Yesterday a friend sent me an essay, called “Mourning,” about Liu Xiaobo, the writer, scholar, and dissident. Minutes later the news came that Liu had died of liver cancer in the Chinese jail where he had been imprisoned since 2008. I had barely heard of Liu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and is known as the conscience of China, compared in both stature and courage to Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandela.
Those in power don’t like a conscience that cannot be silenced. It’s a dangerous occupation. And I wondered, who has been America’s conscience? Martin Luther King Jr., comes first to mind. And perhaps because Wednesday was the 200th anniversary of his birth, I think too of Henry Thoreau.
There is a good deal of difference between Thoreau’s middle-class, comfortable life and the lives of the others. And while he did spend a night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes to support war and slavery, Concord jail is not to be confused with the gulag.
But I think of him because there is a direct line from his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience to Gandhi, King, Mandela, and Liu and, more importantly, because, in his dissenting life, he made explicit the connection between social injustice and environmental destruction. He saw, when slavery and industrialism were the great issues of the day, that those who look on the natural world as merely a commodity to be exploited see humankind in the same terms. And he made us see that how we treat the earth is a measure of how we treat each other – which, in China and in America, is the critical insight for our time.