Every linguist knows that the meaning of words tends to change over time. What Jane Austen called “nice” in her time isn’t anything we consider “nice” today. That said, there are some words that are worth keeping in perspective. To my mind, the word “radical” is one of those words that we need to defend and reclaim.
To me, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, the word radical suggested people on barricades protesting injustice, civil rights abuses (segregation), and the war in Vietnam. They all seemed laudable to me for standing up for their various causes. One thing they had in common was that they would often mention Henry David Thoreau’s influential little essay about “Civil Disobedience.” Unfortunately, like many people, I sometimes mistook being loud and confrontational for true radicalism. It is really not—unless that behavior is in the service of a higher cause.
When I studied history at Oregon State University in the early 80’s, I had the privilege to take classes with Professor William Appleman Williams. Bill was at the tail end of a distinguished career. He was the author of influential works on US history and foreign policy like The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, The Roots of American Empire, Empire as a Way of Life, and The Great Evasion. He had been president of the Organization of American Historians and was considered ‘the dean of American diplomatic history.’ He could have been teaching grad students at Harvard, but he decided on Oregon as a place to live and he had a real commitment to keeping undergraduate studies relevant and rigorous.
He once reminded us that the real meaning of radicalism was to examine the roots of things (like in math–square roots and radicals). Math metaphors aside, the organic metaphor of plants is also instructive. The roots of a plant both anchor it in place and provide most of its nourishment. You can damage a lot of leaves and branches and a plant will survive; damage to the roots is real, serious trouble.
By learning about the roots of our social life and acting on moral principles, radicals are vital to the health of our nation. Far from being loud, confrontational troublemakers, as is often thought, they are generally truly patriotic and engaged citizens—the kind of people a vibrant democracy depends on for survival and growth. There are lots of ways to be a quiet, thoughtful, and yet effective radical.
This Covid-19 pandemic is a hard rain that is eroding our common ground and exposing the roots of serious problems in our society. One striking sign of this is the behavior of the small minority engaged in armed “anti-lockdown” protests. Some people call them radicals, they are not. They are merely dangerous extremists.
Because Thoreau has almost the same status as a “founding father.” They may shelter behind his essay as a defense for their outrageous behavior. This doesn’t hold water, and I think it worth explaining why.
Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” begins with an argument for small government. At first glance, this might seem like red meat for right-wing conservatives. That would be a serious misreading.
First, the context in which the essay was written is important. Thoreau was justifying his refusal to engage in military service during the Mexican-American war. He had looked into the roots of the issue and found the justification for war fatally flawed and immoral. Like later civil rights activists and opponents to the war in Vietnam, his action was in the service of minimizing human death, suffering and injustice.
Second, in his title, Thoreau refers to civil disobedience as a “duty,” not a right, freedom, or liberty. The word “duty” implies responsibility and even obligation. That duty and obligation is to a higher moral law. It is certainly not about doing exactly what you please.
Third, he begins his argument by saying that the elimination of the government is an extension of the idea of eliminating a “standing army.” Objections to a “standing army” already had good standing in British political thought long before the American revolution. What Thoreau is really preaching is what we might call ‘aspirational anarchism’—he looks to a utopian day when people will be so well educated, self-disciplined and tolerant that they will be able to govern themselves. Yet he also admits that people of his time were nowhere near that level of self-awareness. It is sad to say that we are no nearer that level today. The irresponsible behavior of the anti-lockdown extremists proves that.
Thoreau argues early that the government that does the very least…The most basic goal of almost any government is to ensure the security of its own people. That is a bare minimum. That is exactly what local lockdowns have tried to do. The coronavirus is not a traditional threat, so the lockdowns may seem intrusive, but so far science says lockdowns and social distancing are the only real choices we have at this point. Under the current circumstances, lockdowns aren’t exactly intrusive government.
In other words, the anti-lockdown protesters fail the test of true, morally motivated radicalism in every way. They aren’t really radicals, they are just dangerous extremists. They haven’t really looked into the roots of the pandemic issue and they clearly don’t understand it. They are not acting out of high moral motives to save lives (in fact their behavior directly puts lives at risk.) They seem to be motivated by pure self-interest (economic) or merely their frivolous pursuit of happiness (because they love waving their guns around and yelling at people about their liberties).
Some of them have displayed signs saying things like, “Your health is not more important than my liberties.” I’m sorry, but that is just wrong.
The founding fathers noted that we all have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If I take your liberties away for a few weeks, you can get them back. After that you can go back to pursuing happiness. If you take my life away, no one can give it back. So even to the founders, life was the first order of business. The order of these rights is not accidental.
The fact that these anti-lockdown extremists went into the Michigan statehouse armed with guns gives their game away. Brandishing guns is just a way to threaten and intimidate people in government. And that brings up a vital point. In much of the country, people started staying home without government instructions. Those are the folks who may be advanced enough to live without a government! The economic shutdown gripping the country wasn’t really brought on by governments large or small—it was a spontaneous outcome of a mass popular desire for self-preservation. Why so called fans of “small government” would try to thwart a popular movement is beyond me. Whatever the government says, people may continue to stay home. In fact, the behavior of the anti-lockdown people actually threatens to prolong the shutdown.
I guess they are really saying, “I don’t want to stay at home/ I just want to be left alone.” Kind of oxymoronic.
I think there are only three possible ways to explain the behavior of the anti-lockdown protesters. 1. A total failure of our educational system to teach civics and history. 2. A fundamental flaw in the American character. Or 3. The possibility that a lot of our people struggle to maintain the most basic brain functions. I like to think it might be the first, but I am less sure about that every day. I think you will notice that these same people helped elect a president that suffers from all three problems.