When do the inhumanities of a regime mount so high that they cancel out
loyalty to one’s country — particularly, for example, the obligation to
carry out orders of the state? In the modern period this question has come
up again and again, whenever a revolutionary regime has claimed moral
superiority to its predecessor.

An appeal to the ethical principles of Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba would
obviously not get you very far in today’s Havana (a question less academic
to me than to most Americans as I’ve lived in both Batista’s Cuba and Fidel
Castro’s Cuba.) But this moral problem has raised itself once again in the
case of little Elian Gonzalez. Should our Miami police obey the wishes of
present-day Marxist-Leninist Cuba (this entirely in accord with
international practice) and aid in turning over little Elian to his father,
at present a doorman at a tourist hotel in Cuba?

During our Mexican War, of which he disapproved, Henry David Thoreau, the
darling of generations of American college students, wrote a famous essay
called “Civil Disobedience.” Generally speaking, when America has been
involved in a military affair in which the students are eager to avoid
serving — such as the Vietnam or even the Mexican War — the reputation of
Thoreau’s essay has been that of the best thinking on military conflict that
American letters have produced. By contrast, when the U.S. is engaged in a
war that commands wide popular support, a “people’s war,” Thoreau’s essay is
quite forgotten. It should be remembered that neither Henry nor William
James, both of military age, served in our Civil War.

“No man with a genius for legislation has yet appeared in America,”
writes Thoreau. Such geniuses are rare enough in the history of the world,
he points out. America has had orators, politicians, and eloquent men by the
thousand, but the ideologue capable of settling leading questions has yet to
be heard from. Thoreau quotes the aphorism, “That government is best which
governs least.” But he goes further, affirming stridently, “That government
is best which governs not at all.” He solemnly quotes objections to a
“standing army” (a subject of ongoing debate in the 19th century).

But Thoreau goes further, deploying “at last” his argumentative skills
against not only a standing army but a “standing government” — which has
never, of itself, he says, furthered any enterprise. In America, Thoreau
affirms, a “standing government” did not settle the West. A “standing
government” has not kept the country free. Government, he believes, is
merely an “expedient whose goal is to let the people alone.” Men who
automatically obey their state have only the same sort of worth as horses or
dogs. As for the American government of Thoreau’s own day, the virtuous man
“cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” Furthermore, in so far as
justice is concerned, he adds, “if I have unjustly wrested a plank from a
drowning man, I must restore it to him though I drown myself.”

This is strong stuff, revealing a strong absolutist strain in Thoreau. If
a law is unjust, he says, break the law. Under a government which
imprisons men unjustly, he says, the true place for a just man is also a
prison — “the only house in a slave state in which a free man can abide
with honor.” He asks only to meet face to face with a representative of the
American government, particularly the state government of Massachusetts (his
native state) but most especially the state’s “tax gatherer.”

Thoreau’s principle seems to be that if the state engages in any activity
of which a citizen disapproves, the honorable citizen should simply refuse
to pay the taxes to support it. Such a man as his tax gatherer has
voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government, Thoreau explains. Let
us then see if such a man is capable of carrying out his loathsome mission
without rude or impetuous thought or speech. Otherwise how shall the tax
collector ever know the full circumstances of his action until he’s obliged
to consider how he should treat his neighbor, for whom he necessarily has
respect as a neighbor and “well disposed man”? Quite possibly, like Thoreau
himself, he’s a graduate of Harvard.

If men hesitate from fear that in prison their voices would no longer be
heard, they fail to realize “by how much truth is stronger than error.”
Applying his theory to real life, Thoreau during the Mexican War refused to
pay his poll tax (tiny — and there were no income taxes). Believe it or
not, he actually spent one night in the local lock-up, which for him was a
thrilling experience, of which he was inordinately proud for the rest of his

In support of Elian Gonzalez’s fight to be an American, citizens of a
moral nation should therefore refuse to turn the young boy over to a U.S.
marshal who comes to claim him in preparation for a forcible return to Cuba.
And if a U.S. marshal should refuse orders, and refuse to arrest Elian, then
the marshal too should be arrested. But this should hold no terror for him,
says Thoreau, as the marshal would be going to prison for a noble cause. And
if he’s confused about this, the marshal should be given a copy of Thoreau’s
essay, which will explain to him his moral superiority to other men.

Thoreau, of course, had witnessed none of the depredations of the modern
totalitarian state, which has broken millions of men merely for their
opinions or “race.” And Thoreau’s words might still sound splendid today on
America’s campuses, but in Cuba they’re a sick joke. In Havana I was once
told fervently by a lady government official, her eyes burning,
“Marxism-Leninism is my religion! And Fidel is my God!” In all your sweet
reasonableness, Mr. Thoreau, go argue with that one.

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