On Being A Rebel
A Bahraini protestor takes cover from tear gas during clashes with riot police following a protest against the arrest of the head of the banned Shiite opposition movement Al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman (on the poster) on January 1, 2015 in Bilad al-Qadeem, a suburb of Manama. (AFP Photo / Mohammed Al-Shaikh)
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.”. . .
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 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. . .
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.”. . .
By the end of the 1990s, 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. . .
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. . .