Thoreauly wrong

Ever since I started writing for I have had people who hate what I have to say. There are also, blissfully, many kind and encouraging readers who make up the majority of the people who respond to my articles. Some essays that I write I expect immediate and angry reaction against. In fact, well aware of the sharpness of my pen, if I don't provoke a reaction, I feel like I have failed.

Let me clarify this, because I find that nuance is easily missed by some of our good readers. While my writings do provoke reaction sometimes, I never pick up the pen just to agitate. I simply allow my pen without intellectual pretense to express my feelings and opinions freely. That is the most sacred rule in my book, as a writer, to follow my pen where it takes me.

Up to now the surest topic to attract the most hate mail and outrage has been the monarchy and my interpretation of the Pahlavi legacy. From the time I wrote ”
Diana not“, on the occasion of the death of Leila Pahlavi, I have been a much-loved target of monarchist hate mail. I also get a share of angry Muslim brothers who dislike my feminism and criticism of the Islamic Republic [
The first stone]. But not until I published an anti-Israeli article [
Today, I am a Palestinian] have I encountered this kind of abuse.

The emails I received regarding this latest article have been mostly supportive from the largely Iranian readership that this netzine enjoys. I did receive my share of “why don't you go to Palestine and blow yourself up!” email. Again, those were expected and I usually answered with a curt, “Well if there
was a Palestinian state maybe I would go and not have to blow myself up!” But what was unexpected and shocking and went beyond anything I have ever, so far, experienced were the phone calls I have received the past few of days.

Last Saturday night the phone rang and I answered. The voice of a woman asked me if I was Setareh Sabety. Like a fool, I answered yes. You see, where I live I have very little social life and a phone call from someone who pronounces my name like an Iranian has always, up to now, been a very a welcomed occurrence. Anyway, the person hung up as soon as I said yes to her question. This of course upset me a little especially because subsequently I got several calls into the wee hours of the night all of which hung up as soon as I said hello. I joked with my husband that I hope the Mossad has better targets with which to busy itself than an opinionated mom like me.

I did not think much of the incident and went about my routine on Sunday. Then in the afternoon, as I was talking to my husband the phone rang. My husband answered and passed it to me saying it sounded like one of my friends. When I said hello a woman's voice started yelling at me about how I promote the killing of innocent women and children in Israel.

I asked her, very politely, if she could please give me her name. She would not and kept going on and on about what an evil person I must be to have written such an article. I kept telling her, dear lady, you have found my number, called my home on a day when school is out, and don't you think you should have the decency to give me your name before I answer your accusations?

She then told me that because I write for a public website I am a public person and even though I have an unpublished number she has the right to dig it up, call me, and yell abuse. She told me that she would send my article around to so many people that I would not have a reputation left. She told me I would lose my job (I do not have one. Unless you call substitute teaching at my kids school a job!) She told me that I would never be able to get a job with the PhD I am getting (she did not know that I am ten years late doing it anyway.) That I have ruined my career (what of soccer mom?) — that the greatest of American sins!

I hung up on her once but she called back and continued with the monologue. She told me she would send the article to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That is when I stopped her with an ability to reach a forbidding octave with my voice that has served me well before. I told her, “Look lady, I am exercising my right to free speech. I am in a long line of American malcontents from Thoreau to Mohammad Ali and I will have the police arrest you for harassment if you call again.” She understood.

It is funny how American the threat to use the law is and how wonderfully it works. People's passions die instantaneously in this land of lawyers and litigations, at the slightest allusion to a suit. So I hung up and the angry woman did not call back. But the whole incident and all the email asking me to leave the country, made me think about being an American and what it means. I remembered one person whose name kept popping in my head like a light bulb that illuminates the flow of reason: Henry David Thoreau.

When I first came to the United States, the year Carter got elected to the presidency, I attended Concord Academy in Concord, Mass. There near the famous Walden Pond, I learned about Henry D. Thoreau (1817-1862), who was an essayist, writer and thinker with a prophetic passion for the environment and an equal love for justice and individual freedom. He had taught and ran Concord Academy for some time and was a local hero. So my introduction to life in America went hand in hand with my introduction to Thoreau. His essay on civil disobedience gave me, fresh out of a pompous dictatorship, the goose bumps the first time I read it. It spoke with simple eloquence of the need for individual conviction to stand strong in the face of a government that does not act morally.

But it had been a long time since I had read any Thoreau and the angry caller had done me the great favor of making me go and find that piece of writing and re-read it. I would like to thank the lady if she is reading this for having brought me back to Thoreau. I knew when I wrote the article and I am now convinced that my stance is in keeping with a very long and solid American and democratic tradition of opposing the government when it goes against your moral principals.

Henry David Thoreau was not a Muslim nor from the Middle East, but he would have refused to pay taxes to this government because of its support of the Israeli military campaign and occupation of Palestinian territory just like he refused to pay taxes in protest to slavery and in opposition to the Mexican war. He would have sided with me on this issue because he believed that it was morally required of a citizen to oppose a government that acts unjustly.

He would have asked once again but in the context of American support of Israel , “How does it become a man to behave toward the American government today? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it. I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave's government also.” Just substitute slave's “government” to “government who supports state sponsored murder and terror in Israel”, and you will see how niftily it works.

Even if he did not agree with me he would defend my right to express my discontent towards my government because he believed that, “there will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.”

Now calling people on Sunday, at home, whose opinion you do not share, to tell them they will never “get a job in this town again” is hardly a democratic gesture, now is it? Should my job prospects have anything to do with my political opinions? I don't think any democratic minded person would answer that with an affirmative. Thoreau, certainly, would have not.

Thoreau, also, was not quiet a pacifist even though he was a great influence on Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. his own taste was for fiery abolitionist like John Brown, who picked up arms and began a campaign to fight the south that ended with his and his followers' entrapment in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Thoreau wrote several essays and a eulogy about Brown and his courage and the importance of one spirited individual's voice to a democracy. He defended Brown when his contemporaries deemed him a terrorist and when the government executed him. To Thoreau, Brown was a martyr for justice. His willingness to die, to self-destruct because of the cause of abolition of slavery made him an American hero in the eyes of his eulogist.

Thoreau was not a turn-the-other-cheek kind of political philosopher. He was in awe of John Brown not because he was a pacifist like Luther King, and not because he fought an outside enemy but because “he had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong.” John Brown was no pacifist he was a freedom fighter to some and a terrorist to others.

For writings and brief biography of Henry David Thoreau go to:

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