The Peasants are Revolting…But Why Aren't We Rebelling?

Sharon October 19th, 2008

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,

A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,

And beneath, from the pebble, in passing, a spark

Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet:

That was all! And yet,

through the gloom and the light,

The fate of a nation was riding that night;

And the spark struck out

by that steed, in his flight,

Kindled the land into flame with its heat.  – Longfellow “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”

Yesterday, my children and I were talking about heroism and tikkun olam (for those of you not in the know, tikkun olam means “the repair of the world” and is one of the reasons Jews believe we are here.)  We were reading stories about self-sacrifice and heroism of various kinds – we read one story which tells the tale of the binding of Isaac through the eyes of the ram sent to be the real sacrifice, one of a knight who tries to serve his king but keeps serving the people instead and doesn’t get the connection, and finally, we re-read an old favorite, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s patriotic poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” 

 Now Longfellow is not one of the great poetic artists of all time, although he doesn’t suck quite as badly as people tend to think.  And while the poem has its historical problems (among them the complete omission of William Dawes who did more of the riding), and suffers from hyperbole and an excess of patriotic enthusiasm,  it is in many ways a great children’s poem.  Indeed, I knew the first verses by heart by the time I was eight or nine, and Simon knows them as well. 

I grew up in the neighborhood of the battle of Lexington and Concord, and my father would get us up in the early dark in the April morning and take us on several buses (we did not own a car) to the reenactment of the battle, to the bridge, and let me try and imagine the battle amid the upscale suburb Concord has become. 

We talked yesterday about the obligation, inscribed in the US Constitution, to overthrow tyrannical rulers, and about how hard it can be to do the right thing, or even to know what the right thing is.  And Simon at six asked me whether it would be his job to overthrow bad rulers.  And I didn’t quite know what to say, except that I hope not – that I hope, with luck, the worst of the bad rulers will be overthrown before he comes of age to pay the price.  That is, of course, the dream of all parents, and one that may not happen.

In the last few weeks, we have taken a society that already had inequities between rich and poor greater than most societies in human history, and transferred more wealth to the preservation of rich bankers.  Just now, finally, the mainstream media is beginning to admit that the bailout isn’t going to save us from a massive recession/depression.  What hasn’t yet penetrated most people’s awareness is that we just sold off a good bit of our future. 

We just gave the money we were going to spend on renewable energy infrastructure to banks.  We just gave them the price of affordable health care.  We gave them the money we might have spent on insulation, on sustainable transport networks, on relocalizing schools so that our kids’ education isn’t mortgaged by energy costs and on a host of other things.

My son anxiously wanted to know if he would have to go out and protest his government.  And of course, one of my most fervent prayers is that things will be better for him - and the only possible way that that will happen is if we rebell now against the increasing inequity and misallocation of our resources.

I’m not calling for violent overthrow – if for no other reason than violent overthrow of anything involves a lot of destruction of resources we can’t afford.  But I admit, I wonder, when we will decide that our government is sufficiently tyrannical that we can’t tolerate the way it treats us, that we cannot bear to see our future mortgaged and ordinary people impoverished?  When will we say “no more” and put our backs behind that principle?

Howard Zinn speculates that the reason the New Deal and the reallocation of resources of the 1930s and early 40s were so successful is that overwhelmingly, people were finding solutions to their problems without government intervention – and that had they continued to do so, they might have decided to do without governments all together.  As populist labor movements, strategies like penny auctions and local refusals to foreclose, and self-help strategies began to work, it became obvious to the wealthy that they had to respond, or become rapidly irrelevant.

It is that kind of rebellion I think we shall need – we are going to need the ordinary resistance of ordinary people to face the coming energy, climate and economic crisis.  And I hope and pray that we will do it soon – because I do not believe that good parents cast off their burdens on to future generations.  John Adams wrote “I am a soldier so that my son can be a farmer, and his son can be a poet.”  I don’t want my children to have to fight my battles – I want them to be able to choose, because their parents chose rightly.

 Sharon

23 Responses to “The Peasants are Revolting…But Why Aren't We Rebelling?”

  1. Ani says:

    I too have wondered why people are protesting so little- I have my doubts that a return to 60′s style protests would be the way to go- never got to do that so maybe it would be cool-except to the point that the National Guard started shooting at us with real bullets I suppose- but now protest seems to take the form of just attaching one’s name to an on-line petition and hitting “submit”.

  2. Andrea says:

    Beautiful, beautiful post, Sharon. You’ve touched on points that I’ve worried about for 4 years…since my little Isaac was born. I’ve worried for 4 years that his incredible mind and size (he’s a big strappin’ boy!) will make him frontline material. I’ve also wondered how much more the ‘little people’ will take before they revolt. It’s scary/fascinating watching history unfold right before our eyes.

  3. Lynnet says:

    I tried writing furious emails to my congresspeople, not just signing an e-petition. Of course, it didn’t do any good. Phone lines to Congress were tied up for a week, protesting the bailout. Most callers were irate. Of course, it didn’t do any good. They passed the bank bailout anyway.

    Now, they’re not even bailing out the banks. They’re working at nationalizing them! With our money, or what would be our money if the budget were not 1 trillion dollars in the hole.

    Can someone explain to me just what it is that they are doing? I think it goes beyond just making sure that their banker buddies get their hands on more of our money.
    On the surface their actions seem completely disjointed, wasteful, and beside the point.

    But I don’t think we can assume they’ve all lost their reason in the panic.

  4. Greenpa says:

    Lynnet- “I tried writing furious emails to my congresspeople, not just signing an e-petition. Of course, it didn’t do any good.”

    Don’t lose hope there, please. In my case, my furious emails (along with others) DID work. My Congressman stated at first that he was, reluctantly, in favor of the bailout. But- after input from his constituents and “experts” – he voted against it- both times.

    He listened. Of course- they won’t always. But sometimes, they do.

    I think part of the reason so little protest is going in is the overt repression of it during the last 8 years. Bush has made a policy of forbidding anyone in his audiences from speaking out against him- a mere T-shirt would get you arrested, literally, and jailed until tomorrow.

    And- blatantly- the press has minimized coverage of all protests, so folks don’t know when they do happen. Are you aware that when Sarah Palin was chosen as the VP candidate- there was a HUGE anti-Palin protest- in Alaska? Yep. See any pictures? Not in the mainstream press; you had to run into it on the internet. There are multiple indications that the press is more closely controlled these days than it was during Vietnam- even the “liberal Eastern media elite.”

  5. Anna says:

    A friend and I were talking about how much people could take, and I asked him, “Then what CAN we do?” and I think the answer is tricky, because who will be the ones to put themselves before the (so far metaphorical) tanks and sacrifice all they have for the sake of the Right Thing? I know that while I want things to change, I also (selfishly) want a satisfying life for myself, and I want to be there for my child, which is not possible if I’ve been arrested/killed/eliminated/detained for my actions.

    Who will do the rising up, and what will they do when they rise?

  6. Brad K. says:

    Sharon, I think the answer to your son, is, “Yes, of course!”

    We do this at one level every couple of years, in local and national elections.

    Some people protest at unfair (tyrannical) court decisions, at unpopular community, state, and national propositions, at unjust conditions or policies or practices.

    The First and Second amendments preserve the right to overthrow tyrants. The Third amendment tries to block a tyrant from using the military to intimidate a neighborhood, the Fourth amendment tries to block a tyrant from causing random mayhem to intimidate enemies. These “rights” as the Constitution labels them, help to define, in legal terms for every citizen to understand, who is a tyrant.

    And the presence of the ability and will of the people to overthrow tyrants, to protest and to bring legal action, and to oppose politically helps us avoid many of the worst risks of tyranny, for a time.

    So, yes, you, and I, and your son are expected to overthrow tyrants, now and in the future.

  7. Dan says:

    @ Brad K.

    Your opportunity to overthrow tyrants is vastly diminished when they control your food supply, your money supply, your transportation, AND hold all the power in the form of the biggest guns and coldest hearts.

    The only hope is a Gandi-like revolution with millions rising up simultaneously…but can you really expect with any glimmer of hope for that to happen with the sheeple here? They have been so raised to submission that it would take MASS starvation, homelessnes, etc. to incite a riot…and even then, they’d probably just blame it on liberals and socialism.

    In short, the constitution and bill of rights don’t mean anything unless those with the power are forced to abide by them. As we’ve seen, that isn’t happening. And it may very well be too late to do anything about it.

  8. Vegan says:

    Dan,

    Well said!

  9. If you take a close look you can see that the government is setting the system up so that if you protest or resist you can be labeled a “domestic terrorist”.

    This has happened to just about every government/citizen relationship since the history of civilization. The constitution was an extraordinary attempt at protecting citizens from their own government. Alas, the sheeple have given the current administration a free hand at suspending the rights of the people it is supposed to serve.

    Expect very tough times ahead as the government grabs more and more power at all levels from political to economic to law enforcement, education, military, food and energy resources etc etc.

  10. TH in SoC says:

    I think there are many people who are now realizing that there’s something terribly wrong with our “official” system and its leaders. Most of my neighbors and almost all of my co-workers realize this.

    I think one of the best things people can do is something Sharon pointed out at the beginning of her post, something people did during the 1930′s and 1940′s: begin building alternative systems. One good alternative would be citizen media. Start a community blog or community newspaper. Tell it like it is – be a shining example of journalistic accuracy. Take lots of pictures. And give it all away for free. This will reduce the power and reach of mainstream media in our society and force the discussion of issues that don’t receive much coverage nowadays.

  11. Melinda says:

    Wait… you’re writing about overthrowing the government on the day that thousands of people are going to visit your blog from the NY Times article? Really? Sigh.

    Ok, putting that aside…

    What should our government have done instead? I know it’s not right to give them our hard-earned money, but if we ended up in a Depression, our hard-earned money would have gone to basic needs and many (more) people would have suffered badly. It seems to me that the problem stems from not preventing the situation in the first place. Right?

    Many of us saw this coming well over a year ago. But despite our foreseeing it, it still happened. So once we’re here, once we’ve let all this happen (because we did), now what?

  12. RC says:

    I love the fact that you chose this topic the day of the Times attention.
    Doing most things for oneself does make the need for the central government superfluous.
    Studying tax law and credits also denies the central government the funds for mischief if you plan out the game very carefully so as to pay very little in taxes and also to be the beneficiary of property tax abatements.
    Growing and preserving forest can be an abatement, depending upon where you are.
    It is where I am.
    These are all ways to effect blows against the empire that require very little risk in direct confrontation.
    You might explain these options to your son.
    Not playing the game is sometimes the winning strategy.

  13. Verde says:

    Powerful. The grassroots are the strongest.

  14. Dan says:

    Melinda et al: Here’s Nouriel Roubini explaining things. Might clear it up: where we’ve been, where we’re going.

  15. David says:

    Wait… you’re writing about overthrowing the government on the day that thousands of people are going to visit your blog from the NY Times article? Really?

    Sharon, you’re awesome.

  16. becky says:

    i took such hope recently from a main stream news focus on the sheriff in illinois(?) who stood up and said he wouldn’t be using his police department to enforce any more evictions. i know he was forced back into compliance but, i still took heart from his defiance on behalf of those he felt had been so unjustly harmed. that’s the kind of individual courage i believe it will take on a massive scale. it’s already happening, it’s just not connected. if wall street keeps partying big time on OUR payroll while so many of us are suffering, perhaps nader will have a few more recruits when he leads the next march on wall street.

  17. becky says:

    and sharon, thank you, i meant to say…this was a beautiful post.

  18. Bob Comis says:

    Sharon,

    Nice post. One thing I would like to suggest, focusing on a minor part of your post, is that we reconsider the category of violence, especially as it relates to political uprisings.

    The so-called “nonviolent” movements “led” by Gandhi and King were far from nonviolent. They were *physically* nonviolent, but in terms of their strategy and tactics, they were amongst the most violent political movements we have ever witnessed. This becomes obvious when the idea of violence is expanded from the material to the social, cultural, economic, psychological, etc. Those two so-called nonviolent movements *violently* rent their respective political communities to the core, if only temporarily.

    The reason it is important that we re-understand violence in such a way is that nonviolence, true nonviolence, the sort of nonviolence that we have been led to believe Gandhi and King advocated for, could *never* advance even a moderately progressive agenda, let alone effect radical political change. What is true nonviolence? Protest politics: Sanctioned “protest” marches; free speech zones; petitioning; letter writing. Such things are *not* in the spirit of Gandhi and King. Such things are done, ironically and unintentionally, in the service of power.

    I stand absolutely for *physical* non-violence, not out of a concern for resources, but out of a concern for the life, minds, and bodies of human beings, but I stand just as absolutely for the *violent* overthrow of the political status quo, which for me means the overthrow of Capitalism and its state benefactors.

    Best regards,
    Bob

  19. RC says:

    A short addition to what Mr Comis says is that most non-violent movements are shadowed by very violent alternative movements and the established order of the day chooses to sit down with the non-violent movements.
    Absent the shadow violent movement, detente would never take place.
    Have you never studied the USA in the 1960s?
    India during the Gandhi years had many violent movements also.
    Non-violence is very admirable, but it is also important not to be ignorant of the real history.

  20. Lee Cullens says:

    I came across your blog quite by accident, and sensing an outspoken rational presence I delved in.

    So far I’ve only had pause with your “The Peasants are Revolting…But Why Aren’t We Rebelling?” piece. While I agree with the gist of your concluding remarks, what troubled me was your seeming emphasis on government as a distinct and separate entity in your thread. Please forgive me if I misunderstood, but I believe government is actually the majority for better or (in this case) worse, whether through acquiescence, cognizant support, or direct involvement. Thus the “rebellion” might better be the process of persuading a majority of rational thought, in opposition to the pervasive irrationality of our consumption driven societal model.

    Rather than my rambling on and on, I would refer you to my “Mankind’s Achilles Heel” piece where I took a stab at what I hint at in my other pieces.
    http://achinook.squarespace.com/journal/2008/10/11/mankinds-achilles-heel.html

    This isn’t to say that my approach is necessarily any more productive than yours :o ) as whatever works best I’m all for.

    My best to you and yours,
    Lee C

  21. [...] In yet another superlative post, Sharon asks us, “Why aren’t the peasants rebelling?” [...]

  22. Lee Cullens says:

    I apologize for posting yet again today, but after my last post I came across a TED video that I thought was very moving and enlightening, and connected it with our seeming shared interests. If you’re curious about the human condition from a perspective many may never experience, you may find this talk worthy of your interest. Basically he tells through experiences how he believes our humanity is manifested by others reflecting it back to us, and how through such positive change can occur – at least that’s the point I derived.

    Chris Abani: Telling stories of our shared humanity.
    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/chris_abani_muses_on_humanity.html

    I hope you appreciate it as much as I did :o ) I thought it important and different enough to add to the recommends list on my site.

    Note: You might watch it first to determine if it is appropriate for your children.

    My best to you and yours,
    Lee C

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