Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quickies: More Insight Than One Might Expect From The Washington Post

The day ahead of me looks a lot like another Rented Mule day, so allow me a brief comment on this disturbing piece of op-ed:

The latest Hunger Games film, “Mockingjay – Part 1″, is topping the international box office. Although it’s a Hollywood blockbuster aimed at young adults, it presents potentially quite subversive ideas of mass revolution, economic sabotage and the populist fight against oligarchy.

These themes of popular uprising are particularly relevant in light of the current civil unrest happening across the world from the streets of Hong Kong to those of U.S. – the latest Hunger Games has tapped into a certain zeitgeist of global rebellion. Thailand’s pro-democracy protestors have even directly borrowed the movie’s three-fingered symbol of resistance in their own struggles against a repressive regime. Adding fuel to this fire, one of its main stars Donald Sutherland recently declared: “I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution.”

Despite these heady sentiments, the film’s depiction of revolution is astonishingly simple, an adolescent vision of toppling an “evil” authority figure. Sure, this isn’t surprising as it’s meant for young adults, but in the context of political spillover this anti-authoritarian vision becomes more troubling. It reinforces prevailing Western ideas of social change – fastening on the idea that all one needs do is eradicate the enemy. And worryingly, it appears that this sort of adolescent rebellion isn’t just consigned to teenage entertainment, but also increasingly forms our real adult fantasies.

It is an unfortunate fact of history that “Revolutions, as long and bitter experience reveals, are apt to take their color from the regime they overthrow.” (Richard H. Tawney) For a revolution to bring about conceptual, structural change in the shape of a society:

  1. It must command the allegiance of an overwhelming majority of those whose government is being toppled;
  2. They must oppose that government on principle: i.e., for ideological rather than practical reasons.
  3. They must be willing to revolt against the revolutionists, should the latter display a desire to retain power.

That hasn’t been the case very often. Indeed, hearken to H. L. Mencken:

Politics, as hopeful men practice it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance. The American colonists, when they got rid of the Potsdam tyrant, believed fondly that they were getting rid of oppressive taxes forever and setting up complete liberty. They found almost instantly that taxes were higher than ever, and before many years they were writhing under the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Note that that world-famous upheaval didn’t satisfy two of the three conditions enumerated above. Its successes were partial and temporary, swiftly undone by the arrogance and power-lust of those who rose to the levers of State.

Yes, “The Founding Fathers would be shooting by now.” Yet even they commanded the support of no more than a third of the populace. Even they conceded more power to the State than it should be allowed...if, indeed, it should be allowed any at all. And though the Constitution was and remains superior to any other governmental design ever proposed, from the very first it contained the seeds of its own destruction.

Those who have seized power, even for the noblest of motives soon persuade themselves that there are good reasons for not relinquishing it. This is particularly likely to happen if they believe themselves to represent some immensely important cause. They will feel that their opponents are ignorant and perverse; before long they will come to hate them...The important thing is to keep their power, not to use it as a means to an eventual paradise. And so what were means become ends, and the original ends are forgotten except on Sundays.

We have a great deal of work to do before an armed uprising would do more than fleeting good.

2 comments:

  1. I don't think there is going to be an armed uprising anyway. As you note, even in the Founders' time they never had more than a third of the population in favor of revolution. Of that third, a large number were at best tepid supporters. The likelihood of modern Americans possessing anything like the intellectual and ideological rigor of those early Americans is quite remote.

    That doesn't mean the current regime will just carry on. I still think its days are numbered. I suspect the more likely scenario is that it will implode and crumble under the weight of its own efforts to continually kick the can down the road. This will open the door to fracturing along any number of possible fault lines. I think some of these resulting regions will individually prove to be much more fertile grounds for something akin to the first American revolution.

    If one looks at the USA as the 50 state entity we have long known, then the prospect of saving or reforming it quickly becomes depressing. If however one looks at it as a feedstock that will ultimately yield several new entities, then the prospects are more likely.

    The USA is going to balkanize like the former Yugoslavia at some point. The fact that we unthinkingly refer to the USA as an "is" rather than an "are" is instructive in itself. The USA will again become an "are" once the weight sitting on top of the lid is no more.

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  2. At root is both a crisis of ideas and a conflict between irreconcilably opposed ideals. Statism has been in the ascendant for over two centuries; I doubt that we who stand for freedom can reverse that trend over night. But we can "strike sparks in the minds of our countrymen."

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