My husband recently announced his intention not to vote tomorrow. His reason is this: he cannot stand one of the candidates running for Governor here in Maryland (a feeling I share, but will not detail further). He approves of the other candidate, except in one respect: the candidate does not favor the death penalty. My husband has an excellent basis for feeling as he does. Some twenty years ago a member of his family was victimized in an extraordinarily horrible way. No one has ever been held responsible for her death, but if the perpetrator is ever found, my husband will call for his execution. That the otherwise favored candidate would not support such a result he cannot countenance.
He has converted what is in fact a choice between what he sees as two poor alternatives into a Hobson’s choice. The term “Hobson’s choice” purportedly originated with Thomas Hobson (1544-1631), who ran a livery stable in Cambridge, England with nearly forty horses. But those who inquired were told that they could take the horse in the stall nearest the door or none at all, the classic “take it or leave it” scenario.
My husband and I have had this conversation. Unfortunately he is a stubborn fellow, completely unlike me, an open-minded, non-opinionated shrinking violet. (Ahem.) He is unpersuaded.
There has been a good deal of writing for many years on the breakdown of American politics, and specifically the disenfranchisement of ordinary voters. These are the people, according to the pundits, who do not appear at the polls because they believe that their votes do not matter, that government and politics will go on much as they always have without regard for people too unimportant to merit a VIP reception with a Congressman. Rather than choose between what they perceive as two equally terrible approaches to the problem, they choose the “leave it” scenario and withdraw completely from political discourse. I cannot help but believe that the Citizens United decision – and the endless, substance-less television commercials which followed in its wake - will only exacerbate this state of affairs.
Henry David Thoreau, of course, made a name for himself by espousing the merits of solitude and withdrawal from the demands of life in society in Walden and Civil Disobedience. But Thoreau also recognized that he could not remain apart from the world forever.
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside. . . .
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. . . . If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
Thoreau, Walden (Holt Rinehart and Winston ed. 1961), p. 270
Personally I find it hard to reckon this language with Thoreau’s supposed anarchism. I don’t accept for one moment that Thoreau was an anarchist. I suspect he was a dreamer, one who found that only by retreating from the world could he emerge to fully engage with it. And engage with the world he did, writing, traveling, and eventually, plunging headfirst into politics. After John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Thoreau raged against the milquetoast abolitionists who distanced themselves from Brown.
A man does a brave and humane deed, and at once, on all sides, we hear people and parties declaring, “I didn’t do it, nor countenance him to do it, in any conceivable way. It can’t be fairly inferred from my past career.” I, for one, am not interested to hear you define your position. I don’t know that I ever was, or ever shall be. I think it is mere egotism, or impertinent at this time. Ye needn’t take so much pains to wash your skirts of him. No intelligent man will ever be convinced that he was any creature of yours. He went and came, as he himself informs us, “under the auspices of John Brown and nobody else.” The Republican party does not perceive how many his failure will make to vote more correctly than they would have them. They have counted the votes of Pennsylvania & Co., but they have not correctly counted Captain Brown’s vote. He has taken the wind out of their sails,–the little wind they had,–and they may as well lie to and repair.
Thoreau, A Plea for Captain John Brown (1859)