How does a good citizen cope with a bad government?

John Crisp

GEORGETOWN, Texas (Tribune News Service) — “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day?” This is a question that Henry David Thoreau asked in 1848 as he considered his relationship to an administration that he thoroughly detested.

The administration was President James K. Polk’s, and the immediate cause of Thoreau’s discontent was the Mexican War, an illegal land-grab that moved Ulysses S. Grant to ponder whether there was ever “a more wicked war.”

Thoreau’s opposition to the war was backgrounded by his larger complaint about the federal government in 1848, its toleration of slavery: “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as ‘my’ government which is the ‘slave’s’ government also.”

So, Thoreau mused, what kind of a relationship should an honorable, enlightened citizen have with a corrupt government?

I thought of Thoreau’s dilemma last week when I ran into a friend, an avid Trump supporter. Unprompted, he said that he had never heard of John Lewis. But that didn’t stop him from asserting that Lewis was a do-nothing legislator who accomplished nothing during his 17 terms in the House of Representatives.

I didn’t point out that Lewis sponsored or co-sponsored more than 8,500 bills during his long tenure, but I asked my friend if he would at least give Lewis credit for the courage it took to defy the social norms and the laws of a segregated South. Would we have had the courage to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge into a line of well-armed state troopers?

My friend wasn’t having it. No, there are proper ways to protest, and Lewis didn’t have to break the law to make himself heard.

I’m not fond of the term “white privilege.” But there is something that I’ll call “white naivete,” which makes it easy for privileged white people to imagine that the same channels of objection to an unsatisfactory government that are open to them would be open to a Black kid from Alabama in the 1960s.

My friend has equal contempt for the protestors who have been demonstrating since the death of George Floyd. He dismisses them as anarchists, looters and criminals who are organized and paid by antifa or Black Lives Matter or somebody. Maybe George Soros.

For someone committed to the status quo, this is a convenient misunderstanding. But it ignores the fact that the vast majority of protestors are peaceful and that they are not only exercising a constitutional right but, according to Thoreau, a moral obligation.

Very few defend the looting and vandalism that inevitably accompany otherwise peaceful protests. But looting and vandalism are a sideshow that, unfortunately, provides an opportunity for people like my Trump-loving friend to dismiss the larger, righteous protest.

And it is righteous. People of color are killed by police at a much higher rate than white people. If you’re skeptical, try to imagine a police officer kneeling on the neck of a white man for nine minutes.

Some of the discontent that drove the original protests has evolved into justified anger against the federal government. If you are determined to forgive Trump for his defilements of decency and democracy, you should probably stop reading now. But if our democracy survives, history will look back on him as one of our worst presidents.

Trump has managed to combine the incompetence of James Buchanan with the malfeasance of Andrew Johnson. His administration has been characterized by cruelty, ineptitude, self-dealing, chaos and vulgarity. His greatest failure will probably be his abysmal bungling of a national response to Pandemic 2020, currently reflected in a rate of more than 1,000 deaths per day.

How should an enlightened American respond to an inept, corrupt government? John Brown led an attack on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry in 1859 in an attempt to free the slaves.

Thoreau refused to pay a minor tax and spent a night in jail. John Lewis was jailed 40 times and had his skull fractured by a state trooper’s baton.

Thoreau’s message is that sometimes it’s righteous to break the law in order to break the bad policies of a bad administration. Sometimes it’s the only way to be heard.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas. Readers may send emails to Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2020 Tribune Content Agency.

Tribune Wire


Recommended for you

(6) comments


Irresponsible article. John Crisp doesn't like Trump so its OK to be a lawbreakers. This characterization is highly simplistic. John Brown attacked a federal armory. Yes, and he was hung for it. This is an area in which it is responsible to encourage caution. John Browns actions were righteous. Go back and find the video of the 4 young black men beating the white woman with a 2x4 in Rochester. Then tell me this is righteous and serves a purpose. Tell me that wanton destruction of public property all over this country is an enlightened response. Tell me that people who break down gates and shout threats at people are peaceful. The same goes for lasers (in police eyes), bricks, fireworks, 2x4s, frozen water bottles, etc. This is not peaceful and is not the second coming of Martin Luther King. If you think these actions are righteous like John Crisp seemingly does, we are not only on different sheets of music, we are reading from a different score.

Comment deleted.

It is puzzling indeed. Shows you what direction a large minority of people in this country want to take.


You act like hating tRUMP means one is not eligible to express a truthful opinion. You stated the video, you post it. Until you do I consider it a lie. You see that's what the right wing has to resort to - the ridiculous - to think they have the moral high ground. An extreme minority thinks that behavior is right. I posted a link showing it was a right wing extremist who was identified as breaking windows. He was the 'umbrella man'. Apparently you chose not to follow that link. The right wing is not a moral group. They lie, cheat, whatever it takes to get their way. You're despicable.

Comment deleted.

What is this Keith, repeat the same statement over and over and hope that it aticks? General Keith B. Alexander is not a convicted felon.


There's a red sweater and a yellow sweater. You point to the dirty red sweater and declare, "How can you tell me the yellow sweater isn't dirty, look at all the dirt on that red sweater." Are some people so incapable of holding two concepts simultaneously and comparing them that they actually fall for this sort of argument? As for breaking the law to protest, it may be justifiable in theory but it is seldom a good way to promote the cause, and as such it isn't justifiable in practice. It would be justified by its necessity for the consequences, but it doesn't have the consequences. It should be used very judiciously indeed.


My thoughts exactly. Good article, thanks to WDT.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.