Nonviolence and Thoreau

I was on a panel at WCU, part of a month-long series of events on nonviolence. The question posed for the panel was about the limits of nonviolence. This was my contribution:

Thoreau: The Defender of Violence in the Nonviolent Canon

David Henderson

I love nonviolent, civil disobedience. From Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers protecting the Amazon to the many movements of the Arab Spring, I see nonviolent struggle as holding great promise for the transformation of the world toward peace and justice. When I consider these things, any resort to violence looks like a failure of imagination at least and maybe a failure of courage. Surely by now we know that dying for your cause is far more powerful than killing for it.

But I also love violence. I have spent countless hours training in the martial arts and learning diverse weaponry, with no other goal than personal enjoyment. I watch violent movies with vigilante heroes and I read violent novels about samurai. I am infected with the American sickness, the American bloodlust. Our love of violence is a terrible national idol, and we sacrifice our children in its fires still. But is an absolute principle of nonviolence the only way out of this mess? I’m reluctant to conclude an absolute so quickly, before we’ve really faced the full mess of our conflicted and ambiguous attitudes toward violence. So if I turn toward Thoreau for help, it’s partly because I know him best—my day job is as an environmental philosopher—and partly because he embraces and embodies the tangled mess of the contraries that I struggle with.

Principled, nonviolent disobedience in the face of violent and oppressive states is not a new idea. Shadrac, Mishac and Abednego provide a fairly typical example from the ancients—with no other resistance than that of their conscience they brought the king to his knees. And the conviction that lex iniusta non est lex, that an unjust law is no law at all, which gives courage to such disobedience was clearly articulated in late antiquity by the African Bishop. But nonviolent resistance has taken on a more definite form in the last century, a sort of movement across movements. It is a tradition all its own, with its heroes and a distinctive literature, from Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail to Gene Sharp’s list of 198 methods. And with an indisputable place in the core of this canon, is an essay written by Henry David Thoreau, generally known as “Civil Disobedience,” about his own trip to jail a century before King’s.

Thoreau went to jail for refusal to pay a tax, which would have conveyed not only material support but also his allegiance to a government which both condoned slavery and waged an unjust war on Mexico to perpetuate and expand that slavery. He begins by nodding approvingly toward the nonviolent Christian anarchism of William Lloyd Garrison, but stops shy of endorsing it out right—“I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government,” he writes instead. He can imagine a government he could respect, one that would act with justice toward each individual, the slave and the Mexican included. One that didn’t demand its subjects to check their conscience at the door. But the enslaving and pillaging American government, he could not in good conscience be associated with.

In this essay Thoreau declares himself to be personally at war with the US government. But his war is a small one. It doesn’t require blowing anything up or doing any violence at all. It just requires saying “no” to the government, when it asks for your acknowledgment. There is not a government in the world that could keep on with its abuses if its people simply cut it off from their support.

…if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name,—if ten honest men only,—aye if one HONEST man, in this state … were actually to withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefor, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. … If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.

When the government forces a choice between giving allegiance to its violence, or being the object of its violence, there is only one principled choice. Be a person or a be cog. Serve your country in its sin, or save it from its sin by throwing yourself into the gears of the machine to gum up the works.

Thoreau thus laid out and modeled the blueprints for what has become a core tactic of nonviolent struggle. Go get arrested and fill the jails with prisoners of conscience. But Thoreau failed to account for the care of his friends and family, who preferred to pay taxes on his behalf and so bail him out than to join him in prison. They, in Thoreau’s words, “let their private feelings interfere with the public good.”  I do not mean to suggest that his personal war was ineffectual—for he turned it into an essay, which became the greatest example of the pen being mightier than the sword. Gandhi read and translated Thoreau, and used this tactic to great effect in India’s peaceful revolution. King recounts the essay having a profound effect on his own thinking. The essay deserves its spot in the canon of nonviolence.

But the same Thoreau who wrote “Civil Disobedience,” providing such an eloquent defense and model for nonviolent resistance, also wrote “A Plea for John Brown.” John Brown was also an abolitionist, a fellow worker with Thoreau on the Underground Railroad. But his means of abolition were rather more direct and confrontational. He fought with and killed pro-slavery forces in Kansas. He rescued slaves in military raids. While he moved in the circles of abolitionists committed to nonviolence, such as William Lloyd Garrison, it was often to raise money for weapons. He held his own constitutional convention among escaped slaves and abolitionists in Canada, to form a new state which he planned to establish in the middle of what was then Virginia. Frederick Douglas and others tried to dissuade him, but to no avail—although they may have reduced his recruiting ability among the escaped slaves.

With only a score of men, Brown took over an armory at Harper’s Ferry, VA. But a train came through and got out word. Brown was defeated and captured by US Marines, led by Robert E Lee. There was terrible violence in this, from which the nation recoiled. The first man killed in the raid was a free black man working on the train, shot by someone in Brown’s party, and Brown’s own children were among the casualties by the end. The initial news reports treated Brown as a terrorist and a madman. But not Thoreau. Thoreau not only spoke in his defense, but lionized him. He compared John Brown to Jesus and declared him to be the greatest and truest American yet. And he addressed the question of violence head on:

It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. They who are continually shocked by slavery have some right to be shocked by the violent death of the slaveholder, but no others. Such will be more shocked by his life than by his death. I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his methods who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave when I say, that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me. At any rate, I do not think it is quite sane for one to spend his whole life in talking or writing about this matter, unless he is continuously inspired, and I have not done so. A man may have other affairs to attend to. I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable. We preserve the so-called peace of our community by deeds of petty violence every day. Look at the policeman’s billy and the chaplain of the regiment! We are hoping only to live safely on the outskirts of this provisional army. So we defend ourselves and our hen-roosts, and maintain slavery. I know that the mass of my countrymen think that the revolvers is to fight duels with them, when we are insulted by other nations, or to hunt Indians, or shoot fugitive slaves with them, or the like. I think that for once the Sharps’ rifles and the revolvers were employed in a righteous cause. The tools were in the hands of one who could use them.

The same indignation that is said to have cleared the temple once will clear it again. The question is not about the weapon, but the spirit in which you use it. No man has appeared in America, as yet, who loved his fellow-man so well, and treated him so tenderly. He lived for him. He took up his life and he laid it down for him. What sort of violence is that which is encouraged, not by soldiers but by peaceable citizens, not so much by laymen as by ministers of the gospel, not so much by the fighting sects as by the Quakers, and not so much by Quaker men as by Quaker women?

Some suggest Thoreau’s defense of Brown helped turn the largely pacifist abolition movement into something that could support the Union army and fight a civil war. That likely puts too much credit on Thoreau’s plea instead of on Brown’s raid, but Thoreau certainly turned the national conversation about the raid. And abolitionists like WL Garrison certainly turned from being absolutely committed to nonviolence to endorsing the use of military force to end slavery.

So how does Thoreau, a mostly vegetarian naturalist, who quit collecting specimens for Agassiz  because the killing got to him, who knows the power of nonviolent revolution, become the public defender, even the hagiographer, for John Brown? Because Brown’s action was not merely an act of violence, it was also many other things. From Thoreau’s perspective, it was also a man preferring to follow the higher law of his conscience rather than the petty rules of the state. It was a man voting against slavery and for justice with the whole of his being. He had dared to imagine a better state and had attempted to give it birth. Even Gandhi says he prefers violence to cowardice, and John Brown was courageous if he was anything.

The people and papers hadn’t really been appalled by Brown because he was violent. That was but a pretext for their horror. The whole slavery mess was drenched in blood and violence already. They called Brown a madman and a fool because he attacked the state, and challenged it’s right to be arbiter of that mess. Like King and Thoreau, he refused to recognize the unjust law as worthy of the name. “He had the courage,” Thoreau said, “to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong.” Brown also knew the power of dying for his cause.

Thoreau was not John Brown. And I don’t think that John Brown could have written “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau knew Brown, but he didn’t join the secret circle of his friends who went around raising money for Brown’s band. He did help smuggle an escaped survivor from the raid to Canada afterwards, earning a bit of legal complicity in the affair. Thoreau was not John Brown, but neither could he condemn him. Thoreau’s peaceful revolution had not succeeded. Unlike Gandhi, Thoreau could not inspire hundreds or thousands to follow him to jail. He could not even get the tax collector to arrest him again. It remained to be seen what fruit Brown’s sacrifice would bear.

Martin Luther King says that if we “succumb to the temptation of using violence in the struggle for justice, unborn generations will live in a desolate night of bitterness, and their chief legacy will be an endless reign of chaos” (in Long 196). Desolate bitterness and reigning chaos may describe the Civil War pretty well, but it also ended slavery. Would ending slavery nonviolently have been better in a thousand ways? Absolutely. Is the legacy of that violence still an obstacle to achieving the beloved community? Yes. But not more so than the legacy of the violence of slavery itself.

Is nonviolent resistance much more effective than violent resistance? Looking at the history of the last century, from Poland to South Africa, there are good reasons to say yes—it is a force more powerful. Does a commitment to nonviolent struggle carry moral power? Can it end the cycle of retaliation and improve the soil for growing a lasting peace? I am convinced it does and can. Like Thoreau, I find the arguments against a standing army convincing. But also like Thoreau, I cannot condemn John Brown. I do not know if slavery would have ended without him.

Some have characterized those who advocate nonviolence pragmatically and not absolutely as being weak, as offering the nonviolence of the weak (Chernus). Perhaps I am. But it does not seem to take strength to assert certainty and absolutes—asserting a stronger principle does not make a stronger mind. A physicist who thinks gravity is a stronger force than his colleagues do, is not a stronger, better or even a heavier physicist.

I’m a pragmatic advocate of nonviolence. I have used more than one of the methods on Gene Sharp’s list. I would rather die rightly than kill wrongly. I think no enemy is beyond the possibility of reconciliation into beloved community. But I do not know what situations may come my way, and I cannot say with certainty that violence would be appropriate in none of them. And I cannot condemn every violent act of resistance to injustice that has been waged through history. Would you condemn those who died on the beaches of Africa trying to set their families free from the departing slave ships? Would you call them weak?

What are the limits of nonviolence? Only time and struggle will tell.

Oldest Animal – Ming (1499-2006) RIP

File:Ming clam shell WG061294R.jpg

Ming (photo credit: Alan D Wanamaker Jr1, Jan Heinemeier • James D Scourse • Christopher A Richardson1 • Paul G Butler • Jón Eiríksson • Karen Luise Knudsen)

Ming, an ocean quahog clam, was dredged up from the Icelandic shelf in 2006 at the ripe old age of 507, by scientists looking for long term climate records for the north Atlantic. Original estimates of the clam’s age put it a century less than that (which still earned the title of oldest known animal), but a fresh analysis has established the older age with a high degree of confidence.

Scientists are quick to point out that there are probably other clams at least as old still living in the ocean, and probably others have been served in chowder. And Ming does not begin to compete for oldest known organism, if we include plants, microbes, clonal organisms or colonies. There are a surprising number of plants with ages given in millennia. Still, this is the oldest animal we know of, and we killed it (albeit unwittingly) for science. Ming’s demise raises two interesting questions in my mind: how does age relate to value, and how deeply connected is killing to science?

Most of us would not hesitate to kill an ordinary clam for food, or to collect it as a specimen if we thought any interesting scientific question could be answered by it. Why should the clam being old change that? This reminds me of the incident around the felling of a tree called the “Mother of the Forest,” which caused a great outcry and boosted a growing preservation movement. If the concern were only care for the organism killed, we might be troubled less by the death of older individuals, because they had already lived full lives. So why are we bothered more? It has to do with a sense of sublimity or reverence at things which exceed the scale of our own existence, either in size or age. I suspect the death of Ming would be treated as a much bigger deal if the clam had grown to a great size as well, and giant sequoias several centuries old are bound to get more reverence than a 12,000 year-old bush in the desert. But relating age to size only helps so much, for we seem just as much at a loss to explain why big animals deserve more respect. All we can say is that, for better or worse, we do respect size and age. Perhaps it is enough justification that these organisms help us put our own pride in check.

The other question Ming raises is about science and death. I once interned at the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection. Such collections are extremely important to scientific work in evolution, ecology and taxonomy. If you have only been to zoos, you might think this would be a similar place by the name. Wildlife collections have more in common with The Far Side comics than with zoos though; there is row after row of shelves with jar after jar full of pickled creatures. Don’t get me wrong, I loved working there and would gladly do it again. There is nothing quite like spending an afternoon up to your elbows doing inventory in barrels of rattlesnakes. And if you have ever looked at a field guide with a range map, you have relied on the data these specimens provide. Some of the creatures died of other causes (roadkill, for instance) and were scavenged for science, but most were killed for the collection. There is increasing discomfort with it, but this is our mode of operation.

Thoreau started down this path, helping Agassiz establish the collection at Harvard, but he recoiled when he found that the work had produced in him an immediate desire to kill any rare creature he found. Gandalf’s rebuke of Saruman is apropos: “he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Seen this way, as a thirst for knowledge that trumps compassion and reverence, science appears to be a species of lust. But understanding the climate is not a feather for our vanity, it is of real and urgent importance. Would you refrain from dredging a sample of a clam bed for such a project, if you knew that you might kill a penta-centenarian clam? While they didn’t aim to kill the oldest animal, I think they may have know that was a risk they were taking.

Animal Perception

Apparently many animals are scared of power lines because of how they flash like fireworks. Caribou keep miles away, which is a problem for the whole migratory thing. What? Never noticed the power-line fireworks display? It happens to be in the ultraviolet spectrum, which most animals besides apes see just fine. It is an interesting thought–most animals can tell if the power lines are live just by looking at them.

But just as interesting is that animal behavior with fairly obvious causes could remain a complete mystery to us, because we don’t look at the world through their eyes. Now this is kind of hard to do, but we could do a much better job with a little imagination. We know a lot about what color spectrums are visible to different creatures and what pitches they can hear. We know about echolocation, Jacobson’s organ, motion-sensing freckles on alligators and electrical sensitivity in fishes–all sensory fields foreign to most of us.

When we ask if an animal is camouflage or aposomatic, we need to ask for whom. I suspect that while the coral snake is aposomatically colored for bird predators, with their broad range of color vision, and humans, it is fairly well camouflaged for any predators that are red-green colorblind. And who knows what may have bright warning colors in the UV spectrum but look perfectly drab to us humans.

Understanding animal behavior and our influence on it will require us to put more effort into understanding the other ways of perceiving the world.

Maybe one of you can write a Google Glass app for ecologists, with settings to render visible the appropriate spectrums for different animals.

Jaguar Habitat Update

I posted sometime back about the controversy over designating critical habitat for the Jaguar in the southwestern US. The Jaguar has been listed as endangered for decades, and the Endangered Species Act requires designating critical habitat for all endangered species. But the Fish and Wildlife Service refrained from designating habitat on the grounds that we don’t have any jaguars. Occasionally one comes over the border, but the vital habitat needed for preserving the species from extinction is clearly south of our border.

Well, it is done.  Over seven-hundred-thousand acres in Arizona and New Mexico are now to be managed as Jaguar habitat. What will this mean in practice? Can the Jaguar serve as an effective umbrella species in absentia? Will this inevitably lead to a reintroduction attempt? And is that good or bad?

The ecological benefits of predator restoration are immense. And the aesthetic value of wilderness is completely transformed by the presence of things that can kill you–the landscape goes from serene to sublime. Indeed, the very word wilderness comes from the Old English wildeor, meaning “wild beast.” But are there limits? Are there predators just too dangerous to keep around? What do you think?



New Blog Title: Earthshine

Sketch of Earthshine by Leonardo da Vinci

Sketch of Earthshine by Leonardo da Vinci

When the moon is a thin crescent, sometimes you can dimly see the rest of the moon. This is because the moon is illuminated by light reflecting off of the earth. If you were living on the Moon, you would see the earth go through phases, waxing and waning, like the moon does when viewed from earth. In fact, the phases would be inversely correlated, when the earth is roughly between the moon and the sun, we see a fully illuminated moon, but the earth would appear all shadowed to a lunar observer.  When the moon is between the earth and the sun, we see a mostly shadowed moon, but the earth would be fully illuminated if you were looking at it from the moon. You would be able to walk in the dead of night and see where you were going, because the full earth in the lunar sky would cast bright earth beams, that is, lots of earthshine.

As an environmental philosopher, I like to use questions from ecology to test ideas of ethics, theology and what it means to be human. So the idea of being illuminated by light reflecting off the earth is a metaphor to good to pass up.

And as someone living in Appalachia, I like the idea of earthshine in another way as well.

Wolf Delisting?

In the news this week is a Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to delist the Gray Wolf from endangered species protections entirely.  At one level, this makes fine sense: populations are established in the northern Rockies and in the western Great Lakes region, meeting the original goals of the recovery plan.  But how few of our woods and fields that once knew the animal is it yet restored to.   And how many are the foes of its recovery, pushing hard for the removal of federal protections and eager to reduce the wolf to ecologically insignificant numbers once more.  The state of the wolf recovery in the lower 48 has been but a hopeful, promising bud of Spring, which some seek to nip ere it flowers.  The success of the Gray Wolf restoration has been a token of hope for the rewilding and restoration of America’s ecology.  The Red Wolf still flounders in the East, living mostly in captivity.  The Mexican Wolf restoration falters on the brink.  From the mountains of Maine to the Sierra Nevada, there is work yet to be done in wolf restoration. The northern Rockies hear the howl again, but it is not a tenth of the former range.  Shall we having once put our hand to the plow now recoil from it?

But the cattle, it is protested, the wolves are killing and eating our cattle.  (Isn’t that what they are for?)  Nostalgia for the wolves should not trump economic sense.  But what are the cattle doing on our public lands anyway?  Cowboy welfare and its below cost public leases, these are not a higher use of the land.  That too is but a nostalgia for a day gone by, and an inferior nostalgia at that.  The wolf is viable and can be recovered.  The ranching economy (at least for cows) maybe not.  Besides, the wolf is a better steward of the land and keeps it from overgrazing.  Cattle have destroyed too much already in the arid western landscapes.  Let the cattle leases expire and make way for the return of the Bison.  They know how to live with wolves.  Once they provided meat for many nations, and it could be so again.

Photo: Gary Kramer, USFWS

Photo: Gary Kramer, USFWS

But what shall we say for the wolf?  Public commenting on the proposed change opens today.  Wolf populations are such that they could have long-term viability with reasonable state management, but there is immense pressure at the state level towards a policy of near extermination.  Taking the political climate into account, continued federal protections appear necessary for the packs to flourish.  Reasonably large numbers at present won’t secure the species from intentional policies of extermination.  The wolf is endangered and should be protected as such, until we learn to be peaceable and accepting neighbors.

Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013)

We must say farewell to Ronald Dworkin, a great legal and philosophical mind who died this month.  I learned from reading his work a great deal about the richness of legal reasoning and its deep (and to some baffling) connection to moral reasoning.  The public rhetoric about the role of judges as applying law and not writing it and the cries of “activist judge” trade in such thin caricatures of judicial and legal reasoning by comparison.  Fortunately his insights do not die with him, and there is hope that we can build on them toward a better understanding of what a legal system of justice and integrity really requires.

Game of Crows

I’ve known for some time that birds can play. I first read a clear defense of this in Jack Turner’s Abstract Wild, where he describes pelicans riding the thermals of thunderstorms. I think Turner’s work is also where I read about gulls that drop into the jet of air coming out the black of planes getting ready for takeoff; after getting blown across the tarmac, they fly back for another ride. And a student once recounted to me the sight of a crow dropping a feather high in the air, doing flips around it as it fell, catching it before it landed and then doing it all again. He asked me cautiously whether that could have been play, or whether it must have been some sort of mating display. I’m not sure why the idea that birds play really needs a defense—few doubt that dogs play. We are disturbingly begrudging in our willingness to admit any richness in the interior lives of animals. Perhaps some feel that the joys of human life would be more secure, if animals would just be little instinct driven robots. Not me—joy does not derive its value from scarcity.

The idea of storm-chasing pelicans and thrill-seeking gulls warms my heart. But now I have to admit that bird play is not all fun and games; sometimes it is downright mean. The new book Gifts of the Crow, reviewed here, describes jungle crows on an island in north Japan picking up dry pellets of deer shit, and “deftly” wedging them in the deer’s ears. Hilarious, yes. Also deeply wrong. Can you imagine if there was a species of wildlife that like to play pranks on us with our own excrement? Camping would be a little less enjoyable.

But what does this tell us about the inner life of crows? This has to be play of some sort; how could playing games with deer scat possibly have a selective advantage or function? The appeal could just be the challenge of a moving target that must be snuck up on. Or it could mean that crows are able to take pleasure in tormenting the deer. Scratch malice (and creativity) off of the list of things that separate us from the other animals.