Thursday, September 17, 2009

Forgive Them, For They Know not What They Do.

As a student of the American Revolution, I must always remind myself that, during the Stamp Act riots of 1765, the Tea Party of 1773, and even on the eve of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the Revolution itself was not a foregone conclusion. No one knew how the British would react to further attempts at rebellion. No one knew if New Yorkers and Virginians could unite behind the common cause of freedom from Parliament. These patriots were lawbreakers and their riotous actions led them onto uncertain legal and ethical grounds. If they failed, they most certainly would have been hanged for treason.

Looking back today, it is almost impossible to remove that foregone conclusion -- that the United States of America came into existence in 1776 -- from our analysis of the events that preceded it. Infinite economic, political, and ideological factors moved in wheels entangling and interlocking, causing many fractured and regional movements to ultimately coalesce into a Continental Army and Congress and, in 1789, a constitution that set forth for posterity a system of government conceived in liberty and equality, but ultimately unfinished. While the Revolution brought together unlikely coalitions -- laborers and merchants, Virginian planters and Bostonian distellers -- that agreed on the concept of home rule, many of the Revolutionaries disagreed on the idea of exactly who would rule at home if they succeeded.

We tend to ignore all the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of the Revolution in favor of a glowing portrait of our Founding Fathers and a distorted image of their rebellious antecedents. Few remember the Loyal Nine of Boston, the precursors to the Sons of Liberty, leading the poorest segments of the population on riotous marches against Boston's wealthiest Tories and government officials, burning and sacking and drinking from the South End to the North. These riots were not always coordinated efforts to bring the crown to heel, but uncontrolled crowd action that would not ever be tolerated in the United States today. We would call in the National Guard in a heartbeat if we saw today in Boston what happened in Boston in 1765.

And all of this makes me wonder how any can invoke the Tea Party or the American Revolution today in service of a political ideology. We are a nation so removed from the context of the 18th century with established principles of self-government and responsive political institutions that would make many patriots blush. We have expanded the rights guaranteed under the Constitution of 1789 to all Americans, black or white, male or female, and we continue to strive toward furthering equality under the law in this country as we tackle the troubling issues of socio-economic inequality and unjust laws laws like Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We do not live an ocean away from our lawmakers nor do they ignore our pleas and petitions for redress.

Those who invoke the Tea Party and the Revolution today should be ashamed. Not because they are ignorant (I can accept that), but because they distort our perception of the creation of the United States. As Timothy Egan wrote in The New York Times today:

Where was the Tea Party movement when the tax burden was shifted from the high end to the middle? Where were the patriots when Wall Street, backed in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, rewrote securities laws so that the wonder boys of Lehman and A.I.G. could reduce home mortgages to poker chips at a trillion-dollar table?

Where were the angry “stiffs” when the banking industry rolled the last Congress — majority Democrat, by the way — into rewriting bankruptcy law, making it easier to keep people in permanent credit card hock?

Where were they when President Bush started the bailouts, with $700 billion that had to be paid on a few days’ notice — with no debate — to save global capitalism.

If it is time for another Revolution, it is not that time now because we wish to give health care coverage to the 48 million Americans who do not have it. If it is time for another Revolution, it is not that time now because we wish to simplify the student loan process for students seeking higher education in this country. And if it is time for Revolution, it is not that time now because we sit, poised on what appears to be a defining period in American history, where we must decide how to respond to crises, national and global, that force us to adapt to uncertain contexts we do not yet fully comprehend. Global credit and finance whirl overhead like dark storm clouds as domestic inequalities and foreign wars fracture our existing coalitions and political frameworks.

Like the Old Revolutionaries, we cannot look into the future with absolute clarity. But if we choose to respond to these crises with fear and not courage, with acceptance of mediocrity over the challenge of reform, we might as well give up the experiment of democracy today for we are not worthy of its mantle.