Seeing that today is Election Day here I go. I have in the past enthusiastically encouraged everyone I know to get themselves to the polls and vote. I’ve stopped doing this recently not only because it seems hopeless, but because I realized those who I took so much time convincing to vote were voting exactly the opposite of myself.

What seems so hopeless to me is that no matter what the outcome of an election, there will be it seems very little if any change to the welfare of those oppressed around the world.

I recently read “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau. I don’t remember ever reading anything by him before and only think of Waldon Pond upon hearing his name. But I saw it at a garage sale and remembered I had just been told by a nineteen year old less than twenty-four hours earlier, “How do you expect to become a better writer if you don’t read”. Ok he’s apparently smarter than I am.

So I read it, only 48 pages, but that’s all he needed. I never knew Thoreau was such a rebel. Well I knew he was a rebel, but not THAT kind of a rebel, you know the kind that agrees with me. He obviously must be right.

First take into consideration the context of how he came about writing this declaration. Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience” when he began practicing it, he wasn’t all talk no action as most of us are. In 1849 he had been arrested and spent the night in jail for refusing to pay a “poll tax” in protest of the Mexican-American war and slavery. Upon his release he went home and wrote ‘Civil Disobedience”.

I think Lincoln must have read “Civil Disobedience” before he said, “Government should ONLY do for the people what they cannot do as well for themselves.” Perhaps he hadn’t read it, perhaps, just maybe less than 100 years after our nations birth, the ideas this country was founded on, the ideals of Payne, Jefferson and Franklin were still very clear to thinking Americans. It was a pleasant surprise to read Thoreau referring to States rights versus the Federal Government just as Jefferson did 100 years before him, which tells me the idea of it had not yet been lost. I was taught in school, and quite wrongly, that when America was founded the overriding, accepted principle was a strong centralized Federal government lording over the people. The concept of States governing themselves without much intervention or interference from the Federal is barely ever mentioned in today’s textbooks, although the debate for a less intrusive limited government actually won the day.* Our children are taught, as if it were truth, that the Founding Fathers believed in very limiting States rights. I have to wonder when we lost the notion of people governing themselves. I guess it must have been during the Great Depression. The idea that “We the People” are not in actuality capable of solving our own problems, that we must look to the government to step in and govern to protect us from ourselves seems to have gained prominence then.

The “New Deal” did solve many problems, but it was a quick solution to serious problems many of which remain to this day. Look closely at those problems and you will see they were caused in great part, BY the government overstepping it’s bounds in some areas, and neglecting for political gain those areas for which they were responsible. A solution that stops the bleeding on the surface while the actual wound remains under the skin is not the healing of it, it only hides the wound and gives a false sense of well-being. So was the New Deal and yet it changed everything. It fostered a notion in the American psyche that the government not the people should be the solution to most problems, not only financial and legal, but social as well.

We as a nation have headed down this path of relying on the government to be the solution to our problems for three generations and I pray it stops, if not with mine than with my children’s. But the idea of individual responsibility, of a single person being able to effect change seems to have been somewhat misplaced even in Thoreau’s day.

“I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten men whom I could name—if ten honest men only—ay, if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually to withdraw from this co-partnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done is done forever. But we love better to talk about it: that we say is our mission.”
H.D. Thoreau
‘Civil Disobedience”

The idea Thoreau was trying to get across is a simple one. Do not expect the government to take action on your part. Voting does not dismiss your obligation to humanity to act on your principles. Go ahead and join Bono’s “One Campaign”, I have, but do not think that you have done your civic duty when you cast your ballot. You are required to act upon your ideals, not just vote for them.

Of voting Thoreau said, “All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote. “

The simplest way that I can put it is this. Get off your butt and DO something. If you think your hands are clean because you are not actively participating in injustice, or because you have gone to the poles and voted your conscience, you are wrong. If we do not get down in the muck, crawl through the dirt and fight tyranny face to face then we are dripping in the blood of the innocent. We cannot as our grandfathers did, say, “We didn’t know about the gas chambers how could we stop them.” Mass media has changed that; the oppressed are in front of us every day, there is no excuse any more for non-action. There are children being slaughter and victimized every day in Africa, listen to their screaming, their blood cries out, and it’s crying out to you and me.

It is not great thinkers who have changed our world; great men who took action have changed it. The ideas of Martin Luther were nothing, until he not only wrote them down, but also took a hammer and nailed them to the front door of the church. He saw injustice and tyranny in the form of religion and he knew it was wrong, so he took his life in his hands and acted.

In the same way Martin Luther King not only had a vision – a dream, but he formed a plan and carried it out forcing change through civil disobedience. He was a spark that helped instill in others the boldness to risk their safety and take action.

I am not a radical, I am not advocating sit-ins and peace rallies though those can be useful tools to bring about awareness and change. Risking a little physical comfort or your financial security seems like a small sacrifice compared to what others in the past risked to change the world for all of us. I am talking about actually becoming a participant in the solution. Not hoping for a solution to come from government or an impotent United Nations, but taking action and becoming the solution ourselves.

The probability of becoming a martyr is slight in this day in age. But the possibility of actually making a difference to the future of another human being by not only reacting to a situation but also responding with action is immense. One man’s vote may not make a difference, but one man’s actions always will.

• Read the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers