AN EXCERPT FROM “WHY BOTHER?”
Sam Smith, 2000 – 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 be 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 brought it 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 bodies, our homes, and our government we overthrow genetics through application of imagination, dreams, skill, perseverance, perversity, 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 a known end; a rebellion needs only a known means. Hakim Bey prefers the words uprising or insurrection, “used by historians to label failed revolutions — movements which do not match the expected curve, the consensus-approved trajectory: revolution, reaction, betrayal, the founding of a stronger and even more oppressive state – the turning of the wheel, the return of history again and again to its highest form: jackboot on the face of humanity forever. By failing to follow this curve, the uprising suggests the possibility of a movement outside and beyond the Hegelian spiral of that ‘progress’ which is secretly nothing more than a vicious circle.”
When, in the late 90s, college students rioted on some campuses, a dean at one of them 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 came out the year I graduated from high school.
It is often assumed by those with little taste for rebellion that such uprisings are motivated only by antipathies. While this can be true, it certainly doesn’t have to be. For one thing, as Chesterton noted, “we must be fond of the world, even in order to change it.” Further, one’s adversaries may be little more than passive obstacles — so many boulders or fallen trees — in the path that is sought. In the wake of the movie’s tragic game, James Dean as Jim tries to explain this 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.”
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 only a necessary manifestation of his rebellion, but not its purpose. Those in power, parents or politicians, too often mistake the conflict for the cause.
A decade earlier, Humphrey Bogart, as Rick in Casblanca, 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.
Laszlo: 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?
Laszlo: 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 lisa 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 in Rick or protecting him. It is then, to audiences’ repeated joy, that he instructs the 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 …. Thousands 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.”
Rick’s story also recalls something that Raymond Chandler says about the detectives in his mysteries:
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 that 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 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 and earlier. In beat culture, jazz, and, most importantly, 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, Alien 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
The poet Arthur Rimbaud was a precursor :
When will we go, beyond the beaches and the mountains, to greet the birth of the new task, the new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstitions?
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.” Or, in the words of Ned Plotsky, “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, in fact, sartorial nonconformity was more a matter of indifference rather than, as often is the case among today’s 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 habitues in front of Washington’s Coffee ‘n’ Confusion Cafe described it as a place for bearded beatniks when not one person in the picture had a beard. Rather the photo showed a bunch of young white guys with white shirts and short haircuts. In truth, cool resided in a nonchalant, negligent non-conformity rather than in a considered creation of counter style and counter symbolism..
To a far great degree than rebellions that followed, the beats created their 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.
They lived in what Hakim Bey would later describe as a “temporary autonomous zone” which “does not engage directly with the state, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the state can crush it.”
While, by the mid-1960s, many had concluded that this was not enough, at the end of the century we would find ourselves without either an organized counterculture or much open resistance by societal draft dodgers. As during the 1950s, the young – in the best of times the most reliable harbinger of hope; in the worst of times, the most dismal sign of futility – faced a culture that was seemingly impermeable and immutable. The establishment presented a stolid, unyielding, unthinking, unimaginative wall of bland certainty. It looked upon pain, aspiration and hope with the same indifference, and it similarly played out false and time-doomed fantasies to the mindless applause of its constituency.
But there are some important differences. Now the unalterable armies of the law were far more powerful and less forgiving. The price of careless or reckless rebellion was far higher. And, perhaps most disheartening, it was far harder to find the guerrillas in the mountains. Bohemia had been 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 had become 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 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 are. They had implicitly rejected both the nihilistic implications of the deconstructionism they had met in college and the grandiose visions of previous generations. Such defined and manageable choices, particularly for the children of failed rebels of the 60s, seemed the wiser course.
At the other extreme from rebellion’s unjust failure is its unjust triumph. As one of Tom Stoppard’s characters says, revolutions simply change who has the capacity for self-indulgence. 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 all revolutions are wrong – how can an American say that?.
Rather it that 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 Russell 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 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.”
But 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 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 and ethnic cleansing we said we sought to avoid.
In fact, every moral 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 the medical failure; 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 a moral 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. The morality of the disease is supplanted by the morality of the cure.
Our language confuses this business terribly. That which is known at 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 or the country destroyed by multinational alliance lie in ruins to support the tragic myth that Allah’s children or democracy will be the 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.
Even in the hard, barren clay of turn-of-the-century America, rebellion persisted like a suppressed virus, awaiting a favorable carrier to spread it broadly just as the unfocussed rebellions of the 1950s exploded into the 60s counterculture. Or just as in early 1960 four black college students sat down at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in fifteen cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to fifty four 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.
History plays tricks on us like that. It doesn’t ask for permission or put up a marquee. It just does it.
Far from such concerns can be found the government or corporate whistleblower. Typically a card-carrying member of the 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, 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.
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, telling the truth about power has proved costly.
The Mongolians say that when you try it, you should have one foot in the stirrup.
Further, 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 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; other studies found reprisals in about 95% of cases. As Admiral Hyman Rickover once 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.”
For the rebel artist, 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.” But, as I.F. Stone warned journalists about their sources, “Once you want something from them, they’ve got you.” With acceptance comes all the little and big compromises that public reception demands.
For most artists this problem remains only a blurry possibility. The present reality is just the opposite for, whether panderer or anarchist, the artist is much alone.
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 artmaking 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 results 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 is hard enough to get the 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-inthe- 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 an artist, 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 – whatever its character – 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. Art, like everything else at the turning of the century, has become atomized, no one perceives a collective renaissance of any sort, and fewer can recall the sort of common soul, say, of the Works Progress Administration or of a time when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union produced a play that toured nationally and was presented at the White House.
But art is too unreliable to draw many conclusions from all this. The silence may only be the sound of something getting ready to happen. It’s like that with rebellions.