Category Archives: Civil Disobedience

Free Speech Around the World

By Harriet Martin

The law will never make a man free; it is men who have got to make the law free. – Henry David Thoreau

While on a trip in Northern Europe, I visited the Oslo Parliament building in the capital of Norway. Oslo is the center for government in the country of 5.2 million people. Scandinavian countries like Norway are famous for their constitutional protections of free speech. Norway gained a constitution in May of 1814, yet censorship has been banned since 1770. On the World Press Freedom Index, Norway ranks one out of 180 countries. The United States ranks 43. These Northern European countries paint a picture of a land, where Thoreau would look on in favor. Thoreau’s ideas conflicted with the mainstream in his time; the protection for those with new ideas  in some countries today would make him proud. Yet, the range of free speech protections can vary greatly around the world.

Parliament building in Oslo, Norway. (Credit: www.visitoslo.com)

On the negative end of spectrum, the first country we will look at is Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a country rich in resources, namely oil, located in the Middle East. The Saudi government consists of a theocracy headed by a king, who commands the military forces. Internet censorship is one of the most prevalent examples of free speech limitations in the country. According to Free Speech and Free Press, over 2,000 pages are blocked, including pages on religion, humor and media. The right to peaceful protest, a cornerstone of American democracy, is definitely not followed in Saudi Arabia. Activists in the country have to live with the risk that they could be injured, or in some cases killed by police. 

Another country with a questionable record on free speech is China. A modern superpower with over 1.3 billion people, China will imprison journalists. NPR reports that China has imprisoned a record 199 journalists. In the graphic below, from the website Freedom House, countries are ranked by their level of freedom, which is a metric that takes into account many factors. The prevalence of free speech protections is a good indicator of the stability of a country.

Europe is completely free, when compared to the African and Asian continents. Africa and Asia are the current centers for political turmoil, which is reflected in how “free” they are. As you can see China as well as Saudi Arabia are a resounding “not free.”

Enough virtual globetrotting, let’s turn our gaze to home. In the U.S Constitution, the First Amendment guarantees every citizen very important rights: Freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. It allows citizens to hold different points of view and is what makes the cultural mixing pot of America so fascinating. For the purpose of this blog, we will look at freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

However, the U.S is not completely free. As mentioned earlier, the U.S ranks 43 on the World Press Freedom Index, down from a ranking of 20.  This low ranking on the World Press Freedom Index is attributed to the Obama administration’s aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers that included eight Espionage Act Prosecutions as well of its investigation of journalists, according to rootsaction.org.

While the world and the United States have changed significantly since the time of Thoreau, it’s more vital than ever that we stand for what we believe in so we can live up to our moniker of  “nation of the free.”

Harriet Martin is a youth blogger for The Roost and a student at Concord-Carlisle High School.

 

    

    

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‘I Declined.’

By Kristi L. Martin

American society is currently embroiled in a political tumult over the suitability of certain public monuments and what to do with those that are questionably objectionable to present sensibilities and values. This raises abstract questions about the values of American society, as well as the symbolic meaning and power invested in objects. These questions interest me as an American public historian.

Yet, thoughtful conversations seem hard to come by in this moment of impassioned civil strife, cultural disconnect, and often violent agitation. Ours is a moment in history that resonates with the writings and life of Henry Thoreau on many levels. Hailed as the forefather of “civil disobedience” and spokesman for living a life of principle, Thoreau was an ardent abolitionist who had little use for the form of politics. Thoreau was also an advocate of listening intently.

Amid the angry, echo chamber of voices on social media, I stopped scrolling on a post that was distinctly different in tone from all the others – serenely composed, without sacrificing the strength of the author’s principles. I read:

“I would have no problem living my life without statues of specific people. Give me more trees, flowers, open skies, waving grasses, freely flying birds, roaming herds of animals and all of God’s creation. If man feels that isn’t enough, make your artwork general. No human being is that important we need to see them immortalized in stone.”

I was struck by the uniqueness of this statement. Here was someone not arguing for memorializing this human over that human. Instead the author appealed to the transcendent humility of human history in the grandeur scheme of the life. Her words reached something in my heart that elevated my thoughts above the turmoil and disquiet. I was instantly reminded of Thoreau.

On September 18, 1859, Thoreau recorded in his journal that he was asked to contribute toward a statue in memory of his neighbor, the educational reformer Horace Mann.

Thoreau wrote, “I declined, and said that I thought man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he was dead. We shall lose one advantage of a man’s dying if we are to have a statue of him forthwith. This is probably meant to be an opposition statue to [Daniel] Webster. At this rate they will crowd the streets with them. A man will have to add a clause to his will. ‘No statue to be made of me.’ It is very offensive to my imagination to see the dying stiffening into statues at this rate. We should wait till their bones begin to crumble – and then avoid too near a likeness to the living.”

Thoreau died in 1862, three years before the end of the Civil War. I will not condescend to imagine what Thoreau might say about our present day debates regarding monuments. Though it begs the question of what Thoreau would think of the statue of himself that now stands near Walden Pond.

The proliferation of public monuments to statements that Thoreau lamented were part of nation building in the 19th century. New Englanders attempted to define their own historical heroes in granite and thereby what cultural values would be upheld in the future.

The passage from Thoreau resonates more deeply with present debates than its general comment on public statuary. Daniel Webster was a noted statesman and famed orator, who disgraced his reputation in the estimation of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law, requiring New Englanders to comply with slavery. Horace Mann, whose statue Thoreau presumed was to be erected opposite of Webster’s on Boston Common, literally opposed Webster over the Fugitive Slave Law in Congress. But this is more of an aside, than to the purpose.

What I’d like to draw out of this passage in connection to the social media post written by my friend Lisa, is not a debate or an answer to a debate. My purpose is to draw out the quality of reflection, humility, and transcendence present in both passages in response to the impulse conceit, and predictability of reaction.

Rather than prompt further debate, controversy, or angst, reading Lisa’s words took me outside of myself, outside of anger, worry, and fear. Her words inspired me to surrender my own ego, to let go of the loud opinions bombarding my virtual environment, and to reconnect to the nurturing beauty of nature and my higher self. Perhaps you, too, will want to decline relation to stone statues – at least for a moment. Perhaps you, too, will go outside and look up at the sky, smell the air, feel the wind, listen to the birds, taste the fruits of the season, and remember the blessing of being human … and be present, be peace, for a Thoreauvian moment.

Kristi Martin is a doctoral candidate in the American and New England Studies, Boston University and is a historical interpreter at Thoreau Farm.

 

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200 Years and Counting: Thoreau’s Work Still Relevant

By Harriet Martin

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? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. ― Henry David Thoreau

It takes only one click of a button to be assaulted by conflicting and contradictory opinions from both sides of the aisle. The country we live in today is at a turning point in its history. With so many opinions vying for our attention, it provides great insight to look back at the words of a pioneer of civil disobedience for desperately needed guidance today.

A prominent writer and abolitionist, Henry David Thoreau was famous for his essays on various topics in his era. One of his most profound collection of essays was “Civil Disobedience,” which postulated how much loyalty an unjust, corrupt, or in any way ineffective government deserves from the citizen who cares about the future of the country he or she lives in. Henry was thrown in jail because he refused to pay a poll tax he found unjust.

In this day and age, more freedoms are allowed to people who wish to protest for the issues in which they believe. After a controversial election, many people were concerned about hot-button issues like women’s rights, science, the environment, and taxes. Following Thoreau’s model of non-violent civil disobedience, people took to the streets.

Women march in front of the Capital Building Credit: New York Magazine

Women March in front of the Capital Building
Credit: New York Magazine

On January 2, all around the world, women and their allies left their jobs, homes, and families and organized in massive marches. The Women’s March in DC drew from 470,000 to 680,000 participants, The Atlantic reported. Each participant was armed only with a sign and her voice in the true spirit of peaceful protest. People chanted and marched down streets declaring in one unified voice, “We are Strong.” Other major cities that hosted a Women’s March were New York, Chicago, and in our back yard, Boston. In total more than 550 towns and cities registered protests and marches just in the United States. As well as us common folk, many celebrities turned out to show their support for women’s rights. Gloria Steinem was an honorary co-chair of the Washington March and Scarlett Johansson was an official speaker. Other celebrities marched with the people on the streets.

Another march that took place recently was the March for Science on April 22, 2017. This march focused on our planet and the steps that need to be taken to advance science and protect the environment. After a tumultuous election, the scientific community marched to demonstrate the importance of science to citizens of the earth. Protesters gathered to encourage policymakers to make policy based on scientific evidence; provide funding for research and discourage political attacks on scientific integrity. Many scientific organizations were represented, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the biggest scientific societies in the country. One outspoken co-chair of the march included Bill Nye. The march took place across the country and the world. Major gatherings took place in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. The march in Boston had 70,000 people! Not only modern times have used the idea of peacefully protesting regimes.

From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., some of the most ardent advocates of civil rights have used the idea of peaceful protest. Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay on “Civil Disobedience” and it inspired him to persevere in his quest for civil rights. Martin Luther King also read Thoreau’s essays, which highlighted how widespread Thoreau’s ideas became and the impact they had.

Who knows, without Thoreau we might not have achieved much of the social progress we rely on today.

Harriet Martin is a student at Concord-Carlisle High School and a youth blogger for The Roost.

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