Being a rebel

From “Why Bother”
Sam Smith

The words revolution and rebellion attract unjust opprobrium. After all, much of what we identify as peculiarly American is ours by grace of our predecessors’ willingness to revolt in the most militant fashion, and their imperfect vision has been improved by a long series of rebellions ranging from the cerebral to the bloody. There is not an American alive who has not been made better by revolution and rebellion.

In fact, the terms sit close to what it means to human, since it is our species that has developed the capacity to dramatically change, for better or worse, its own course without waiting on evolution. No other creature has ever imagined a possibility as optimistic as democracy or as devastating as a nuclear explosion, let alone bring them to fruition. To have done so represents an extraordinary rebellion against our own history, cultures, and genes.

Without revolution and rebellion we would let mating and mutation do their thing. Instead, regularly dissatisfied with our condition, our body, our home, and our government we overthrow genetics through application of imagination, dreams, ambition, skill, perseverance, and strength. Every new idea is an act of rebellion, every work of art, every stretch for something we couldn’t do before, every question that begins “what if. . .”

Most rebellions don’t produce revolutions. A revolution claims, often falsely, to have an known end; a rebellion needs only a known means. When, in the late 90s, college students rioted on some campuses, a dean remarked with bemusement, “There was no purpose in it; it was a rebellion without a cause.” The dean didn’t catch his own allusion, but I did, because James Dean’s movie, Rebel Without a Cause, came out the year I graduated from high school.

In it, James Dean as Jim tried to explain the cause to his father:

Dad, I said it was a matter of honor, remember? They called me chicken. You know, chicken? I had to go because if I didn’t I’d never be able to face those kids again. I got in one of those cars, and Buzz, that — Buzz, one of those kids — he got in the other car, and we had to drive fast and then jump, see, before the car came to the end of the bluff, and I got out OK, and Buzz didn’t and, uh, killed him…I can’t – I can’t keep it to myself anymore.

Jim wants to report the incident to the police but his parents try to discourage him:

Jim’s mother: Why should you be the only one involved?

Jim’s father: Far be it from me to tell you what to do…

Jim’s mother: Oh, are you going to preach? Do we have to listen to a sermon now?

Jim’s father: Well, I’m only trying to tell him what you mean. You can’t be idealistic all your life, Jim.

Jim: Except to yourself.

Jim’s father: Nobody thanks you for sticking your neck out.

Jim: Except — except to yourself.

In truth, Jim actually had a cause, a desperate, distorted, adolescent search for identity and honor in a society and family that seemed indifferent to such matters. Rejecting his condition was a necessary manifestation of his rebellion, but not its purpose. Those in power, — deans, parents, or politicians, too often mistake the conflict for the cause.

A decade earlier, Humphrey Bogart, as Rick in Casablanca, faced some of the same problems but in an infinitely more sophisticated manner. He was all that James Dean wasn’t. With skill and cool, Rick knew how to adapt to the chaos and deceit around him without betraying his own code.

Rick maintained his integrity and individuality by stealth even as others were using the same sort of deception to steal and destroy. The film’s purist protagonist, the anti-fascist Victor Lazlo — is a noble prig next to the cynical Rick. “You know,” he tells Rick, “it’s very important I get out of Casablanca. It’s my privilege to be one of the leaders of a great movement. Do you know what I’ve been doing? Do you know what it means to the work — to the lives of thousands and thousands of people? I’ll be free to reach America and continue my work.”

Rick: I’m not interested in politics. The problems of the world are not in my department. I’m a saloon keeper.

Lazlo: My friends in the Underground tell me that you’ve got quite a record. You ran guns to Ethiopia. You fought against the Fascists in Spain.

Rick: What of it?

Lazlo: Isn’t it strange that you always happen to be fighting on the side of the underdog?

Rick: Yes, I found that a very expensive hobby too, but then I never was much of a businessman…

Later Rick tells the beautiful Ilsa “I’m not fighting for anything anymore except myself. I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” Ilsa importunes Rick to help Lazlo escape, saying that otherwise he will die in Casablanca. “What of it?” asks Rick. “I’m gonna die in Casablanca. It’s a good spot for it.”

In fact, however, Rick helps to get Laszlo out of jail in time for a Lisbon-bound plane, shoots the infamous German Major Strasser, and watches as Ilsa leaves Casablanca in the fog with the handsome Laszlo — thus losing his woman but keeping his soul.

Rick is not a revolutionary, but is definitely a rebel. And he’s not the only one in the movie, for as the gendarmes arrive following Strasser’s death, the sly police official, Louis Renault, faces a choice of turning Rick in or protecting him. It is then, to audiences’ repeated joy, that he instructs his men to “round up the usual suspects.”

With La Marseillaise playing slowly in the background, Renault turns to Rick and says, “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” And Rick replies, “It seemed like a good time to start.”

Of course, a well-schooled progressive of today might prefer, in place of such diffident heroics, the words of Mario Savio in 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Or some of the strategies recommended by Howard Zinn:

A determined population can not only force a domestic ruler to flee the country, but can make a would-be occupier retreat, by the use of a formidable arsenal of tactics: boycotts and demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins, sit-down strikes and general strikes, obstruction and sabotage, refusal to pay taxes, rent strikes, refusal to cooperate, refusal to obey curfew orders or gag orders, refusal to pay fines, fasts and pray-ins, draft resistance, and civil disobedience of various kinds …. Thousand of such instances have changed the world but they are nearly absent from the history books.

In his own memoir, however, Zinn not only urges imagination, courage, and sacrifice, but patience as well, and tells a Bertolt Brecht fable with echoes of Casablanca:

A man living alone answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, “Will you submit?” The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, “No.”

And there’s also a bit of Rick in Raymond Chandler’s private detectives:

You don’t get rich, you don’t often have much fun. Sometimes you get beaten up or shot at or tossed into the jail house. Once in a long while you get dead. Every other month you decide to give it up and find some sensible occupation while you can still walk without shaking your head. Then the door buzzer rings and you open the inner door to the waiting room and there stands a new face with a new problem, a new load of grief, and a small piece of money.

Chandler says the detective must be “a man of honor. . .without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”

In such ways can rebellion be far quieter and surreptitious than we suppose. For example, we tend to think of the 1950s as a time of unmitigated conformity, but in many ways the decade of the 60s was merely the mass movement of ideas that took root in the 50s. In beat culture, jazz, and the civil rights movement there had already been a stunning critique of, and rebellion against, the adjacent and the imposed.

Steven Watson credits the term beat to circus and carnival argot, later absorbed by the drug culture. “Beat” meant robbed or cheated as in a “beat deal.” Herbert Huncke, who picked up the word from show business friends and spread it to the likes of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, would say later that he never meant it to be elevating: “I meant beaten. The world against me.”

Gregory Corso defined it this way, “By avoiding society you become separate from society and being separate from society is being beat.” Keruoac, on the other hand, thought it involved “mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions.”

Inherent in all this was not only rebellion but a journey. “We were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move,” wrote Kerouac in On the Road.

It is instructive during a time in which even alienated progressives outfit themselves with mission and vision statements and speak the bureaucratic argot of their oppressors to revisit that under-missioned, under-visioned culture of what Norman Mailer called the “psychic outlaw” and “the rebel cell in our social body.” What Ned Plotsky termed, “the draft dodgers of commercial civilization.”

Unlike today’s activists they lacked a plan; unlike those of the 60s they lacked anything to plan for; what substituted for utopia and organization was the freedom to think, to speak, to move at will in a culture that thought it had adequately taken care of all such matters. Although the beats are frequently parodied for their dress, sartorial nonconformity was actually more a matter of indifference rather than, as in the case of some of the more recently alienated, conscious style. They even wore ties from time to time. Yet so fixed was the stereotype that the caption of a 1950s AP photograph of habitués in front of Washington’s Coffee ‘n’ Confusion Café described it as a place for bearded beatniks when not one person in the picture had a beard. Rather they were a bunch of young white guys with white shirts and short haircuts. Cool resided in a nonchalant, negligent non-conformity rather than in a considered counter style and counter symbolism..

To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beat culture created its message by being rather than doing, rejection rather than confrontation, sensibility rather than strategy, journeys instead of movements, words and music instead of acts, and informal communities rather than formal institutions.

For the both the contemporaneous civil rights movement and the 1960s rebellion that followed, such a revolt by attitude seemed far from enough. Yet these full-fledged uprisings could not have occurred without years of anger and hope being expressed in more individualistic and less disciplined ways, ways that may seem ineffective in retrospect yet served as absolutely necessary scaffolding with which to build a powerful movement.

Besides, with the end of the Vietnam War, America soon found itself without a counterculture or – with a few exceptions – even a visible resistance by societal draft dodgers. The young — in the best of times the most reliable harbinger of hope; in the worst of times, the most dismal sign of futility — increasingly faced a culture that seemed impermeable and immutable. The establishment presented a stolid, unyielding, unthinking, unimaginative wall of bland certainty. It looked upon pain, aspiration and hope with indifference, and played out false and time-doomed fantasies to the mindless applause of its constituency.

The unalterable armies of the law became far more powerful and less forgiving. The price of careless or reckless rebellion became higher. Bohemia was bought and franchised. Even progressive organizations required a strategic plan, budget, and press kit before heading to the barricades. A school district in Maryland told its teachers not to include creativity or initiative in a student’s grades because they were too hard to define. Hipness became a multinational industry and no one apparently thought twice about putting a headline on the cover of a magazine “for men of color” that declared “The Rebirth of Cool,” exemplified by 50 pages of fashions by mostly white designers.

One west coast student told me bluntly that it was pointless to rebel because whatever one did would be commodified. Others chose not to confront the system but to undermine it in the small places where they lived. You would find them in classrooms or in little organizations, working in human scale on human problems in a human fashion. Their project was to simply recreate the human right where they were. They had implicitly rejected the nihilistic implications of the deconstructionism they met in college as well as the grandiose visions of previous generations. Such defined and manageable choices, particularly for the children of failed rebels, seemed the wiser course.

There was something else: music. In rock and rap — as in blues and folk music earlier — people found that what they couldn’t achieve could still be sung or shouted about. And central to this sound was not just a message but who was allowed to deliver it. For example, the music webzine, Fast ‘n’ Bulbous, described punk this way:

Punk gives the message that no one has to be a genius to do it him/herself. Punk invented a whole new spectrum of do-it-yourself projects for a generation. Instead of waiting for the next big thing in music to be excited about, anyone with this new sense of autonomy can make it happen themselves by forming a band. Instead of depending on commercial media, from the big papers and television to New Musical Express and Rolling Stone, to tell them what to think, anyone can create a fanzine, paper, journal or comic book. With enough effort and cooperation they can even publish and distribute it. Kids were eventually able to start their own record labels too. Such personal empowerment leads to other possibilities in self-employment and activism.

To move from challenging record companies to taking on the World Trade Organization was not an easy or obvious journey, but clearly some of the attitudes that made the anti-globalization protests possible were formed in clubs and not at conferences. For example, Dewar MacLeod, writing in American Quarterly, observed that

[Kurt] Cobain’s death highlighted what the sociologist Simon Frith has identified as the central meaning of rock since at least the late sixties: true rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be authentic, that is, anti-commercial and purely expressive. For some fans, this true rock ‘n’ roll can only be created through local, club-based, underground scenes apart from the mainstream productive apparatus of the multinational rock ‘n’ roll industry. From this perspective, the industry is the enemy against which the subcultural rock scenes define themselves, and like all of corporate consumer capitalism, the industry tries to co-opt the alternative scenes, searching everywhere for more product. Once rock ‘n’ roll becomes merely product, its purity is threatened, as when Seattle’s grunge scene burst through in the wake of Nirvana’s success. The twin myths of ‘Rock ‘n’ roll Saved my Life,’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ roll Companies Stole my Scene’ were the essential narratives governing Cobain’s fame and death.

Lawrence Grossberg of the University of North Carolina told a seminar in the 1980s about some of the bumps in the road:

U2, one of the more political bands to have become megastars, . . . played in my hometown (a mid-west state university town) to an audience of twenty five thousand. At one point, Bono dedicated a song to Winnie Mandela; the applause which greeted this announcement was less than overwhelming. . . A group of students seated in front of me turned to ask if she was Bono’s latest girlfriend . . . How is such ignorance to be reconciled with the band’s passionate and explicit political concerns, and the fans’ knowledge of both the music and the band?

A few months later, Midnight Oil played to a smaller but equally enthusiastic audience. The response to the concert, and to Peter Garrett’s stage performance, was overwhelmingly positive. But a common comment after the concert (and reiterated by the local music critic) demanded that the band ‘leave its politics at home.’ It’s not that the politics were wrong but that they were out of place, irrelevant to the fans’ experience of, and relationship to, the music.

Finally, Fred Frith, an avant-garde rock musician who has had a respectable following in Champaign for some years, gave a concert there (to a few hundred fans, mostly undergraduates) the day after Reagan’s second electoral victory. After the concert, at a party with many of his fans, he stopped the celebration (as only ‘star figures’ can) to ask how many of his fans had voted for Reagan. He told me that he was quite shocked when approximately three-quarters of them responded positively.

By the end of the 1990s, however, an unremittingly political band, Rage Against the Machine, had sold more than 7 million copies of its first two albums and its third, The Battle of Los Angele, (released on Election Day 1999), sold 450,000 copies its first week. Nine months later, there would be a live battle of Los Angeles as the police shut down a RATM concert at the Democratic Convention.

Throughout the 1990s, during a nadir of activism and an apex of greed, RATM both raised hell and made money.

In 1993 the band, appearing at Lollapalooza III in Philadelphia, stood naked on stage for 15 minutes without singing or playing a note in a protest against censorship.

In 1994, Rage organized a benefit concert “for the freedom of Leonard Peltier.” In 1995 they gave one for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

In 1997, well before most college students were paying any attention to the issue, Rage’s Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against sweatshop labor.

Throughout this period no members of the band were invited to discuss politics with Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer. But a generation heard them anyway. RATM T-shirts became a common sight during the 1999 Seattle protest.

There is no good way to predict how such things will work out. Change often comes without a formal introduction. Like the time in early 1960 when four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in 15 cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to 54 cities in nine states. By April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Four students did something and America changed. Even they, however, couldn’t know what the result would be.

“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,” Vaclav Havel would say while still a rebel. “You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society . . .

“The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public, he offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin — and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.”


Not every revolt is just. One of Tom Stoppard’s characters says, “Revolution is a trivial shift in the emphasis of suffering; the capacity for self-indulgence changes hands. But the world does not alter its shape or its course.” Too often this true. Infatuation with revolutions has been a particular handicap of the left causing such embarrassments as support for the Stalin regime when no possible excuse could be made for it. It is not that revolutions are wrong – how can an American say that? Rather it is that, on average, revolutions are defined not by the wonder of their promise but by the horrors of what preceded them. They replace evil, but without a warranty.

To be a free thinker, Bertrand Rusell said, a man must be free of two things: “the force of tradition, and the tyranny of his own passion.” It is the obliteration of the former but subservience to the latter that creates the revolutionary dictator.

This is what James Thurber was telling us in his wonderful fable about the bear who had became addicted to fermented honey mead. He would “reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.” Then one day, he saw the error of his ways and became a fervent teetotaler. He would tell everyone who came to his house how awful drinking fermented honey mead was and he would boast about how strong and well he had become by giving it up. To prove this he would stand on his head and do cartwheels and kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down and go to sleep. “His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.” The moral: “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean too far backward.”

This is what happened to the officer in Vietnam who declared that it had been necessary to destroy a village in order to save it and to NATO when it declared that Slobodan Milosevic’s crimes against humanity were such that they justified the brutal destruction of a country and the very pain and death we said we sought to end.

In fact, every act in the face of wrong carries twin responsibilities: to end the evil and to avoid replacing it with another. This twin burden is analogous to what a doctor confronts when attempting to cure a disease. There is even a name for medical failure in such cases; the resulting illness is called iatrogenic – caused by the physician. In politics, however, we have been taught to believe that simply having good intentions and an evil foe are sufficient.

This is not true. Arguably from the moment we become aware of an evil, and certainly once we commence an intervention, we become a part of the story, and part of the good and evil. We are no longer the innocent bystander but a participant whose acts will either help or make things worse. Our intentions immediately become irrelevant; they are overwhelmed by our response to them.

Our language confuses this business terribly. That which is known at the personal level as terrorism is called humanitarian or a peacekeeping mission when carried out by the state. Thus both the office building destroyed by a few individuals and the country destroyed by a multinational alliance lie in ruins to support the tragic myth that Allah or democracy will be better for it. But nothing grants us immunity from responsibility for our own acts. So if we are to revolt, rebel, avenge, or assuage, our duty is not only to the course we set but to what we leave in our wake.


In 1997 Stephen Duncombe — academic, musician, and zine publisher — wrote a remarkable study of an American rebel subculture: Notes From the Underground: Zines And the Politics of Alternative Culture. In it he says:

The powers that be do not sustain their legitimacy by convincing people that the current system is The Answer. That fiction would be too difficult to sustain in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. What they must do, and have done very effectively, is convince the mass of people that there is no alternative.

The zine publishing culture strips away that fiction, sometimes with brutal self-critique. From a zine called Pathetic Life and a writer named Doug: “You’ve got no money, no friends, you live in a slum, you never do anything interesting and you’re too damn fat to have sex. Your life is pathetic.” Says Duncombe:

Marginalized people with little power over their status in the world still retain a powerful weapon: the interpretations they give to the circumstances and conditions that surround them, and the ideals and character traits they possess. Such is the case with zine writers. While there isn’t much they can do about being losers in a society that rewards interests they don’t share and strengths they don’t have, they can redefine the value of being a loser, and turn a deficit into an asset.

Some of these publications, like the music of which they often write, are absorbed by nihilism. In this they are in a tradition that has led to good books and bad dictators, infamous philosophers and famous rock bands. Consider three comments about life, the first from Mike of the zine, 7 Aardvarks for Alice:

You sit there in your stinking little room thinking dire thoughts about your life that’s so tough, and the society that represses, about your contemporaries with no clue, about your dead-end, mundane nine-to-five job, about your parents who never understood you anyway, and a government that encourages it all, and you get angry. You listen to avant garde music and read the fringes of mainstream literature. You dress differently and hate those who persecute you for doing so… Sometimes you write down these thoughts and mail them to others who basically think the same things. Then you call it the underground. Then you’re dangerous, a true rebel… Bullshit.

The second is from a character Kierkegaard uses to parody the aesthetic mentality:

I do not care for anything. I do not care to ride [a horse] for exercise is too violent. I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous. I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get up again, and I do not care to do that either. Summa summarum: I do not care at all.

The third is from a song by the Ramones:

I don’t like Burger King

I don’t like anything

And I’m against it

One of the problems with being so certain of what you don’t like is that it starts to define you. As Duncombe puts it, “the authentic self that zinesters labor to assemble is often reliant upon the inauthentic culture from which they are trying to flee.”

A similar dichotomy arises when one consciously attempts to distance oneself from the dominant culture in the name of individualism and freedom. Planet Boy in North Dakota wrote to a zine in 1983 that he had defied local culture by piercing his ears three times and coloring his hair, provoking this response from John in the next issue:

Punk is thinking for yourself and being yourself… Perhaps you don’t realize it, but you are acting just like the phony society you’re supposed to be against.

In the following issue, though, Mike wrote to say

Who the fuck does John think he is? Some divine god who gets to call someone trendy for dyeing their hair and piercing their ears? Personally, I think it takes a lot of guts to look that wild and take all the shit people have to give.

Today, even in North Dakota, someone would have to do far more than pierce his ears and dye his hair to declare freedom from society. Still, Duncombe, who read a lot of such letters for his book, says that these debates are really about something other than how one dresses or how one thinks. They are a debate about the “conflict between rebellious individualism and group identity.” One philosophy professor raises this issue each fall by beginning his first lecture on individualism with a request that all those not wearing jeans to please rise.

A final disconnect found in the rebellion epitomized by zines is economic dependency on the despised culture. Without a multinational record and clothing industry, for example, youth countercultures would be far more isolated and diversified. The fact that the country’s largest employer is a temp agency suggests that the economic setting in which today’s young rebels find themselves is not entirely hostile. The bike messenger subculture happily serves society’s citadels of conformity. And among the techniques used by the young to survive in expensive cities is “ganking,” getting something at a discount or for free from a friend working within the system. One Washington ganker tells of a colleague who

worked at a CD store and she let me use employee discount to buy discs. Others, who worked at grocery stores, gave discounts on cartons of cigarettes, which we would later use as barter: in exchange for a free meal, we’d leave a carton on the table …. “It’s a new form of Darwinism,’ says my friend Tessie. ‘the survival of the sneakiest.”

And, of course, there is slack, defined in one manifesto as “like freedom but unlike freedom it brings no responsibilities.” None of this is entirely new. The slacker has roots in African-American passive resistance against employers as well as the crash pad culture of the 60s. As far back as the 30s, a pair of critics attacked the bohemian as having “merely nullified for himself the necessity of accepting responsibilities upon whose recognition by others, however, he continues to rely for his privileges.”

Of course, that sort of criticism comes most frequently from those without the impulse to rebel, not exactly the best vantage point from which to tell someone how to run an uprising.


Far from such concerns can be found the government or corporate whistleblower. Typically a card-carrying member of mainstream culture, this defector is often but a reluctant dragon engorged with a sense of responsibility. Yet it is this most unpremeditated form of rebellion that can pay the highest price.

Whistleblowers, in the course of doing their jobs, typically stumble upon facts that point to danger, neglect, waste, or corruption. Far too often this discovery is met not with approbation and as a sign of exemplary public service, but rather as a threat to the agency or company. Among the consequences: firing, reassignment, isolation, forced resignation, threats, referral to psychiatric treatment, public exposure of private life and other humiliations, being set up for failure, prosecution, elimination of one’s job, blacklisting, or even death. .

One such whistleblower, Pentagon official Peter Leitner, had his performance rating lowered, was kept out of meetings, harassed over sick leave, given a trumped-up letter of reprimand, accused of security violations, and threatened with charges of insubordination.

Jennifer Long, an IRS auditor, had a similar experience. She told the New York Times:

They accused me of coming in late when I was at my desk an hour early every day. They instructed me to do something and then wrote me up for doing it. They wouldn’t let me talk to anyone, they wouldn’t even let me get out of my chair. I wasn’t allowed to call my attorney. This went on for two years. They nearly killed me with the way they harassed me. But I knew that they would wear out before I did . . .

From the doctor in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People to Karen Silkwood, the nuclear industry worker killed after her car was forced off the road on her way to talk to a reporter, speaking truth to power has proved costly. The Mongolians say that when you do it, you should keep one foot in the stirrup.

Whistleblowers fall easily into traps that can hurt if not destroy them. They may become monomaniacal, paranoiac, depressed, confused, and terribly lonely.

On the other hand, whistleblowers have forced the cancellation of a nuclear power plant that was 97% completed, potentially prevented widespread illness due to poor meat inspection, ended the beating of patients in a VA hospital, and exposed multi-billion dollar waste in the Star Wars program.

And not all whistleblowers are defeated. When Ernest Fitzgerald discovered a $2 billion cost overrun on a military cargo plane, Richard Nixon personally ordered his staff to “get rid of that son of a bitch.” Twenty-five years later Fitzgerald was still on the job.

Tom Devine, who works for the Government Accountability Project, has been helping whistleblowers for years. Part lawyer, part therapist, Devine presses his cases forward even as he tends to the personal stress of his clients. He has written a 175-page handbook, The Whistleblower’s Survival Guide, to help government and corporate employees do what should be routine: tell the truth. At times he sounds more like a social worker than an attorney:

To transcend the stress, it helps to be fully aware of and accept what you are getting into… The constant, negative pressure whistleblowers face can color your judgment and make you paranoid about every event. Paranoia works in the bureaucracy’s favor if it wants to paint you as an unreasonable, even unstable, person whose charges should not be taken seriously…

It is better to stay calm – and even to laugh – than it is to seethe with anger… It can be liberating to know that you have assumed responsibility for making your own decisions based on your values… Along with the pain and fear, there is real satisfaction inherent in taking control of your life…

Do not surrender to the temptation to become an obsessive ‘true believer’ in the importance of your whistleblowing cause.

Devine also warns his readers to expect retaliation and surveillance. One study found that 232 out of 233 whistleblowers reported suffering retaliation; others found reprisals in about 95% of cases. As Admiral Hyman Rickover told a group of Pentagon cost analysts: “If you must sin, sin against God, not against the bureaucracy. God may forgive you, but the bureaucracy never will.”


The rebel artist seeks to combine the freedom of the zinester with the whistleblower’s dedication to a larger purpose. Art is the serendipity that occurs when imagination meets discipline and skill. Every work of art is a challenge to the status quo because it proposes to replace a part of it. An artist, therefore, is a rebel without even trying. Says printmaker Lou Stovall:

Art is by nature somewhat destructive. Every artist while seeking to add to the sum of art, attempts to take away your memory and appreciation of what went before, saying, “Look at me, I am new.”

The artist is also free, perhaps the more obscure the artist the more free. As Virginia Woolf wrote, “Over the obscure man is poured the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free; he alone is truthful; he alone is at peace.”

With acceptance comes all the little and big compromises that public reception demands. “Once you want something from them, they’ve got you,” I.F. Stone warned journalists about their sources.

For most artists this problem remains only a blurry possibility. David Bayles and Ted Orland write that unlike early times when the artist was shored up by church, clan, ritual or tradition,

Today almost no one feels shored up. Today artwork does not emerge from a secure common ground: the bison on the wall is someone else’s magic. Making art now means working the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.

Then there are the personal fears: “I’m a phony, I have nothing worth saying, I’m not sure what I’m doing, Other people are better than I am… no one understands my work, no one likes my work, I’m no good.”

In Art and Fear, Bayles and Orland address such concerns but still leave the reader with the unavoidable:

Your materials are, in fact, one of the few elements of art making you can reasonably hope to control. As for everything else – well, conditions are never perfect, sufficient knowledge rarely at hand, key evidence always missing, and support notoriously fickle. All that you do will inevitably be flavored with uncertainty – uncertainty about what you have to say, about whether the materials are right, about whether the piece should be long or short, indeed about whether you’ll ever be satisfied with anything you make.

And all this without wishing to change the world more than one picture’s worth. Should your goal include not only creative work but political or social action out of that work, the uncertainties and problems compound. Does one favor the creation or the cause? Does one speak in the voice of the artist or of the leader?

For Stephen Duncombe it’s a serial process: “Individuals can and will be radicalized through underground culture, but they will have to make the step to political action themselves… Culture may be one of the spaces where the struggle over ways of seeing, thinking, and being takes place, but it is not where this struggle ends.”

Working in a period when it was hard to get a struggle even started, movement musician David Rovics felt compelled to write an open letter gently chiding his fellow activists for not using the arts more in their efforts:

I have often been told by conference organizers that they have too many speakers for the week-end and no time for music … People organizing protests have often told me that the protest was meant to be a ‘serious event,’ thus music was be inappropriate…Often I’ve been told something like, ‘We’re flying in Angela Davis and Howard Zinn and (fill-in-the-blank) to speak at our conference and we’re also having a benefit concert, um, some local band, I can’t remember their name . . .

Perhaps some activists are driven solely by a sense of moral purpose and principle, and will persevere and never experience burn-out, but I’ve never met one like that. The most dedicated activists are people with human needs and desires, who require some kind of inspiration to continue their work…

Let us remember the word of the Wobbly minstrel, Joe Hill, who said, ‘A pamphlet, no matter how well-written, is read once and then thrown away – but a song lasts forever.’

On the other hand, Bertolt Brecht, though a writer, feared that culture would turn out to be just an escape valve through which political tensions would be diffused without being confronted. Certainly we live in such a time of left-wing art and right-wing politics, of democratic dress and disappearing democracy, and of obsessive attachment to symbols over substance. Art in such a time can easily become a part of the problem.

But whether today’s art is pro-apathetic or merely pre-political, functions and genres shift with time. Currently, the lack of a strong counterculture helps stifle political action, denying an outward and visible sign of inward changes. Ethnic and sexual literature has become personal instead of a Million Word March. And at the turning of the century, art was atomized and no one declared a collective renaissance of any sort.

But art is too unreliable to draw many conclusions from this. The silence may only have been the sound of something getting ready to happen.

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