Tuesday, July 4, 2006

The Fire at Breed's Hut: A Parable on America's Direction

We thought [the fire] was far south over the woods,—we who had run to fires before,—barn, shop, or dwelling-house, or all together. 'It's Baker's barn,' cried one. 'It is the Codman Place,' affirmed another. And then fresh sparks went up above the wood, as if the roof fell in, and we all shouted "Concord to the rescue!" Wagons shot past with furious speed and crushing loads, bearing, perchance, among the rest, the agent of the Insurance Company, who was bound to go however far; and ever and rearmost of all, as it was afterward whispered, came they who set the fire and gave the alarm. Thus we kept on like true idealists, rejecting the evidence of our senses, until at a turn in the road we heard the crackling and actually felt the heat of the fire from over the wall, and realized, alas! that we were there. The very nearness of the fire but cooled our ardor. At first we thought to throw a frog-pond on to it; but concluded to let it burn, it was so far gone and so worthless.

—H.D. Thoreau, Walden ("Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors")

July 4 is a loud day in American culture, and especially in American politics. But quite apart from fireworks, you'll be hearing a lot of noise today about great Americans that we're supposed to be honoring and remembering on this day. You might hear the names of various founding fathers tossed about; you'll certainly hear Lincoln mentioned a lot; and you'll be reminded of other great figures of the American past, depending on what particular magnate or politician is delivering the encomium.

But I'd be willing to bet that you won't hear this guy's name mentioned. He is, to my mind, among the greatest Americans who ever lived and wrote. Most notably, he produced two masterpieces appropriate to the celebration of freedom (which is what this day is supposedly all about): Walden and Civil Disobedience.

Henry David Thoreau has a lot to teach us (those of us who would listen, anyway) about the way of freedom. The vignette quoted above comes from one of the final chapters of Walden. It could stand today as a metaphor on this administration's misadventure in Iraq—a fire that was mindlessly started by those same fools in Washington who manufactured an alarm and then slunk to the rear of the action. Others who responded to the front lines of the conflagration ranged from the profit-minded (the insurance agent in Thoreau's parable) to the whole array of adventure-seekers, rumor-mongerers, and embeds. Some would have been burnt amid the pace of the action and the heat of the blaze; most, however, would have behaved as did Thoreau's thrill-seeking gang. They would have recoiled before the chaos and the danger, and retreated homeward, telling one another tales of past greatness and daring rescues; while others suffered the consequences of their idle madness.

For after these had quailed before the heat and the peril, however, who would be left behind? Naturally, the victims of the disaster; those who suffered most from the cowardly plot of fools, and had been left to live amid the desolation.

It chanced that I walked that way across the fields the following night, about the same hour, and hearing a low moaning at this spot, I drew near in the dark, and discovered the only survivor of the family...He gazed into the cellar from all sides and points of view by turns, always lying down to it, as if there was some treasure, which he remembered, concealed between the stones, where there was absolutely nothing but a heap of bricks and ashes. The house being gone, he looked at what there was left.

There is no glory, no pomp, no festive display in the desolation left by the mindless conflagration of war. There is only darkness and mourning; poverty and sickness; displacement, ruin, and misery. That is all experienced in the solitude of desperation. So remember, tonight, that every sparkling bomb we set off in the night sky over America will be answered by another cry of despair, and an equal burst of rage, from the people of Iraq. I believe the latest polls tell us that some 90% of the population wants America out of their country, while more than half think it's a defensible position to kill American troops in order to realize the wish of that 90%.

Thoreau lived through a similar war fed by profit-taking for a wealthy few, with destruction and misery for everyone else (the Mexican misadventure). In fact, he spent time in jail for refusing to pay taxes to support that war. His Civil Disobedience was written to awaken Americans to the wanton arrogance of despotic cowards who sent others into battle while they celebrated their indulgence, calling it freedom.

Henry David Thoreau knew a chicken hawk when he saw one, and he was unrelenting in calling them all to account. Social activists and people of conscience that followed him—Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Gandhi among them—studied his books and carried his teachings forward into new struggles and new awakenings.

So if you'd like to celebrate the indulgence to go down to BJ's and stuff the back of your SUV with enough food and goods to equip an entire village of South Asia or Africa, then go ahead. But if you'd prefer to celebrate freedom on this Independence Day, I would suggest that you spend some time with the stories and lessons of Mr. Thoreau.

I would like to wish all the readers of Daily Revolution a happy and nourishing holiday.

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