Gandhi's successful non-violent struggle for Indian independence from the British and King's successful non-violent civil rights struggle to free African Americans were deeply influenced by Thoreau, especially his essay, "Civil Disobedience."
(How does this relate to
"Civil Disobedience," published in 1849, "argues that people should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that people have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice. Thoreau was motivated in part by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War." (Wikipedia.org)
Mahatma Gandhi to American reporter Webb Miller, on Henry David Thoreau:
Mahatma Gandhi first read Walden in 1906 while working as a civil rights activist in
Martin Luther King Jr. autobiography talking about his inspiration from Henry David Thoreau:
Here, in this courageous New Englander's refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.
I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice. (Wikipedia.org)
In fact, many influential figures were greatly influenced by Thoreau's philosophy. U.S. President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and Russian author Leo Tolstoy all spoke of being strongly affected by Thoreau's work, particularly "Civil Disobedience." (Wikipedia.org)
How does this relate to
Allow me to digress a bit more. I recently visited Walden Pond, which during Thoreau's time was just outside the then town of
Here is a passage from the book and currently marks the cabin site where he lived the two years:
Henry David Thoreau's Cabin Site next to Walden Pond
Walden emphasizes the importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the "desperate" existence that, he argues, is the lot of most people. The book is . . . a social critique of contemporary Western culture's consumerist and materialist attitudes and its distance from and destruction of nature. (Wikipedia.org)
True to Thoreau's thoughts on preserving nature, the town of
How does this relate to
More importantly, people in
I recently had a conversation with Noam Chomsky (professor of linguistic at MIT and perhaps the most well known dissident critic of
It's the present world order and its past world orders too. Thucydides pointed out centuries ago that the powerful do as they wish, and the weak suffer as they must.
When will it change? There have been some changes for the better, and more can come. Depends on the actions that the public is willing to take.
The world has been becoming more complex and diverse for some time.
Wasteful consumption, US-style, is likely to destroy the possibility for decent survival.
When Chomsky talks about "actions that the public is willing to take," he is referring to the same philosophy Thoreau espoused in "Civil Disobedience." While the American public failed to stop the 2003
And the same with opposition to aggression. I mean, after all, the
My question to Chomsky was motivated by what the Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong has said of the Western powers in the last couple of centuries – that they have established a culture of "power" in international relations. Implicitly, he is also saying for a better world, we have to have a culture of international relations that is more "moral" based. (
The linchpin of Chomsky's answer to that question is "Civil Disobedience" and reliance on the right (as in "moral") "actions that the public is willing to take." In some ways, Chomsky is embodiment of Thoreau and more. But I am a little bit disappointed in my subsequent exchanges with Chomsky; he has not yet offer me a more "hopeful" answer. In 1988, he co-authored the book, "Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media" where he made the case that essentially the Western public is subject to brain-washing by their media. In other words, the public cannot be relied on to do the "right" thing, because their consent is manufactured.
Coming back to
The Chinese experience is one of invasion and exploitation by foreign powers for the last few centuries because the Chinese were not able to muster up a strong enough government to defend themselves. This experience is polar opposites to the European experience – where strong governments tyrannized the people. So, the Western priority is one of "check and balances" for their governments. In
I suspect "Civil Disobedience" is probably not a "new" concept in
Here is an interesting conversation between Ai Weiwei and Tom Lasseter,
Tom Lasseter: Your public presence is a very transparent one in many ways – your constant Twitter feeds, interviews, videos, etc. Beyond the content of those things, is the transparency itself a message?
Ai Weiwei: "Very much so … To deal with this power, or this authoritarian society, the strongest tool is to be transparent, to (be) very open, to try to start a conversation or a discussion or just throw out something which can generate this kind of motion. Transparency itself is the tool but also it's the purpose (that) this tool is trying to achieve. So-called justice or fairness will never come if there's no transparency."
Tom Lasseter: How do you answer when government representatives ask why you do what you do?
Ai Weiwei: "They realize I'm not hired by any foreign agency. I come from a family which started longer (ago) in the revolution than them, most of them. They're influenced by my father's poetry in the early time, in the 1930s, he also was in a nationalist jail, was also a Communist exile. So they couldn't find why I'm doing it, they couldn't find why I am identifying myself with somebody on the street. You know, this is just simply beyond their understanding – 'Why do you care about this guy who's mistreated, I mean there's really no association between you and him.'
So I try to explain to them we are all related, you know, if one is not free then none of us are free, this kind of very basic values. But still it seems (for) people hard to understand it, in
… "Secondly, you have to have a judicial system which is independent. And set up a rule, no matter how wrong the rule is, but we all have to follow the same rule. Otherwise you cannot start a game: you are a dealer, you are dealing the cards but you steal the cards, you change the rules all the time depend(ing) on what is in your hands. So nobody is going to play with you, then you lost your authority, then the whole situation becomes deteriorated and corrupt … that's what (situation) today China is in."
For those familiar with
His father's prominence in
So, yes, "Civil Disobedience" happens in
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs