This week, many libraries are participating in Banned Book Week events, asking readers to talk about a book that is banned or threatened.
The list is long and disappointingly filled with books I loved, from To Kill A Mockingbird to The Bluest Eye and many of Mark Twain’s masterpieces. But the one book that I choose to revising in honors of Banned Book Week is the kind of book that doesn’t only just settle in the heart, but also works as a key to unlock the mind.
It was a book that I discovered in college, and one which caused me precisely the kind of experience that you hope to get from the journey of higher education. It was the kind of book that illuminated, for me, a different world than the one I had constructed out of my limited experience. It was a way of seeing that ought to have been obvious all along, but that had somehow eluded me in life, until this wise author, with elegant yet simple words, helped me to pull the veil from my eyes.
It was the kind of book that changes everything, and not just because of the intellectual stimuli it provided, but because it was a guidebook, a philosophy that I understood and could embrace. It was a beacon of light so bright that I could set a path by it. It was a compass of morality that didn’t spin on sanctimonious emptiness, but one that rang true and real in ways that nothing else that had claimed the lofty title of morality had ever before rang inside me as so real.
It was a book that had inspired others who, in turn had inspired me. Gandhi had based his whole life’s work on its philosophy; Martin Luther King Jr. set America’s heart on fire on the basis of this book, this one very short, yet so infinitely precious book.
And it was a book that shaped American philosophy, a book that arguably more than any other book (though it has a few worthy contenders) reflects the spirit of our American forefathers, their vision, their enlightened minds, their foresight, compassion, and pragmatic sensibility.
The book led me to other favorites of the same era that, I should say, also exploded in my head like supernovas, revealing the way to universes of ideas that would take me a lifetime to distill: Melville’s “Bartleby The Scrivener,” for example, which in my mind remains the best American short story ever written, or Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” an essay that to this day describes in the most eloquent of terms the most valuable aspirations of any education. And of course, all of Emily Dickinson’s poems — works and writers that have affected us and that will continue to affect us for centuries to come.
But the book is special above them all for me. To this day, I return to its principles, again and again. It helps me to find my way in what sometimes feel like a blustering of falsities in the present political climate, a storm of soundbites and catchphrases that reverse the meaning of words we once counted on to lead us, like the word freedom too often used to define how others must bend to the will of one narrow dogma held by a loud and vicious minority; or sacrifice, a word now used to define and justify the deliberate abuse and degradation of others. In these times, the book reminds me that I still have a choice, that there can never be circumstances in which I can rightfully be asked to sacrifice my basic human principles, that when those circumstances arise (and they arise too often, and too frequently, under the guise of patriotism, swathed in the grand cape of fear and xenophobia), that I should remember my right to be human, my right to conscientious, peaceful objection. And it also reminds me that washing my hands of issues I think I cannot control is acting like Pontius Pilate. It teaches me again and again that a silent voice is a voice of assent; that a decision not to decide is still a decision.
It’s a book that mirrors for us all the real nature of government and our hand in shaping it.
When my American Literature professor at NYU began the lecture on Thoreau, he shared an anecdote that I will now share with you. Thoreau’s trigger incident for Civil Disobedience was a jail sentence he served after he refused to pay a tax for church. He clearly stated that he did not go to church, did not believe in that philosophy and did not want to have to be forced to support an institution he disliked. Citing his freedom of religion, he gladly went to jail to avoid paying a tax he thought was immoral.
But that was just the start. Another tax he thought was immoral was a tax levied to fight a war against Mexico. He also loudly objected to having his tax money support the institution of slavery. He became convinced that his taxes were supporting an immoral government.
When he was locked in jail, his friend, the already-then acclaimed Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him and offered to bail him out.
“What are you doing in there, Henry David?” Emerson asked, balking at seeing Thoreau in jail.
“What are you doing out there?” responded Henry David Thoreau, balking at seeing Emerson out of jail.
The book was banned once, long ago under McCarthyism, but even in 2012 the book continues to serve as an uncomfortable work of philosophy for a small contingency of despots who are afraid of the empowering message that the book contains. A book that identifies despotism so clearly, a book that decries its immorality in such persuasive and clear terms is a book that is dangerous to any abuser of personal rights. And that is why the book has been recently banned by Arizona schools, along with many other worthy books: banned from ethnic studies programs.
The reason for such a ban are so transparent as to become embarrassing. And yet, even today, Arizona and many schools and libraries around the country consider Civil Disobedience to be a dangerous book.
It is, truly so, a dangerous book. As would be any book that contains a truth so powerful and so empowering. And that is why if you are a lover of American freedoms you owe it to yourself to read it, from beginning to end, with lots of underlining and contemplation: so that you will never be a victim of those who chose to distort our understanding of words and books in order to prove exactly the opposite of what those words and books are meant to inspire.
Here are a few of my favorite quotes from it:
This American government — what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but each instant losing some of its integrity? It has not the vitality and force of a single living man; for a single man can bend it to his will. It is a sort of wooden gun to the people themselves. But it is not the less necessary for this; for the people must have some complicated machinery or other, and hear its din, to satisfy that idea of government which they have. Governments show thus how successfully men can be imposed on, even impose on themselves, for their own advantage. It is excellent, we must all allow. Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes got in its way.
But, to speak practically and as a citizen, unlike those who call themselves no-government men,(4) I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.
Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience? — in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?
… It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; — see if I would go”; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.