When we consider the subject of civil disobedience, especially in the context of the United Kingdom, the mind is liable to fix on the astonishing figure of William Cobbett.
For defiance of that unjust oppression of men speaking their minds, which today descends most readily on those who defy the liberal orthodoxies on sexual ethics, has few better exemplars than Cobbett.
Cobbett rose in literary and oratorical defiance of callous plutocrats and their languorous tyrannies throughout his whole life. He eventually went to prison for objecting to a particularly cruel instance of this sort of tyranny; but before that he had to flee his home country, Revolutionary France, and the United States, each in turn to avoid the caprice of the what he regarded as lawless despots. (In America, that despot was the popular will, outraged by his agitation for monarchy.)
As an anonymous stylist at La Wik puts its, aptly, “Through the seeming contradictions in Cobbett’s life, two things stayed constant: an opposition to authority, and a suspicion of novelty.” Have we here a Left-Conservative, a Radical-Reactionary? A left-wing conservative reactionary?
Whatever label we might favor, with Cobbett we are in the presence of a great-souled man. His writings are invariably a challenge that rewards to read. He surely was a challenge to get along with, but he loved with a true heroism that inspires.
Consider this: the man had enough flashing heroism to appeal to all the Contributors at this blog. That is saying something, for we are a hard-headed and contentious lot. He was a sturdy traditional Anglican (Lydia), who set down a polemic against the Reformation so vigorous that my antique addition features an enthusiastic introduction by a Roman Catholic cardinal of the Church (Jeff, Zippy, Ed, Mike). He was a brilliant expositor by word, and hard worker at by deed, of the farmer-legislator as the root of sanity in the commonwealth (Maximos, Zippy, me); but he was also a careful and loving explicator of the English language and its grammar (Bill, Steve, all of us). He opposed much of the structure of the British mercantilist system, and heavy taxation and government meddling in general (Steve, Lydia, Ed). He set his lethal pen to work against Thomas Malthus and his early adumbrations of demographic doom which later underpinned the Eugenics movement (all of us). Other W4 readers would no doubt take readily to his strictures against paper money. Not a few of our liberals (who, being broadminded members of that class, may be capable of transcending the narrowness of their creed) will thrill to his various protests for the poor — all those souls, in Johnny Cash’s phrase, “living on the hopeless hungry side of town.” His greatest political achievement was, after all, the Reform Act of 1832.
Indeed, I do not think it presumptuous to conjecture that the Man in Black, singing to the “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,” or singing for “the poor and the beaten down” and above all for “those who’ve never read or listened to the words that Jesus said” — I do not think it presumptuous to say that the Man in Black was a protest worthy of Cobbett.
Would that old England raised up men like Cobbett again! The man was a born agitator, a provocateur of merry genius, in the pattern of the jugglers of God. He would probably arrive at the anti-globalization rally and preach the Gospel and especially its application in the virtue of chastity to those stunned anarchists; and then arrive at church to raise the alarm among Christians on the horrors of the plutocracy at the City of London.