Did Thoreau Have It Right?

Posted on June 19, 2014 by Robert Ringer


The story of Richard W. Sonnenfeldt, author of Witness to Nuremburg, is one that every person who is concerned about tyranny should read.

Sonnenfeldt fled his German homeland for England at age fifteen when it became clear that Jews were increasingly at risk under the new Nazi regime.  After some stranger-than-life twists and turns, he settled in Baltimore, Maryland, at age twenty and became a U.S. citizen.

Sonnenfeldt ultimately ended up in the Army and, at the end of World War II, was one of the soldiers who marched into the Nazi’s Dachau concentration camp.  When U.S. troops arrived there, the guard towers were empty, abandoned by Nazi guards who fled when they realized the end was at hand.

Sonnenfeldt could not believe what he saw — unburied corpses piled one on top of another … thousands of emaciated human beings who were barely alive … prisoners beating a German shepherd dog to death in retribution for the way prison-camp dogs had terrorized them.  As he stared at the horrors before him, he thought to himself that he was one of the luckiest people in the world to have escaped the fate of the millions who were tortured and murdered.

Following the end of the war, Sonnenfeldt went on to become Chief Interpreter for the OSS group that evolved into the American prosecution team at the 1945 Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.  He later wrote about his revealing conversations with Hermann Goering and other principal Nazi war criminals in his autobiography Mehr als ein Leben.

Sonnenfeldt’s story reminded me once again that genocide is woven into the fabric of human history, usually carried out by power-addicted tyrants who are masters at lying and demonizing a targeted group.  In the case of Adolf Hitler, he preached that the Jews were the cause of all of Germany’s problems, and his baseless assertion ultimately became accepted by the masses.

Early on, of course, few people took Hitler seriously, and many laughed at his maniacal speeches.  But those who believed he was just some clueless kook soon found out differently.

Hitler clearly understood that in order for dogma to become entrenched, it must find its way into mainstream print.  And, in this vein, an essential step in the transformation of an insidious lie into fact is to make certain it appears in children’s textbooks.

Through his character Winston in 1984, George Orwell said:  “If all records told the same tale then the lie passed into history and became truth.  ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future:  who controls the present controls the past.’”

In other words, given enough repetition and time, a fable like the Holocaust denial could someday pass into the history books as fact.  That’s why General Eisenhower ordered pictures taken of the Nazi prison camps when he arrived, because he was afraid, even at that time, that there would be a movement to deny it ever occurred.

But things are different in 21st century America, right?  Indeed they are.  It’s much easier to spread a preposterous lie in today’s high-tech world than it was in the World War II era.  Big-government cheerleaders on the Internet and television have round-the-clock access to the masses, and they understand the power of repetition.

As a result, in today’s lie-a-minute, twenty-four-hour news cycle, separating illusion from fact is not an easy task, even for the most alert and rational among us.  It takes a great deal of conscious effort.  And when too many people choose not to make that effort, a holocaust — actual or metaphoric — may be just over the horizon.

In Rights of Man, Thomas Paine said:

“Ignorance is of a peculiar nature; once dispelled, it is impossible to re‑establish it.  It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant (my emphasis). … It has never yet been discovered how to make a man unknow his knowledge.”

True, to be sure.  But what Paine did not tell us is how to motivate people to become knowledgeable in the first place.

As I watch the Washington Propaganda Machine accelerating its pace for spewing out the most preposterous lies imaginable, I am reminded of Eric Hoffer’s warning that the louder the drums of deceit, the more vigilant one has to be about learning the facts.  And therein lies the problem.  A significant portion of the populace is totally uninformed, and it comprises the very people who decide the winner of every election!

Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally wrong with our system of electing public “servants?”  The reality is that the winner of virtually every election is the candidate who convinces a majority of voters that he can get them more goodies than his opponent.  The idea that there are opposing parties in Washington is a giant fiction — at least when it comes to the premise for government’s existence.  The only legitimate function of government is to protect our lives and property — not intrude in our lives and take our property in order to gain our neighbors’ votes.

Sometimes I think Thoreau had it exactly right.  That cabin in the woods sounds awfully good right now to those of us who want only to be left alone to live our lives without others imposing their beliefs on us.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

21 responses to “Did Thoreau Have It Right?”

  1. John says:

    My best friend who grew up in the American west with me, summed up the last election thus:

    “You have one guy who’s talking about ensuring our long term grazing rights and a another guy saying, ‘Here’s oats.’ The sheep are gonna go for the oats.”

  2. Hi Robert – I think one of the fundamental issues today is that John Q. Citizen wants only to be entertained. And the line between critical news and entertainment is completely blurred. For example, personal opinion – usually by the ruling cast – is put out as if it's fact. It's not the event that matters, but the narrative that the officialdom attach to it.

    And despite people claiming to not believe the mainstream media, most in fact do. Lacking any basis to challenge official doctrine, they go along with it. Life is even better that way, at least in the short run. After all, there are no consequences to going along with the party line.

    I'd like to believe that at some point the public will wake up, but mechanically I can't see how it will happen or why anyone would want to. Unfortunately, there are real benefits to playing dumb. That's the real obstacle.

  3. Bill Sadler says:

    Check out the Libertarian Party

  4. Scott theczech says:

    It is often exhausting to engage many of my countrymen in meaningful conversation – debate. Many of you know what I mean. I can honestly say that I am not looking for blanket agreement nor approval – just the thoughtful, genuine and civil discourse so often missing nowadays. Perhaps that is one reason I find this site so refreshing and articles such as this one so thought provoking. You're right RJR, that little cabin in the woods is looking more inviting all the time.

  5. Ragnar455 says:

    You quote Thomas Paine “Ignorance is of a peculiar nature; once dispelled, it is impossible to re‑establish it. It is not originally a thing of itself, but is only the absence of knowledge; and though man may be kept ignorant, he cannot be made ignorant (my emphasis). … It has never yet been discovered how to make a man unknow his knowledge.” Yet the problem is, in a way ignorance, especially in today's world, yearns to be filled with knowledge, and too much of what people are fed as knowledge is lies. That becomes very difficult to dislodge. "Everybody knows" becomes a substitute for learning the truth and seeking out what is true from what is a lie.

    One answer may be to go someplace like Walden to hide, but that does not resolve the problem for society as a whole. Finding ways to communicate more effectively to more people and to counteract the lies machines is a challenge well worth pursuing. Please keep up your good work.

  6. Frank Daley says:

    My grandfather was a civil servant for the then named Exhibition Commission for the Canadian government in Ottawa in the 40s and 50s. His job was to help to oversee the installation of Canadian exhibits at world fairs. (New York, Columbo, Ceylon, etc.).

    He travelled all over the world and noted the corruption everywhere. For example, wheat from western Canada was shipped to Halifax, sent to say, India, where the harbor master took a cut, the man who organized the trucks took a cut, each driver to the central storage towns and depots took a cut, the receivers in dispersment depots in each district took a cut, etc. By the time the wheat got to the poor there a wasn't much left.

    You could argue that some of these people truly needed the graft to live but the harbor master and most others in this delivery line sure as hell didn't. We saw it again in Haiti, in New Orleans and in many other places… not only through corruption but general venality and stupidity. We see it in Africa (and other places) where "savior" presidents steal from their own countries and send the money to foreign bank accounts. We see it in a long lists of corrupt mayors, (Detroit, Chicago, Washinton) and the recent idiocy of Toronto, although that's not corruption but outstanding incompetence.

    We see it in government contracts, in state or provincial and municpal construction "arrnangements" (hello, Montreal).
    We see it in the wars in Syria, Afganistan and Iraq–it's everwhere.
    It's the way of the world, apparently.

    My grandfather was proud to be a civil servant. He said we all serve each other but some of the jobs have titles that proclaim it. Proclaiming it is one thing; corrupting it is another.

    It makes you want to run for public office to change things and help and then decide not to.
    It is inexpressibly sad.

  7. zen4ever says:

    We are living in very interesting times and I dont believe any politician can fix Washington. Where is that cabin located? :-)

  8. The "cabin" in this comment thread seems like a metaphor for the disappearance of the productive class in "And Atlas Shrugged". The productive people voted with their feet, closed up their shops and simply disappeard. I don't know if that would help or hurt, but I can see why anyone would do it out of self interest. Or as a matter of self preservation…

  9. Veronica Marco says:

    I really respect Mr.Ringer…he is an intelligent and inciteful voice in a country/world where ignorance is
    rampant and the man in the street interviews with the ignorant masses make one weep.

    Keep up the good work Robert, we need you…..I always know one of your columns will enlighten me,
    and that is because as I said, I respect you…..can't say that about the current gang in DC.

  10. Michael Mike says:

    (Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally wrong with our system of electing public “servants?” The reality is that the winner of virtually every election is the candidate who convinces a majority of voters that he can get them more goodies his opponent.)

    “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”
    ― Alexis de Tocqueville

  11. Gregg Roberti says:

    "Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally wrong with our system of electing public 'servants?'"
    Given your question, Robert, allow me to strongly recommend an extraordinary book which is one of the most powerful I've ever read [and I'm a voracious reader]. It's entitled The Most Dangerous Superstition. The author is Larken Rose. Rose's website is http://LarkenRose.com
    Keep up the absolutely outstanding work, Robert.

  12. RealAmerican says:

    Thank you for shining the light of truth

  13. Murray Suid says:


    I can hardly remember the promises of the candidates, but I do remember a great deal of negative advertising. That always seems strange to me. If you think of candidates as being job applicants, in the real world a serious applicant would never waste time putting down another applicant. Rather, job seekers would logically document their skills. I blame negative advertising more than dishonest promises for the low quality of political life.

  14. Richard Lee Van says:

    I taught college English for 15 years until 1974. Many of us were still Idealists, in the general sense. We loved the concept of Truth, pursued it and taught it as a value. But even in 1969, the English Department I was to gain my Ph.D. from was factional, corrupt, petty and political. So they granted me a token M.A. Thought bad for the System, it was the best thing that happened to me, I learned in retrospect. I created a BETTER professional identity that pursued, practiced and taught Truth and still do as a writer. I found and read Mr. Ringer during the 70s and recognized intellectual kinship. I valued him then, and even more now. I lament the new unfortunate trends in culture, as he does, and if I were King of America, I would seek a way to stop the ignorant from having "the vote". Simple bribery, promises, gets their votes. And down we go, or, down goes the new generations. Soon I will be outta here!

  15. paulscottrobson says:

    The thing that bothers me is the rise in the vote amongst those who are voting for the party that provides them what they want, to which they often contribute absolutely nothing.

    You quite often see comments which are a stream of wish fulfilment statements 'we should do x', 'we should do y' etc. which seem to have no grasp that these things actually cost money. The left in UK seem to believe in the magic money tree.

    What you get if you aren't careful is an ever increasing number of people on public largesse, either for their own benefit directly, or for some public job which would never exist in a public sector, or in money they can control to boost their ego, and that is being drawn from an ever decreasing number of people who actually do something.

    You need some form of public staffing IMO, but it becomes insane. There was an extraordinary programme on UK TV where they were interviewing public employees, one woman was convinced she was worth here £70k or so salary 'monitoring diversity' and would earn that in a real business. Virtually no real business would employ anyone to monitor diversity at all, and if they did it would be a minor part of HR.

    • Paul – I think you've identified the root cause of the whole issue with the "magic money tree". The modern government practice of creating money out of thin air, through printing and borrowing, effectively turns the state into an omnipotent deity (which is also at least partially why we're seeing a decline in true religious based faith).

      There's no reason to face harsh realities when the government can print money to cover any obstacle. And why should anyone do anything productive when it’s easier to get the money from the government? People have come to expect that the government will always have the money for what ever the perceived need, largely because they always do.

      Look at the annual budget fiascos and debt ceilings in the US. The media and a few politicians sound the alarm that death, doom and destruction are right around the corner if we don’t “fix the budget”. It’s all horse poop. They never fix the budget because they don’t really have to. They can always print or borrow to cover any shortfall.


      • Continued…

        This practice is deceitful and destructive at its core, and is the foundation of all the other deceptions and moral decay in our culture. Nothing will get better until money printing stops.

        A lot of Christians become incensed at the idea that we might one day remove “In God We Trust” from the currency. Personally, I think we’re committing blasphemy by keeping it on.

  16. Donna says:

    If the mainstream media weren't so corrupt and biased, I think we'd at least have a better chance of educating the low information voters, but in its current form, not a chance. And unfortunately those people aren't likely to go out and search for truth on their own.

  17. Phil says:


  18. Heather says:

    Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr wrote…"Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions". This can be a good thing if you are referring to wanting to educate yourself f the better, a bad thing if what you are learning is how to work the system.