Friday (afternoon) is my (personal) writing day. We’ll see how long this lasts. I do need—psychologically, politically, analytically, ideologically— to write a memoir, and need to someday start. But I really don’t feel like dwelling on myself today…even though I know that all writing is essentially self-dwelling…it is also communication (if anyone reads or hears, and I have no good case to make for why someone should). It is an indulgent activity when I should better be doing my work of analyzing the work of Julius Nyerere who actually did try to institute a peaceful revolution, not being unafraid of violence, but fully cognizant of its costs. This is not even an eloquent essay, but the songs are eloquent.
So today I think I’ll write on Revolution, which will provide a good rejoinder to the last post. I’ve been thinking about Lauryn Hill’s “I Find it Hard to Say (Rebel)” as sung on her MTV Unplugged album and wish I could find a video of the performance. A bare, unpretentious, even pedestrian lyric that floats gently into transcendence, thereby accomplishing what every great song accomplishes. Conversational prose merges imperceptibly into poetry, not merely in rhyme but in transcendent resonance with some spirit circulating at the level of myth, where meaning is born. Jerusalem is Jerusalem is Jerusalem.
Tracy Chapman did the same on her unequaled first album. I can’t think of anyone who put out something quite so peerless as that heartbreaking album… as her first try. Not Sinead O’Connor, not Suzanne Vega, maybe the BoDeans Love&Hope&Sex&Dreams is similar in its consistency but is not half as ambitious. This is not the place for a debate about best first albums, but hers must rank very close to the top. And I’m sure whoever might be deemed to outrank her cannot approach her compassionate moral wisdom. Maybe only Mountains O’ Things falls a little flat, but you can hardly argue with the wisdom, or its relevance to Across the Lines, (written long after the 1960s and an epoch before Rodney King) “who would dare to go, under the bridge, over the tracks that separate whites from black. Choose sides. Run for your lives. Tonight the riots begin.”…and “all that you have is your soul.“
This week Chapman’s song on Revolution resides next to Lauryn Hill’s call to arms. Both finally get stuck on one word. Chapman sings “Don’t you know you better run, run, run, run, run….” Hill sings “So what I have to say, so what I have to say is rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel, rebel” Chapman does not specify whether it is a running away or running towards, and Hill does not specify the nature of the rebellion. These are calls to action, and they leave the nature of the action to the hearer. And we do not criticize poets for lacking detail in their policy formulations. They call our souls into action, filled with love and hate and outrage. It is up to us to conjure the policy, while they conjure the courage.
They conjure the courage. We live in the world with them. We have to tell our stories and thereby communicate. And we do the world a favor when we are honest…thus my reluctance to begin writing a memoir. Courtney Love asked quite honestly, I believe, “what do you do with a revolution?” when you went to school in Olympia and everyone’s the same, we talk the same, we are the same, we even fuck the same. Such is life in most human communities. We are creatures of each other’s habits. We are creatures of each other’s stories.
And we devolve into the miasma of pop culture, revolution fades from call to arms to pose. But when we live in each other’s stories how can we be anything but poseurs? Meaning, the postmodernists tell us, happens in the interaction, in the call and response, not in the enunciation. We cannot have meaning without responding to another, and without a hearer responding to us. Words take on meaning in their use and get lost in disuse. When we call for revolution because we cannot pay off college loans, we run up against the poseur’s revolution, and then all the other revolutionaries mock us for being lame, for being naive, for being insufficient, for being innocent of crueler realities. We dilute and kill the revolution, we might as well go home…come back when you are ready to die. The revolution will not be televised. But how will we even know what a revolution looks like if we don’t see it on TV? What’s going on?
The revolution will not be televised. We only know what it WON’T look like, we have not idea what it WILL look like. And yet, again the post-modernists tell us that we only know what a word means by knowing what it does not mean. Meaning, they tell us, is generated through differentiation. The revolution, at its core, is the attempt to make all things different. There are two fundamental issues every revolution must address: the first is the power to accomplish it. And power corrupts. The second is what to make new when it is accomplished. A revolution must also be a revelation.
He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’
The first issue dictates that the cost is going to be high. And we must be ready to bear the moral responsibility for that cost. Normally it is only sociopaths who proclaim themselves ready to bear moral responsibility for such events. A bourgeois child such as I can only sympathize with the Beatles’ counter-revolutionary compassion for those who actually live in the status quo. They and their cohort allowed a path to something other than a revolution, but something important nonetheless. They led the way towards something like a revolution and only sociopaths and the small-minded would deny this. Nonetheless they also thereby paved a path back to pre-revolutionary complacency. And so, here we are today, inequalities, police brutalities, and robotic atrocities a half century after the revolution that never happened. Did it happen because we loved each other too much or because we lacked the raw power, or the stomach, to institute it?
Suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.
The revolution will not be televised because it’s going to be fucking bloody. Cameramen will not be led away in cuffs, or tear gassed out of the way. They will be shot. By one side or the other. They will be shot. Revolution is war. Revolution is taking from them who have, and then deciding for ourselves, if victors, who to give it to.
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves….Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death….Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
It was not only the Roman occupiers who would put down the revolution, it was the revolutionary society itself. Because all revolution finally meet that second challenge. Even if, by some combination of fearlessness among revolutionaries, terror towards all counter-revolutionaries, and compassion for those caught in the middle, a revolution can succeed. Who decides what to build? The revolutionaries can only be children of the society that gave birth to them, the one they just overthrew. They can only bring with them some pieces of what they already had. They can only proclaim in words those things that were already proclaimed before they departed for the battlefield.
So we are left with the depressing and unrevolutionary need to define policy and find a way to retain the power to implement those policies among a populace who were already in such a state of disagreement as to kill each other in the streets. It is a high cost for free college tuition. Something much greater must be accomplished at that cost. We need to decide upon what is to be accomplished before the journey to the battlefield. And that means we must imagine it, imagine the policy, imagine its implementation, imagine the societal governmental organization that can accomplish it. Imagine the culture that can sustain it.
Revolution has to take place at the level of culture first in order that the revolution’s accomplishments might be instituted. And if the revolution takes place at the level of culture, is the war of domination any longer necessary? Has not the battle been won?
For James Brown it was a Revolution of the Mind that had to begin all things. Soul Power, some panracial Black Power or some Afro-Americanized satyagraha. Get Up, Get Into It, and Get Involved, and this meant only two reformist tools were necessary: Education and the Constitution. Nothing but a poseur. But in posing as a Huey Newton being released from prison he reiterated something about the Black Panthers into a new context, not merely a revolutionary context but a cultural one. Like the Beatles he defused the revolution in an attempt to occupy minds rather than lands. Domination of the spirit rather than the streets.
So, that means it is art, writing, marching, ways of politics, Facebook debates, and some attempt to wrest Twitter away from a vulgar president. The culture is so firmly formed by the vulgarity of our popular culture that it is difficult to rise above it. Yet the best artists do this all the time, and even transform vulgarity into virtue and thereby transcend.