How America's Spirit for Revolution Was Crushed
Photo Credit: Suzanne Tucker/ Shutterstock.com
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To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here. This essay will appear in "Revolution," the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.
"In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall."
— Erwin Chargaff
For the last several years, the word “revolution” has been hanging around backstage on the national television talk-show circuit waiting for somebody, anybody -- visionary poet, unemployed automobile worker, late-night comedian -- to cue its appearance on camera. I picture the word sitting alone in the green room with the bottled water and a banana, armed with press clippings of its once-upon-a-time star turns in America’s political theater (tie-dyed and brassiere-less on the barricades of the 1960s countercultural insurrection, short-haired and seersucker smug behind the desks of the 1980s ReaganRisorgimento), asking itself why it’s not being brought into the segment between the German and the Japanese car commercials.
Surely even the teleprompter must know that it is the beast in the belly of the news reports, more of them every day in print and en blog, about income inequality, class conflict, the American police state. Why then does nobody have any use for it except in the form of the adjective, revolutionary, unveiling a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick?
I can think of several reasons, among them the cautionary tale told by the round-the-clock media footage of dead revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, also the certain knowledge that anything anybody says (on camera or off, to a hotel clerk, a Facebook friend, or an ATM) will be monitored for security purposes. Even so, the stockpiling of so much careful silence among people who like to imagine themselves on the same page with Patrick Henry -- “Give me liberty, or give me death” -- raises the question as to what has become of the American spirit of rebellion. Where have all the flowers gone, and what, if anything, is anybody willing to risk in the struggle for “Freedom Now,” “Power to the People,” “Change We Can Believe In”?
My guess is next to nothing that can’t be written off as a business expense or qualified as a tax deduction. Not in America at least, but maybe, with a better publicist and 50% of the foreign rights, somewhere east of the sun or west of the moon.
Revolt from Thomas Jefferson to the Colossal Dynamo
The hallowed American notion of armed rebellion as a civic duty stems from the letter that Thomas Jefferson writes from Paris in 1787 as a further commentary on the new Constitution drawn up that year in Philadelphia, a document that he thinks invests the state with an unnecessary power to declare the citizenry out of order. A mistake, says Jefferson, because no country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance, and with it ready access to gunpowder.
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Jefferson conceived of liberty and despotism as plantings in the soil of politics, products of human cultivation subject to changes in the weather, the difference between them not unlike that between the growing of an orchard and the draining of a cesspool, both understood as means of environmental protection. It is the turning of the seasons and the cyclical motions of the stars that Jefferson has in mind when in his letter he goes on to say, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion” -- i.e., one conceived not as a lawless upheaval but as a lawful recovery.