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【ACO Book Reviews Open Call】Fung Yuet Fai -《梭羅:公民不服從》"Thoreau: Civil Disobedience"

Fung Yuet Fai -《梭羅:公民不服從》"Thoreau: Civil Disobedience"

Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, with his ideas of civil disobedience crystalized in numbered paragraphs, serves as a straightforward warning to contemporary readers of the consequences of our own complacency under a dysfunctional government.

A government is originally set up to serve its people. But as history has demonstrated countless times, a few seemingly inconspicuous individuals, with usually a totalitarian ideology, are capable of slowly sowing the seed of manipulation to paralyze or even work against the initial function its people set out for it. Advocating for people to govern with their conscience instead, Thoreau puts the preconceived notion of the law as just itself into question. Even more so, he decries how soldiers, in marching into the battlefield against their common sense, have their humanity diminished into a mere shadow—their body into a mere pawn. This judgment comes in time when a conflict in our world explodes to yet another warfare in such a turbulent time.

Thoreau’s essay, motivated by the urge to end slavery in the US in the 19th century, and in opposition to the Mexican-American War, reminds us how at times it is the ordinary people who may be close to us who, for the sake of convenience, oppose the evil deeds of their government without taking any real action to stop it; people are accustomed to wait passively for others to remedy these evils. Even voting for the right—in Thoreau’s view—is a noncommittal act, a bare minimum done by the self-proclaimed, virtuous people. The right inevitably displays their lack of conviction while the worst have the most passionate energy to exert their will onto the majority. Revolution lies not just in a convenient expression of stance—the talking about it, but performing an action in accordance with that stance. Even those in service of the government have the power to rebel by turning their allegiance against it.

When the government fails to change your mind, it seizes your freedom by means of confinement because your body is the only thing the government can reach. But as Thoreau ponders during his confinement, one is freer in prison when one lives in a country that confines the just—he simply does not feel confined. This prefigures what less than a century later, Camus terms the absurdist mode of existence—the rebellion of one’s thoughts as a testimony to one’s liberty amid unreasonable confinement.

Concurrent to its expression of personal pessimism toward the system are glimpses of political optimism in striving for a better government that is led by its people, that recognizes its people as the reason behind its existence. Even though it is rooted in the American context, this book espouses universal themes as different parts of the world are collectively struggling to make sense of oppression by their own government. Thoreau reminds us of the importance to cling onto our human connection with one another regardless of race to fight against totalitarianism and political brutality.

(Images provided by Fung Yuet Fai)



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