The Uses of Revolution

1930 Viking Eight Sedan

“A revolution, then, is a way of putting power in different hands.”  Guy Davenport

Jamie Warren, Associate Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (and former Bloomington resident and graduate student in the Indiana University Department of History) has offered a critique of the use of national iconography and myth by proponents of and activists within the Occupy Movement.  She can be seen here at a panel event called “Staying Occupied.”  Warren’s remarks begin at about the 9:50 mark.

The page offers a precis of Warren’s thinking which she has boiled down to, “We can find better heroes.”

For Warren, OWS is illustrative of the power and deceptions of “historical memory”—the way people, as a group, collectively remember the past.  “Like personal memory, historical memory is continually changing, filled with contradictions, and rich with clues about morals and values systems.”

It is often invoked to give credence and justification to political causes.  In the case of OWS, the occupiers have called up memories from two major historical events—the civil rights movement and the American Revolution. “The civil rights movement was truly a movement for liberty and racial and class equality,” Warren said.

But she was troubled by protesters’ incorporation of “Don’t Tread On Me” signs and quotations from Jefferson and other founding fathers. “OWS is about achieving economic justice and getting the rich to pay their fair share,” she said. “But many of the revolutionaries were wealthy, elite white men, committed to not paying taxes and all too willing to push the burden onto poor frontier families.”

The same men who led the cry for freedom against English tyranny “denied the poor the right of representation, manipulated government bodies to their personal advantage, and enshrined the institution of slavery. We can find better heroes.”

Warren calls memory itself into question here, and justifiably so.  If you’ve ever listened to Radio Lab you’ll know that many studies have been conducted wherein a large percentage of the population can easily have a false memory inserted into their personal histories in a way that the false memory is believed to be real and true (“Memory and Forgetting“).

But what is further evident is that lacking complete and credible knowledge of the historical facts, most, if not nearly all of us, citizens, choose to ascribe to a particular tribal view of historical events.  Further, these tribal views are extraordinarily elastic and, as Warren notes, ever-changing as needed.

National mythology is exactly that: A dash of truth that can be manipulated to form a credible and useful narrative that is, on the whole, a meaningful fiction.

It will not do to simply make the myth your own when its truth is malleable and will fit just as well the tale of the opposition.  Warren’s main point is that invoking the “founders” is tantamount to agreeing with the way the world works at present; and as a consequence having no historical basis for protesting at all.  The Founders’ Revolutionary victory is the one we’re living in.  We are indeed ruled by Rich White Land Owners just like those men that broke from England.  Every Bloomberg a Jefferson; every Washington a Koch; Every Madison a Henry Ford.

It is interesting that we might think of things this way: we are ruled by tyrants born of tyranny (which we learn from psychology is how it works, abuse born of abuse, handed down through the years).

One example of our “evolution” to this current morass sprung from our “revolution” is our attitude towards taxation: It’s funny how that we now praise taxation as a social contract when, in the main, taxes have always simply been to fund the royal whims of excursion and conquest.  In some respects, the “right’ is right: why agree to taxation at all, at least on a federal or national level.  We are not agents in the nation’s goals nor do we likely share the goals of our political masters, yet we believe on some level it is our duty to pay for them as a necessary social cohesion.  And while I see the pooling and use of local resources to fund local prerogatives as a good if it can be overwhelmingly consented to, I do not see how my blind obeisance to federal mandates that fund war and resource depletion is a common or personal good.

Our revolution was fought because of a penny tax on paper and at two-penny one on butter.  We are now taxed for every movement we make, every exchange of a nickel from citizen to citizen.  That tyrant against whom we rebelled would not have dared to tax his subjects’ incomes and was innocent of the diabolical idea that one can collect taxes on income not yet earned, which all of us now pay.  (Guy Davenport, “What Are Revolutions?”)

These Founders are the .1% that still rule us.  We would be wise to leave their invoking to our current masters for theirs is the true story of America.  Occupy, it seems to me, would wish a different history on us in order to yield a different present and future.  Well there are different histories of course.

We can indeed do better and we have historical models of real heroes who stand against the tyranny of the American Way.

The problem we face is that our Way is the only Way we know.

Vizzini: Finish him. Finish him, your way.
Fezzik: Oh good, my way. Thank you Vizzini… what’s my way?
Vizzini: Pick up one of those rocks, get behind a boulder, in a few minutes the man in black will come running around the bend, the minute his head is in view, hit it with the rock.
Fezzik: My way’s not very sportsman-like.

(“The Princess Bride“)

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.  However, “The Princess Bride” is instructive in its simple narrative of political intrigue.  Truth is manufactured; revolutions and wars are often instigated by the parties said to be on the defensive against attack.

Our inability to know with certainty, well, anything, seems to me to require our demand to put the brakes on and stop doing so much.  The machine cannot operate if its parts don’t move.   A protest does the exact right thing when it just plain sits down.

The Davenport essay I quoted from is long and very much worth reading as it fairly runs the gamut of human knowledge and history in the examination of “evolution” and “revolution” in about thirteen pages: “Revolution and evolution are perhaps like fire and rust, which are different speeds of oxidation.”  In other words, “the same process, one very slow, the other fast.”

The essay turns out to be a kind of litany of the ills of the revolutionary evolution of humanity via technology.  For example:

The strangest revolution of our century [20th] is this perverse and invisible evolution of the human body into the automobile…The body of an American has four wheels, drinks gas and oil, and eats cities….As in biological evolution, where the liver fluke learned over a million years to take over, cell by cell, a water snail that sheep like to eat, and thus enter the sheep; so the automobile, to take but one machine, got us to believe that it is our body…which are now obsolete.

It seems I may have moved too far from the beginning for this point, but I think not.  America is the product of a kind of philosophical and technical evolution that begins with the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and our progenitors are children of that age.

We have been trapped in the logic of the revolutions of the Age of Reason.  If you want peace, make war.  We must have an arms buildup to have the strength to negotiate an arms reduction.  And so on.

As counterpoint to this American way of evolution Davenport examines Denmark via a centuries-long thumbnail sketch tracking this people from the terrors of their Viking ancestry evolving into their civil revolutions from monarchy to to constitutional monarchy and elected parliament.  No blood spilled.  No muskets or bayonets.  (These are termed “revolutionary bursts of speed.”)

There are three points that seem entirely relevant to the Occupy Movement and the proper examination of revolutionary events in the history of human social and civil development.

1. We are given over to management by machines (the railroad rides us)–i.e. slaves to invention and discovery and technical “advance.”

2. Because of this we cannot see anymore, or rather acknowledge, other ways to evolve or revolt.

3. Size and speed (large and fast) appear to be our primary barriers to doing anything on a human, biological scale.  And again, these are products of the machine age.

Davenport ends with no prescription but to say, take back your body, take back your imagination, take back your skills, take back your minds from the arguments of necessity, fear and prejudice.  Take back your life.

Get out of the car; slow down; sit down; meet with your fellow beings; talk; sing; dance together

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Protest by doing absolutely nothing you’ve been trained to do.


*photo by Alden Jewell


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  1. focus December 17, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Best use of a quotation from the Princess Bride. Very thought provoking Doug. I love the last 2 lines.
    Do we look to ourselves then? Rather than the personages of history?

  2. Doug December 18, 2011 at 8:25 am

    History seems to me to provide us primarily information regarding things not to do and people not to admire or “believe in.”

    This is the history we should try not to repeat.

    “Ourselves” require some internal monitoring!

  3. focus December 18, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    unfortunately it is all well and good to attempt to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. The problem is the people in positions to avoid those mistakes are often not interested in viewing their situation as related to a previous negative historical event. Thus the cycle endlessly repeats with different players, different locations but little regard to the antecedent events that spawned the current cycle and could be viewed plainly if one put the puzzle pieces together.
    We can monitor ourselves to an extent, some better than others and some remarkably worse. But no one enjoys hearing that they are in error and thus the messenger gets sacrificed at the altar of good intentions.

    1. Douglas Storm December 18, 2011 at 7:50 pm

      precisely why we need to stop believing in the fallacy of large scale democracy and begin trying to implement it as a reality in our towns.

      1. focus December 18, 2011 at 9:31 pm

        small changes, local action? It is worth trying but the effort to be put forth could prove daunting and of Mount Everest-like proportions. Not for the faint of heart. To quote the man again:
        “screw your courage to the sticking place,
        “And we’ll not fail.

  4. Douglas Storm December 18, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    perhaps move to a town with the population no more than 2,500?

    1. focus December 18, 2011 at 9:36 pm

      interesting proposition we have discussed before. Many variables at play in a decision like that. School, amenities, location etc. The move to urban centers has decimated communities of that size in this country. Soon they won’t even have their own post offices.

      1. Douglas Storm December 18, 2011 at 9:45 pm

        who needs bad news delivered via post? I’m from that kind of town. But as the urban areas become unlivable due to unemployment and diminishing social services folks may find the inexpensive life of small towns amenable…get a house and 2 acres and plant your garden and make friends and do some square dancing and barn-raising.

  5. focus December 18, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    I am all for the house, the 2 acres, the garden and the friends. A big no on the square dancing though.


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