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Henry David Thoreau’s call to action in “Civil Disobedience”

By Zach Colten

Jeffrey S. Cramer said he felt “lucky” to give his talk on transcendental author Henry David Thoreau’s famous essay, “Civil Disobedience” in the Ecumenical Center on Tuesday, Sept. 26.

“If any of you have done public speaking, you know if you get to speak in a really nice space, you actually sound smarter, so I should sound really good tonight,” he said.

About 40 people attended Cramer’s talk, which covered topics ranging from common misconceptions about Thoreau, to complications about the term civil disobedience itself, to modern manifestations of the ideas Thoreau sparked in his revolutionary writings.

Cramer is not only a die-hard Thoreau enthusiast, but he is a global expert on him and his work. In addition to his work as curator of Collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods Library, Cramer is also the editor of “’Walden’: A Fully Annotated Edition,” and has been the recipient of multiple literary awards, including the 2004 National Outdoor Book Award.

Jim Flemming of Wisconsin Public Radio said, “Jeffrey Cramer lives and breathes Thoreau. He may know more about the bard at Walden Pond than anyone else alive.”

The talk began with the story of Thoreau’s night spent in a jail in Concord in 1846. Thoreau was imprisoned for his refusal to pay a poll tax to a government that supported slavery.

According to Cramer, following his release from prison, Thoreau was even more compelled to speak out for the cause of individual “self-reformation,” an inherent duty one has to uphold universal moral obligations such as peace, love and justice, over obligations demanded by civil government. Cramer noted how important this small event was in Thoreau’s life to ripple out and “change the way the world acts. It changed the way that people around the world think in regard to when your government is doing something you find morally reprehensible and wrong, you need to do something about it.”

Cramer related Thoreau’s stand against taxation as a form of civil disobedience to that of Rosa Parks and her refusal to move out of an all-white section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus.

He brought these examples to light for the purpose of contextualization, noting that Thoreau in his time was poised as a powerful writer with a platform to spread his ideas, whereas Parks was “chosen” to become a symbol for the Civil Rights Movement because “who she was in the town and how she was portrayed on the news would be much better for the cause.”

Cramer stressed that when viewing and interpreting acts of civil disobedience, “We need to be aware of not only the act, but sometimes how it is represented.”

In the latter part of his lecture, Cramer moved on to relate “Civil Disobedience” to modern times. He explained the difficulty in doing so, because in many ways the world looks so different from the one to which Thoreau was applying his principles. However, he noted the unstable economic systems, polarized political landscapes, and social tensions that existed in Thoreau’s time are comparable to the issues we face in America today.

Cramer drew on the recent example of Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player who took a knee against the unjust actions he saw taking place in the United States, specifically police brutality. Cramer interpreted Kaepernick’s taking the knee as a symbol of his respect for the “serious injuries that a country is suffering,” and a “refusal to accept the America he saw.”

The true value of an act of disobedience against either civil laws, in the case of Thoreau and Parks, or social expectations of standing for the national anthem, in the case of Kaepernick, is not in the act itself, but in the conversations it starts, and the ideas it mobilizes to spark real change. Cramer said he loves watching “the fuel [Kaepernick’s] opponents give him by talking about it.”

To finish the talk, Cramer left the audience with an idea for how they could interpret the teachings of “Civil Disobedience” in our day-to-day lives. To quote from Thoreau, “the fate of the country does not depend on the paper you drop into the ballot box once a year, but the kind of man you drop from your chamber onto the street every morning.”

Mike Pfitzer, a visiting lecturer at FSU, said he came because he was interested in the subject matter, but also to gain insight for a project he is working on with the FSU chorus this year called “Songs of Resistance.” The project is compiling music from various resistance movements around the globe, and Pfitzer wanted to learn more about “how we think about disobedience, and “how that could relate to what we do today as people.”


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