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On “Civil Disobedience” and commonality between Mohatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Henry David Thoreau's Cabin Site next to Walden Pond

What’s common between Mohatma 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 China? Don’t worry. I’ll get to it soon enough.)

“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 Johannesburg, South Africa. He told American reporter Webb Miller, “[Thoreau’s] ideas influenced me greatly. I adopted some of them and recommended the study of Thoreau to all of my friends who were helping me in the cause of Indian Independence. Why I actually took the name of my movement from Thoreau’s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,’ written about 80 years ago. (Wikipedia.org)

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 China?

Allow me to digress a bit more. I recently visited Walden Pond, which during Thoreau’s time was just outside the then town of Concord in Massachusetts where he lived. Thoreau had actually lived for two years at the pond hoping to isolate himself from society a bit more (away from Concord) to gain a better understanding of society itself. While living in isolation, Thoreau wrote “Walden” – published in 1854 – which Gandhi referred to above. Below are some pictures I took while at Walden Pond. 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)

Walden Pond Summer 2010

True to Thoreau’s thoughts on preserving nature, the town of Concord today has kept Walden Pond and the surrounding areas pristine.

Walden Pond Summer 2010

(Above and below are pictures of people enjoying themselves in the Walden Pond.)

Walden Pond Summer 2010

How does this relate to China? Few years ago, I was in 杭州 (Hangzhou) and was deeply disappointed by the murky waters in 西湖 (Xi Hu), known in English as West Lake. West Lake has a lot of history and is of great cultural significance to China; arguably lot more so than Walden Pond is to the U.S. in those respects. While at Walden Pond, I thought to myself, West Lake’s water should one day be just as pristine.

More importantly, people in China should understand the works of Western philosophers like Thoreau. For one, it will help them understand the motivation behind a certain segment of the Western population. “Civil Disobedience” was motivated by Thoreau’s disgust against slavery and the unjust American war against Mexico. It became popular when Gandhi applied it against British colonialism. Martin Luther King Jr. also applied it to gain freedom for African Americans.

I recently had a conversation with Noam Chomsky (professor of linguistic at MIT and perhaps the most well known dissident critic of U.S.’s foreign policy) where I posed this question: “when and under what conditions do you expect our world to shift from “power” based to true “morality” based?” He replied:

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 Iraq invasion, a record number of Americans did take to the streets to protest. Chomsky is referring to this fact as “changes for the better.” (More here and a snippet below:)

And the same with opposition to aggression. I mean, after all, the Iraq war is the first war in hundreds of years of Western history, at least the first one I can think of, which was massively protested before it was officially launched. And it actually was underway, we have since learned, but it wasn’t officially underway. But it was huge, millions of people protesting it all over the world, so much so that The New York Times lamented that there’s a second superpower: the population. Well, you know, that’s significant and, I think, gives good reason for hope.

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. (Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong: “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes”)

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 China – the attitude of some Westerners, their apparent “contempt” for Chinese law or their seemingly subversive attitudes towards the Chinese government are partly rooted in Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Of course, I don’t mean to condone such contemptuous and subversive attitudes. With the Western media’s bias against issues relating to China, the combination makes them much more antagonistic.

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 China today, the people want, foremost, a government that can protect them from outsiders.

[Update]

I suspect “Civil Disobedience” is probably not a “new” concept in China, and if I dig into the history of this idea, I am pretty sure I’d find it some time in China’s past.

Here is an interesting conversation between Ai Weiwei and Tom Lasseter, Beijing bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers. Ai Weiwei is most widely known in the West for co-designing the iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium and now is one of the most outspoken critic of the Chinese government. (The Western media generally is trying to “ride” Ai Weiwei and position him in the West as someone who is defiant and anti Chinese government. That is lame and is an entirely different topic.)

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 China in general … I try to explain to them my ideas about freedom of speech, I think that’s good for everybody, for the state, for anybody.”
… “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 China’s reforms, transparency is a very active goal the government is working towards. Ideologically, Ai Weiwei is not at odds with the government over it.

His father’s prominence in China certainly helps, and perhaps the most important of all reasons explaining why Ai is able to continue his activism is what he said about “not hired by foreign agency.” Compared to some other “activists”, Ai seem to understand the importance of not breaking Chinese law.

So, yes, “Civil Disobedience” happens in China too.

  1. Dragan
    July 10th, 2010 at 00:16 | #1

    HI, yinyang, interesting post, though I am not sure what is your point

    It is certainly true that being connected to foreign elemnts is huge, inexcusible minus for any chinese activists. Among others, that is why Fang Lizhi, Wang Dan etc. are not even ephemeral characters in chinese politics today, with no appeal to chinese people home. But it is not enough, as the examples below show:

    Yes, disobedience happen in China as well, that is not question at all, but is suppressed, think of charter 8, investigative journalism, may 35th or Ai Weiwei himself – they are suppresed once the government calculates that the level / nature of disobedience is not tolerable. There are no clear rules what is tolerable or not, so it is purely up to gov’t to say that. that is different if compared with west.

    Second, I am not sure that check and balances in west are exclusively product of western governments tyrannizing the people in past BY DEFAULT, though citizen control is certainly connected to the wish not to let government or interes groups impose their will upon citizens. But in west that is a case of bottom up approach, people’s initative aiming to restrain the gov’t, possible only in democratic political systems

    But my questions is, in east, rulers have tyranized the pople as much as they did in West – just look China’s history, Qin, Ming, Mao etc…. China is only today moving toward establishing some form of check and balances and transparency in government, although slowly and in innovative fashion different from one in the west. But the main difference is that this is the case of top-down approach, the result of governments quest for legitimacy and her initiative to boost its relations with society and does not mean right away that the space for disobediance is growing.

    while his high profile protects him from retaliation by chinese government it is all not certain that at some point he will not find himself crossing the line of tolerance.

  2. July 10th, 2010 at 13:24 | #2

    @Dragan

    “There are no clear rules what is tolerable or not, so it is purely up to gov’t to say that. that is different if compared with west.”

    Purely? Ai Weiwei says he is not “hired by foreign agency.” Clearly, he understands a thing or two about China’s law.

    Relatively speaking, countries like the U.S. has had 200+ years legislaturing laws, so there are volumes miles high describing what can and what cannot be done – in conjunction with a long list of court cases unambiguously showing how laws are applied.

    Even as “mature” as one might think of the U.S. legal/justice system, in practice, it is also true that “it is purely up to gov’t to say that” ultimately. Look at Guantanamo.

    In my prior article, “Opinion: Citizens of Chinese heritage in the West to also bear the brunt of Western media bias” the point there is if the media is “racist” and law enforcement is “racist”, in practice, it was the government paying a blind eye.

    “Second, I am not sure that check and balances in west are exclusively product of western governments tyrannizing the people in past BY DEFAULT, though citizen control is certainly connected to the wish not to let government or interes groups impose their will upon citizens.”

    “exclusively” and “BY DEFAULT” are your words, not mine. I suggest a bit more of “spirit of the law” in your reading rather than “letter of the law.”

    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 China today, the people want, foremost, a government that can protect them from outsiders.

    “interesting post, though I am not sure what is your point”

    Thx.

    What’s the point? Lots. For one, this passage I just quoted of myself has been very enlightening for many of my American friends. This is nuance that benefits both sides.

  3. July 14th, 2010 at 18:03 | #3

    It should also be interesting to note that Gandhi believed that Communism would be more needed in India than “Democracy” and Capitalism. He felt that India was stuck in the muck of being ruled by the various elite groups, instead of by the People, and only the transformation of the mindset of the People through something like Communism would bring about a greater sense of civic participation.

    Indeed, Gandhi’s greatest achievement is his inspiration of the poor in India. How did he do it? He “lowered” himself. He cast off his own class privileges and lived like a poor. It was not merely a “sympathy” stunt, but a great act of debasing oneself to show to others that they can rise up. In essence, he said loudly to the society, “if I can live as a poor man, then all poor men can be greater than me.”

    Gandhi’s transformation of the People, is an essential education of the People, an education that I believe, Communism and Maoism in particular, contributed greatly to the world.

    Look upon the world, especially in poor areas of Latin America and Asia, Maoists still thrive after so many decades. Mao’s philosophy of the “poor uprising” still resonate around the world. Mao does not take up the “non-violent” approach of “living in Communes” as the symbolic act of rising up. Mao, in contrast to Gandhi, take the “do what is necessary” approach.

    Why? Gandhi wants an orderly not messy kind of revolution. Mao does not see that as always possible.

    Emotionally, I would prefer Gandhi’s ways, but intellectually and pragmatically, I know that Mao’s way is often the only way.

    Sometimes, prejudice and bias and hatred (think genocide), cannot be debated away and cannot be satisfied by selfless sacrifices.

  4. 2010
    July 14th, 2010 at 22:02 | #4

    “In China today, the people want, foremost, a government that can protect them from outsiders.”

    Indeed, the West wants this and that NOW or in 1-4 years’ time. The horrible and incompetent leaders they elect they despise quickly. The Chinese look at a Dynasty, an age of Peace and prosperity. Once an upheaval of warring states, it became a nation united. Over the millenniums of ups and downs – the Mongols came and went, the imperialists came and went, the old discarded and the new destroyed, and yet the Chinese remains. The West are impetuous, conceited and invasive; they know nothing of the holistic eternal, only of doomsday and the means to an end and the ending of the whole.

    Come now, look at their despicable ways:

    http://www.snopes.com/politics/soapbox/iacocca.asp

  5. 2010
    July 15th, 2010 at 03:52 | #5

    How would Noam Chomsky shoot this Jiang dude down, I wonder?

    http://the-diplomat.com/china-power/2010/07/14/language-culture-and-war/#respond

  6. July 15th, 2010 at 06:32 | #6

    Noam would probably say that Noam Chomsky is more similar to Laozi than Orwell’s 1984.

    Laozi and Noam both recognized the inherent doublespeak in words. But where Noam considered the use of words as political tools, Laozi considered the use of words to describe Truth as fundamentally futile.

    What is Truth? The combine of opposite extremes which are impossible to define.

    Noam and Orwell are coming from the very Western perspective that there is a Truth which is to be “freed” from authority and words.

    Laozi simply tell us that such a “freedom” of truth is a tragedy of human existence, and to seek such a “freedom” is futile. One man’s truth is no more true than another man’s.

    In this sense, the author Jiang is correct that there is a fundamental difference of value between China and the West. But Orwell did not rewrite Laozi in any fashion. Noam and Orwell are coming merely from their own perspectives.

  7. July 15th, 2010 at 12:13 | #7

    yinyang #2,

    You wrote:

    Relatively speaking, countries like the U.S. has had 200+ years legislaturing laws, so there are volumes miles high describing what can and what cannot be done – in conjunction with a long list of court cases unambiguously showing how laws are applied.

    I often have problem figuring out what one case say… You need to help me with the law review article I am struggling to write! 😉

  8. July 15th, 2010 at 12:57 | #8

    @rv #3,

    Interesting bit about Gandhi. To digress a bit, Malcom X was often viewed as the “opposite” to Martin Luther King, Jr.. The sad thing is all these people, Gandhi, King, and Malcom X were murdered for one reason or another.

    @2010, #4

    My personal view is we are all humans, and it’s the coincidence of our past experience that molds primarily our behavior today.

    I was talking to a close friend recently – he is of Irish and German decent and travels to Europe frequently. We had a conversation about the differences between Europe and the U.S.. One thing striking he mentioned was that in Europe, you’d still see walls surrounding villages and towns. In his words, “protection and conquest is a very predominant theme over there.” WW2 was the height of that – and the E.U. was formed primarily to guard against that sort of thing from happening in the future.

    @2010, #5, rv #6,

    I am of the same view as rv. Jiang is kinda “cherry picking” the two philosophies. Someone could just as easily find someone in the West (instead of Laozi from China) and make a same Jiang [edit: much stronger] argument [in the same vein].

    @Allen #7

    Ha, not to say which system is better. But I can see the argument that in a society with tons of laws and a very active judicial process, things seem more “clear cut.” The downside is of course, even if something is immoral and not the norm, they happen if there is no explicit law against it.

    You are the lawyer and you definitely know better than me. “Law and Order” very frequently cite prior rulings to determine how a future case results. Have I been brain washed?

    Basically, China’s societal “norm” is achieved differently than how it is achieved in places like the U.S.. Western critics of the Chinese government who do not pay attention to this sort of things actually achieve the opposite – only galvanizes more support for the government by the Chinese citizens.

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