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.
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.
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. . ."
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
James Dean as Jim tried to explain the cause to his father:
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
to report the incident to the police but his parents try to discourage
mother: Why should you be the only one involved?
father: Far be it from me to tell you what to do...
mother: Oh, are you going to preach? Do we have to listen to
a sermon now?
father: Well, I'm only trying to tell him what you mean. You
can't be idealistic all your life, Jim.
father: Nobody thanks you for sticking your neck out.
-- except to yourself.
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.
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.
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."
I'm not interested in politics. The problems of the world are
not in my department. I'm a saloon keeper.
My friends in the Underground tell me that you've got quite a
record. You ran guns to Ethiopia. You fought against the Fascists
What of it?
Isn't it strange that you always happen to be fighting on the
side of the underdog?
Yes, I found that a very expensive hobby too, but then I never
was much of a businessman...
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."
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.
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."
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."
a well-schooled progressive of today might prefer, in place of
such diffident heroics, the words of Mario Savio in 1964:
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
of the strategies recommended by Howard Zinn:
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
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:
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."
also a bit of Rick in Raymond Chandler's private detectives:
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.
says the detective must be "a man of honor. . .without thought
of it, and certainly without saying it."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. They had implicitly rejected the nihilistic
implications of the deconstructionism they met in college as
well as the grandiose visions of previous generations. Such defined
and manageable choices, particularly for the children of failed
rebels, seemed the wiser course.
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
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.
from challenging record companies to taking on the World Trade
Organization was not an easy or obvious journey, but clearly
some of the attitudes that made the anti-globalization protests
possible were formed in clubs and not at conferences. For example,
Dewar MacLeod, writing in American Quarterly, observed that
Cobain's death highlighted what the sociologist Simon Frith has
identified as the central meaning of rock since at least the
late sixties: true rock 'n' roll is supposed to be authentic,
that is, anti-commercial and purely expressive. For some fans,
this true rock 'n' roll can only be created through local, club-based,
underground scenes apart from the mainstream productive apparatus
of the multinational rock 'n' roll industry. From this perspective,
the industry is the enemy against which the subcultural rock
scenes define themselves, and like all of corporate consumer
capitalism, the industry tries to co-opt the alternative scenes,
searching everywhere for more product. Once rock 'n' roll becomes
merely product, its purity is threatened, as when Seattle's grunge
scene burst through in the wake of Nirvana's success. The twin
myths of 'Rock 'n' roll Saved my Life,' and 'Rock 'n' roll Companies
Stole my Scene' were the essential narratives governing Cobain's
fame and death.
Grossberg of the University of North Carolina told a seminar
in the 1980s about some of the bumps in the road:
of the more political bands to have become megastars, . . . played
in my hometown (a mid-west state university town) to an audience
of twenty five thousand. At one point, Bono dedicated a song
to Winnie Mandela; the applause which greeted this announcement
was less than overwhelming. . . A group of students seated in
front of me turned to ask if she was Bono's latest girlfriend
. . . How is such ignorance to be reconciled with the band's
passionate and explicit political concerns, and the fans' knowledge
of both the music and the band?
months later, Midnight Oil played to a smaller but equally enthusiastic
audience. The response to the concert, and to Peter Garrett's
stage performance, was overwhelmingly positive. But a common
comment after the concert (and reiterated by the local music
critic) demanded that the band 'leave its politics at home.'
It's not that the politics were wrong but that they were out
of place, irrelevant to the fans' experience of, and relationship
to, the music.
Fred Frith, an avant-garde rock musician who has had a respectable
following in Champaign for some years, gave a concert there (to
a few hundred fans, mostly undergraduates) the day after Reagan's
second electoral victory. After the concert, at a party with
many of his fans, he stopped the celebration (as only 'star figures'
can) to ask how many of his fans had voted for Reagan. He told
me that he was quite shocked when approximately three-quarters
of them responded positively.
end of the 1990s, however, 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.
the 1990s, during a nadir of activism and an apex of greed, RATM
both raised hell and made money.
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.
Rage organized a benefit concert "for the freedom of Leonard
Peltier." In 1995 they gave one for Mumia Abu-Jamal.
well before most college students were paying any attention to
the issue, Rage's Tom Morello was arrested during a protest against
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.
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
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 . . .
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."
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.
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.
what James Thurber was telling us in his wonderful fable about
the bear who had became addicted to fermented honey mead. He
would "reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand,
knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows.
Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went
to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were
very frightened." Then one day, he saw the error of his
ways and became a fervent teetotaler. He would tell everyone
who came to his house how awful drinking fermented honey mead
was and he would boast about how strong and well he had become
by giving it up. To prove this he would stand on his head and
do cartwheels and kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the
bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he
would lie down and go to sleep. "His wife was greatly distressed
and his children were very frightened." The moral: "You
might as well fall flat on your face as lean too far backward."
what happened to the officer in Vietnam who declared that it
had been necessary to destroy a village in order to save it and
to NATO when it declared that Slobodan Milosevic's crimes against
humanity were such that they justified the brutal destruction
of a country and the very pain and death we said we sought to
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
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.
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.
Stephen Duncombe -- academic, musician, and zine publisher --
wrote a remarkable study of an American rebel subculture: Notes
From the Underground: Zines And the Politics of Alternative Culture.
In it he says:
that be do not sustain their legitimacy by convincing people
that the current system is The Answer. That fiction would be
too difficult to sustain in the face of so much evidence to the
contrary. What they must do, and have done very effectively,
is convince the mass of people that there is no alternative.
publishing culture strips away that fiction, sometimes with brutal
self-critique. From a zine called Pathetic Life and a writer
named Doug: "You've got no money, no friends, you live in
a slum, you never do anything interesting and you're too damn
fat to have sex. Your life is pathetic." Says Duncombe:
people with little power over their status in the world still
retain a powerful weapon: the interpretations they give to the
circumstances and conditions that surround them, and the ideals
and character traits they possess. Such is the case with zine
writers. While there isn't much they can do about being losers
in a society that rewards interests they don't share and strengths
they don't have, they can redefine the value of being a loser,
and turn a deficit into an asset.
these publications, like the music of which they often write,
are absorbed by nihilism. In this they are in a tradition that
has led to good books and bad dictators, infamous philosophers
and famous rock bands. Consider three comments about life, the
first from Mike of the zine, 7 Aardvarks for Alice:
there in your stinking little room thinking dire thoughts about
your life that's so tough, and the society that represses, about
your contemporaries with no clue, about your dead-end, mundane
nine-to-five job, about your parents who never understood you
anyway, and a government that encourages it all, and you get
angry. You listen to avant garde music and read the fringes of
mainstream literature. You dress differently and hate those who
persecute you for doing so
Sometimes you write down these
thoughts and mail them to others who basically think the same
things. Then you call it the underground. Then you're dangerous,
a true rebel
is from a character Kierkegaard uses to parody the aesthetic
I do not
care for anything. I do not care to ride [a horse] for exercise
is too violent. I do not care to walk, walking is too strenuous.
I do not care to lie down, for I should either have to remain
lying, and I do not care to do that, or I should have to get
up again, and I do not care to do that either. Summa summarum:
I do not care at all.
is from a song by the Ramones:
like Burger King
I don't like anything
And I'm against it
the problems with being so certain of what you don't like is
that it starts to define you. As Duncombe puts it, "the
authentic self that zinesters labor to assemble is often reliant
upon the inauthentic culture from which they are trying to flee."
dichotomy arises when one consciously attempts to distance oneself
from the dominant culture in the name of individualism and freedom.
Planet Boy in North Dakota wrote to a zine in 1983 that he had
defied local culture by piercing his ears three times and coloring
his hair, provoking this response from John in the next issue:
thinking for yourself and being yourself
Perhaps you don't
realize it, but you are acting just like the phony society you're
supposed to be against.
following issue, though, Mike wrote to say
fuck does John think he is? Some divine god who gets to call
someone trendy for dyeing their hair and piercing their ears?
Personally, I think it takes a lot of guts to look that wild
and take all the shit people have to give.
even in North Dakota, someone would have to do far more than
pierce his ears and dye his hair to declare freedom from society.
Still, Duncombe, who read a lot of such letters for his book,
says that these debates are really about something other than
how one dresses or how one thinks. They are a debate about the
"conflict between rebellious individualism and group identity."
One philosophy professor raises this issue each fall by beginning
his first lecture on individualism with a request that all those
not wearing jeans to please rise.
disconnect found in the rebellion epitomized by zines is economic
dependency on the despised culture. Without a multinational record
and clothing industry, for example, youth countercultures would
be far more isolated and diversified. The fact that the country's
largest employer is a temp agency suggests that the economic
setting in which today's young rebels find themselves is not
entirely hostile. The bike messenger subculture happily serves
society's citadels of conformity. And among the techniques used
by the young to survive in expensive cities is "ganking,"
getting something at a discount or for free from a friend working
within the system. One Washington ganker tells of a colleague
at a CD store and she let me use employee discount to buy discs.
Others, who worked at grocery stores, gave discounts on cartons
of cigarettes, which we would later use as barter: in exchange
for a free meal, we'd leave a carton on the table .... "It's
a new form of Darwinism,' says my friend Tessie. 'the survival
of the sneakiest."
course, there is slack, defined in one manifesto as "like
freedom but unlike freedom it brings no responsibilities."
None of this is entirely new. The slacker has roots in African-American
passive resistance against employers as well as the crash pad
culture of the 60s. As far back as the 30s, a pair of critics
attacked the bohemian as having "merely nullified for himself
the necessity of accepting responsibilities upon whose recognition
by others, however, he continues to rely for his privileges."
that sort of criticism comes most frequently from those without
the impulse to rebel, not exactly the best vantage point from
which to tell someone how to run an uprising.
such concerns can be found the government or corporate whistleblower.
Typically a card-carrying member of mainstream culture, this
defector is often but a reluctant dragon engorged with a sense
of responsibility. Yet it is this most unpremeditated form of
rebellion that can pay the highest price.
in the course of doing their jobs, typically stumble upon facts
that point to danger, neglect, waste, or corruption. Far too
often this discovery is met not with approbation and as a sign
of exemplary public service, but rather as a threat to the agency
or company. Among the consequences: firing, reassignment, isolation,
forced resignation, threats, referral to psychiatric treatment,
public exposure of private life and other humiliations, being
set up for failure, prosecution, elimination of one's job, blacklisting,
or even death. .
whistleblower, Pentagon official Peter Leitner, had his performance
rating lowered, was kept out of meetings, harassed over sick
leave, given a trumped-up letter of reprimand, accused of security
violations, and threatened with charges of insubordination.
Long, an IRS auditor, had a similar experience. She told the
New York Times:
me of coming in late when I was at my desk an hour early every
day. They instructed me to do something and then wrote me up
for doing it. They wouldn't let me talk to anyone, they wouldn't
even let me get out of my chair. I wasn't allowed to call my
attorney. This went on for two years. They nearly killed me with
the way they harassed me. But I knew that they would wear out
before I did . . .
doctor in Ibsen's Enemy of the People to Karen Silkwood, the
nuclear industry worker killed after her car was forced off the
road on her way to talk to a reporter, speaking truth to power
has proved costly. The Mongolians say that when you do it, you
should keep one foot in the stirrup.
fall easily into traps that can hurt if not destroy them. They
may become monomaniacal, paranoiac, depressed, confused, and
other hand, whistleblowers have forced the cancellation of a
nuclear power plant that was 97% completed, potentially prevented
widespread illness due to poor meat inspection, ended the beating
of patients in a VA hospital, and exposed multi-billion dollar
waste in the Star Wars program.
all whistleblowers are defeated. When Ernest Fitzgerald discovered
a $2 billion cost overrun on a military cargo plane, Richard
Nixon personally ordered his staff to "get rid of that son
of a bitch." Twenty-five years later Fitzgerald was still
on the job.
who works for the Government Accountability Project, has been
helping whistleblowers for years. Part lawyer, part therapist,
Devine presses his cases forward even as he tends to the personal
stress of his clients. He has written a 175-page handbook, The
Whistleblower's Survival Guide, to help government and corporate
employees do what should be routine: tell the truth. At times
he sounds more like a social worker than an attorney:
the stress, it helps to be fully aware of and accept what you
are getting into
The constant, negative pressure whistleblowers
face can color your judgment and make you paranoid about every
event. Paranoia works in the bureaucracy's favor if it wants
to paint you as an unreasonable, even unstable, person whose
charges should not be taken seriously
better to stay calm - and even to laugh - than it is to seethe
It can be liberating to know that you have assumed
responsibility for making your own decisions based on your values
Along with the pain and fear, there is real satisfaction inherent
in taking control of your life
surrender to the temptation to become an obsessive 'true believer'
in the importance of your whistleblowing cause.
also warns his readers to expect retaliation and surveillance.
One study found that 232 out of 233 whistleblowers reported suffering
retaliation; others found reprisals in about 95% of cases. As
Admiral Hyman Rickover told a group of Pentagon cost analysts:
"If you must sin, sin against God, not against the bureaucracy.
God may forgive you, but the bureaucracy never will."
artist seeks to combine the freedom of the zinester with the
whistleblower's dedication to a larger purpose. Art is the serendipity
that occurs when imagination meets discipline and skill. Every
work of art is a challenge to the status quo because it proposes
to replace a part of it. An artist, therefore, is a rebel without
even trying. Says printmaker Lou Stovall:
by nature somewhat destructive. Every artist while seeking to
add to the sum of art, attempts to take away your memory and
appreciation of what went before, saying, "Look at me, I
is also free, perhaps the more obscure the artist the more free.
As Virginia Woolf wrote, "Over the obscure man is poured
the merciful suffusion of darkness. None knows where he goes
or comes. He may seek the truth and speak it; he alone is free;
he alone is truthful; he alone is at peace."
comes all the little and big compromises that public reception
demands. "Once you want something from them, they've got
you," I.F. Stone warned journalists about their sources.
artists this problem remains only a blurry possibility. David
Bayles and Ted Orland write that unlike early times when the
artist was shored up by church, clan, ritual or tradition,
almost no one feels shored up. Today artwork does not emerge
from a secure common ground: the bison on the wall is someone
else's magic. Making art now means working the face of uncertainty;
it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something
no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be
neither audience nor reward.
are the personal fears: "I'm a phony, I have nothing worth
saying, I'm not sure what I'm doing, Other people are better
than I am
no one understands my work, no one likes my work,
I'm no good."
and Fear, Bayles and Orland address such concerns but still leave
the reader with the unavoidable:
are, in fact, one of the few elements of art making you can reasonably
hope to control. As for everything else - well, conditions are
never perfect, sufficient knowledge rarely at hand, key evidence
always missing, and support notoriously fickle. All that you
do will inevitably be flavored with uncertainty - uncertainty
about what you have to say, about whether the materials are right,
about whether the piece should be long or short, indeed about
whether you'll ever be satisfied with anything you make.
this without wishing to change the world more than one picture's
worth. Should your goal include not only creative work but political
or social action out of that work, the uncertainties and problems
compound. Does one favor the creation or the cause? Does one
speak in the voice of the artist or of the leader?
Duncombe it's a serial process: "Individuals can and will
be radicalized through underground culture, but they will have
to make the step to political action themselves
may be one of the spaces where the struggle over ways of seeing,
thinking, and being takes place, but it is not where this struggle
in a period when it was hard to get a struggle even started,
movement musician David Rovics felt compelled to write an open
letter gently chiding his fellow activists for not using the
arts more in their efforts:
often been told by conference organizers that they have too many
speakers for the week-end and no time for music
organizing protests have often told me that the protest was meant
to be a 'serious event,' thus music was be inappropriate
I've been told something like, 'We're flying in Angela Davis
and Howard Zinn and (fill-in-the-blank) to speak at our conference
and we're also having a benefit concert, um, some local band,
I can't remember their name . . .
some activists are driven solely by a sense of moral purpose
and principle, and will persevere and never experience burn-out,
but I've never met one like that. The most dedicated activists
are people with human needs and desires, who require some kind
of inspiration to continue their work
remember the word of the Wobbly minstrel, Joe Hill, who said,
'A pamphlet, no matter how well-written, is read once and then
thrown away - but a song lasts forever.'
other hand, Bertolt Brecht, though a writer, feared that culture
would turn out to be just an escape valve through which political
tensions would be diffused without being confronted. Certainly
we live in such a time of left-wing art and right-wing politics,
of democratic dress and disappearing democracy, and of obsessive
attachment to symbols over substance. Art in such a time can
easily become a part of the problem.
today's art is pro-apathetic or merely pre-political, functions
and genres shift with time. Currently, the lack of a strong counterculture
helps stifle political action, denying an outward and visible
sign of inward changes. Ethnic and sexual literature has become
personal instead of a Million Word March. And at the turning
of the century, art was atomized and no one declared a collective
renaissance of any sort.
is too unreliable to draw many conclusions from this. The silence
may only have been the sound of something getting ready to happen.