What’s eating revolutionaries?

In Editorial /

From the desk of the bastard Editor

As even a casual student of history would conclude, there is a definite downside to revolution. For one, it is usually the product of fanatics, like Lenin’s “vanguard of the proletariat.” Any insurrection against an entrenched power structure is bound to be ugly, especially if we are speaking of political revolution. I mean, how likely is it that you can turn an entire way of life on its head without incurring better feelings from at least some of the people?

I recently viewed István Szabós 1999 epic movie Sunshine, which was primarily about the false promise of assimilation, a story about three generations of the Jewish Sors family struggling with their identity in an antisemitic Hungary. But it also contained a most trenchant analysis of revolution because of its compressed timeline. The story travels over 100 turbulent years of central European history, through the peaks and valleys of socialist revolutions and the militaristic regimes that interspersed them. But these uprisings seemed so herky-jerky, none of the characters felt any more attached to the revolution than they did to the normal course of things. Even when the events of the day tore into their lives, the living force that is revolution was distant and untouchable, an inhuman momentum that none could alter or diet. This is revolution as most of humanity experiences it.

What I’m driving at here is that the search for a permanent revolution by Trotsky or the yearning for a revolutionary society by Mao and his followers is either a pipedream or a rhetorical flourish. Of all social forces, revolution is the most treacherous. I draws the quixotic as easily as the pragmatic to its hearty flame. Some use it to destroy, other build. Whatever the case, change on a massive scale is the result. The mood in revolution is a lot like hanging out with 20 peyote-stoned rugby players who’ve just discovered how fun methamphetamine chased with absinth is. To invite this hellsbroth into your civilization for permanent residence is both arrogant and asinine.

Revolution ought to be perceived as a season. For some, the season of their discontent and for others a season of renewal. Revolution is the pruning shears, or perhaps the gas-powered chainsaw, of the shrub of life. Ah, President Shrub. Which causes me to reflect that revolution has many guises, even the benign silly ones. It is of some interest to all journalists that the U.S. sees it fit to call those who criticize the Shrub as an un-American, even though Shrub pruning was a contact sport prior to Sept. 11, 2001. George is basically a dangerous fool who inherited the White House, only to promptly turn it over to his majordomo Dick Cheney. Having read detailed investigations into his financial history in Harper’s and having learned about his record-breaking fundraising machine, it occurs to me that criticizing this man is a fundamental right of all Americans. So, much like he inherited the White House, he just happened to be in office when a terrible act imparted enormous moral superiority on American arms. It is too soon to call this a sign of some larger revolution in American life, but for Dubya it’s a public relations revolution.

Suddenly the dangerous gibbering crackpot is America’s “firm in our resolve” leader. The central lesson of Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog was not that world events can be manipulated or blatantly false, but rather that politics in America relies on symbolism in the absence of substantive policy or gravitas.

If there is any pruning to be done, at this point the anti-globalization coalitions are the wrong ones for the job. In his book The Decline of Deference Canadian author Neil Nevitte posits an interesting perspective on these times. His studies show that these young people who join the grab bag of NGO’s and activist groups that create the foot soldiers for modern protest movements are not a new constituency previously uninvolved in policies. Rather, the overall attendance in mainstream political groupings has declined in the last 20 years, and that support has bled into areas where individual and group action can be seen to have real results.

Demographically this is a decline, not a revolution. But the revolutionary implications of these trends appear more stark in the long term, perhaps with the destruction of the party system as we know it, or the end of the client-service provider dynamic of today’s policy.

The problem we have now with our ready-made revolutionaries and the totally closed-off halls of power is that whenever we want to change things, we immediately reach for the revolutionary shears. This is damn-foolishness and the romanticism of revolt may be responsible for short-circuiting our society’s ability to resolve conflict. If so, then the arrogance of PR dominated elites is the root of their revolutionary fervor. Ironically, the probable result of this deadlock is a revolution powerful enough to re-energize our view of democracy and our role in it. Now there’s a revolt worth starting.

– S.D.

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