REMEMBERING AN AMERICAN RADICAL, HENRY DAVID THOREAU
A little bit ago, in searching for a way to criticize the over-intellectualizing practiced by many "progressives," some advice of Thoreau's came floating up to me from high school: "Simplify, simplify."
This led to a brush fire of Googling, as I cross-checked my memory, and then to the delight of finding a whole bunch of Thoreau quotes I had forgotten ... from the pious ("It is never too late to give up our prejudices") to the insightful ("When a dog runs at you, whistle for him") to the downright cantankerous ("We should distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes").
What a contrarian crank Thoreau was, though he was taught to us in high school as another granite monument to stodginess, a "good" and therefore patriotic American who thought deep American thoughts and lived in a cabin in the woods.
He was pure American, all right, which means he was rebellious down to the marrow, down to his hair follicles -- impudent and irreverent, a radical, a libertarian, a stiff-necked objector to what was "popular," and a sometimes rueful observer of the human condition:
"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them."That's just plain dark. And so was his view of government, which at that time was allowing the institution of slavery:
"If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law."You can make up your own mind what Thoreau would have thought of George W. Bush, but here's a broad hint:
"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison."
"What is human warfare but just this: an effort to make the laws of God and nature take sides with one party."He wouldn't have felt much affection either for fellow New Englander John Kerry, which brings us full circle to where we began. Poor Kerry couldn't simplify anything, especially those pronouncements he uttered in 2004 that wrapped their tails twice around their heads and throttled their own windpipes.
Because "progressives" so often see complication growing like a thicket screening every worthwhile goal, they find it difficult to simplify. Can't tell yet if any of the four-and-twenty magpies running for president have the gift of Thoreauvian simplicity, but we can hope.
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