America’s true history is not about “Great Men,” but about grassroots rebels and movements
14 min read
A July 4th celebration of today’s populist rebellions
Beginning in elementary school, we’re taught a fictionalized “Great Man” version of our history. Generals, presidents, industrialists! All are romanticized, sanctified, sterilized, and supersized in everything from textbooks to popular culture. Thus, it’s not enough for George Washington to be called one of the most important leaders of the revolutionary movement that founded the United States. Instead, a statue in the Smithsonian Institution sculpts him in shining white marble, blemish-free, 10 feet tall, with the body of a Greek god, draped in a loose toga: “The Father of Our Country.”
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Such hero-ification (as truth-telling historian James Loewen calls it) trivializes the truly inspiring story of a nation built by ordinary people rising up as mavericks and reaching out to others to forge grassroots movements that achieve the extraordinary. But, celebrating the power of democratic organizing–which has always been the real source of America’s economic, political, and social progress–would encourage more of it. Far safer for the power elites to Disney-fy reality with the myth that history is made by heroes, not people. The message: “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” Wait quietly for the next Great Man to come along and save you “little” people. And wait. And keep waiting.
And here’s another important tidbit the adulators leave out: Paul was a woman. (Well, not literally, but more about this in a moment.)
Revere, a prosperous, politically connected industrialist, hobnobbed with Sam Adams, John Hancock, and other Massachusetts leaders of the revolution. Far from being an impromptu, individualistic act, his now legendary ride of April 18, 1775, was one part of an intricate “alarm and muster” web that settlers and militia had used since early colonial days. Their network included dozens of express riders, special horses, church bells, drum riffs, gunshots, trumpet blasts, and beacon fires. It was an orchestrated and practiced system with many players.
Months before Revere’s famous moment of action, the revolutionary congress had chosen him to make sure this system was in place all around Boston and ready to go. By preparing in advance, the movement’s spies, signallers, and riders were able to spring immediately into action on the fateful night when the Redcoats first stepped from their Boston encampment to march on Lexington and Concord. Revere had positioned himself across the Charles River with his horse already saddled (a fast mare named “Black Beauty,” lent to him specifically for this journey by Deacon John Larkin). His assignment was to ride to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock that the Brits were coming to capture them. By the way, Revere did not shout “The British are coming” as he galloped down the road (his was a stealth mission, so shouting was a no-no), nor did he knock on every farm door. Rather, he awakened key militia leaders along the way, who then alerted others.
Revere’s ride most certainly was courageous and historic. But so were the rides of more than 60 men (and, yes, women) who also were alarm messengers, assigned different routes that night. By five in the morning on the 19th, patriot militias from most of the communities 50 miles around Boston were on the move to Lexington and Concord, well ahead of the bumbling and foundering Brits, who were routed in this opening military battle of our war for independence. The victory was not sparked by a lone ranger, but by an organized insurgency of hundreds of people.
Civilization [is] an accomplishment of culture. It is not just what happens; it is what WE make happen. It’s the thing we do, together. —-Bill Moyers, 1988 University of Texas commencement speech.
Now, about that female “Paul.” In April 1777, two years after Lexington, British troops were burning down Danbury, Connecticut. Just across the border in Patterson, New York, a militia commander named Ludington learned of the attack and surmised that his area would be next, so he needed to muster the area’s patriot farmers to confront them. Up stepped Sybil, his 16-year-old daughter, volunteering to be the messenger. She saddled a horse and off she went–in the middle of the night, in a rainstorm, on unmarked, muddy roads–pounding on doors and calling out the area’s militia to assemble at Patterson. Sure enough, the farmers rallied and forced the Redcoats to retreat. Sybil rode a hard 40 miles that night–about twice as far as Paul traveled. Yet, like the others who rode with Revere, her remarkable contribution to our democratic history remains largely unknown, while Paul is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of heroes who “created” America.
That’s what happens when a popularizer like Longfellow shrivels the history of a profound democratic moment down to one Legendary Bigger-Than-Life Rock Star. Not only does this diminish the others who did as much or more, but it tells an insidious lie about who we are (and must be) as a people. The greatness that produces practically all of America’s big advances is not in any individual, but in the social enterprise and derring-do of a whole community.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a patriot as, “One who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests.”
Supports authority? Hooey. An American patriot is one who supports the egalitarian ideals of our country, and who is willing to challenge authority every time it devolves into authoritarianism. We live in such a time, with a staggering level of corporate authoritarianism asserting control over us. We see it in the Walmart-ification of our economy, Koch-ification of our government, Murdoch-ification of our media, Exxon-ification of our environment, Monsanto-ification of our food supply, and so on.
Just keeping up with all the assaults on our people’s democratic idealism can be dizzying, disheartening, and debilitating–sometimes leading to an emotional overload that social commentator and humorist Marty Kaplan has dubbed “Informed Citizen Disorder.” Symptoms include an outbreak of hives when you see Fox News and a nagging compulsion to “Flee to the woods!”–which is exactly what plutocratic powers want all dissidents to do.
There is, however, a revitalizing antidote to the tragedy of ICD: Periodic exposure to the bright light of America’s mavericks and mutts, free thinkers and greed whackers, who refuse to conform to the corporate order. They receive little media or political attention, but these are our nation’s everyday patriots– mostly unsung, but wholly imbued with a stalwart spirit of fairness and justice. Some burst spontaneously into grassroots activism, sparked by a particular outrage, while others are part of a larger, long-term movement. They are underdogs battling big money and power, yet they commonly win.
So, for this July 4th issue of the Lowdown, rather than genuflecting to the same old “Great Men,” we’re celebrating all of you who remain rebellious, and who put yourselves on the line for the historic ideals of liberty and justice for all. We offer here just three vignettes as a sampling of this ongoing rebellion, which is taking place in nearly every zip code across the land, probably including yours. In fact, it’s quite likely that you or someone close to you are among these agitating patriots.
GET RADIO-ACTIVE. Tired of hearing nothing but their news & views on the radio? Then get your own station! That’s not as preposterous as it might sound, thanks to a freelance, free-range, free-form collective of mostly young activists banded together as the Prometheus Radio Project. This nonprofit group arose in the past 15 years from the Low Power FM (LPFM) “pirate radio” insurrection, in which local progressives set up unlicensed stations that operate on only about 100 watts of power (yes, a light bulb’s worth). The signals of these renegade broadcasters have a range of up to 10 miles in diameter–enough to cover a town or urban neighborhood. They create a very localized, democratic, and inexpensive micro-media, providing a way for communities to put their own voices, issues, music, and stories on the dial.
But there was that outlaw factor, which allowed powerhouse corporate chains to dispatch the authorities to shut down the tiny units. Prometheus, however, battled the giants with a grassroots campaign to legalize and license LPFM nonprofit stations. It took 10 years of uphill slogging, but their tenacious district-by-district organizing scored big in 2011 when President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act. With rules and staff now in place, thousands of low-power noncommercial FM licenses will be up for grabs by nonprofit community groups this October. It’s a sort of Oklahoma-land-rush-on-the-air to help democratize the dial,and it will be the biggest expansion of community radio in US history. Prometheus is now offering a help desk and other assistance to people interested in strengthening their communities with these low-watt, high-impact radio signals. Tune in to the possibilities at www.prometheusradio.org
BATTLING PIPELINE BULLIES. TransCanada Corporation, a $1.3 billion fossil fuel fiefdom based in Calgary is presently demanding a permit to run its 1,179 mile, three-foot-wide, Keystone XL pipeline right through our country’s center. KXL would have some 800,000 barrels of toxic tar sands sludge from northern Canada glopping through it every day. This asphalt-like tar would cross thousands of farms, suburban developments, ecologically vulnerable lands, and invaluable water supplies in its poisonous path to refineries and export facilities on the Texas Gulf Coast. From there, the bulk of the product would be shipped to Asia, South America, Europe, and other foreign consumers.
As usual, most state and national officials have been as useless as a Jell-O doorstop in preventing this corporate siege–instead siding with the foreign invaders. So this looked like a done deal–except for one little factor the tar sands cabal overlooked: Feisty locals.
Even in Texas, where the government has historically had a tail-wagging enthusiasm for any oil industry scam, corporate executives and public officials suddenly found themselves facing a fast-spreading, grassroots revolt against the industry’s quick-buck ethic and crude tactics. As elsewhere, the Texas uprising is about protecting the environmen t and public health, but more particularly, the Lone Star rebels are spotlighting the rise of corporate imperialism over people’s rights. This fight’s populist spirit is personified in a scrappy, third-generation family farmer in Lamar County: Julia Trigg Crawford.
Worried about the likelihood of tar sands oil contaminating the creek that crosses the Crawford’s farm and is used to irrigate their crops, she rejected Trans-Canada’s $21,626 offer in 2011 to buy a permanent easement across her land and water. No problem, said the corporation, we’ll just take your property.
Huh? Yes, Texas law graciously hands the public’s power of eminent domain to private pipeline firms so they can grab what they want, usually for a low-ball price. However, to get this extraordinary power, the grabsters must be “common carriers,” meaning their pipes are essentially public, available to all users. But TransCanada would use its pipeline solely for private gain, so it is not entitled to seize land by exercizing the state’s power. Yet, it is doing just that.
How does it get away with such arrogance? Through a loophole big enough to ram a 345-mile pipe right down the throat of Texans. Benighted state “regulators” allow a corporation to–get this–designate itself as a common carrier. Just check a box on a one-page form. That’s it. The state blithely accepts the corporation’s word. No questions asked.
It gets weirder. Rather than negotiate with the Crawfords, TransCanada lawyers quietly slipped into court and filed condemnation papers on a chunk of their farm. This filing is called a “hearing,” but it’s just a paper shuffle. No evidence is presented, and landowners are not invited, much less heard. So TransCanada’s petition to condemn was rubber-stamped before the Crawfords knew what hit them. BAM!–A “forever” easement handed control of the land in question to the corporation, and the family is banned from building roads or anything else on it. These rigged proceedings are aptly named “quick takes”–they are quick and they are a taking (though they could more aptly be named what they are: “Robberies”).
The only way for victims to regain control is to sue the company and win–no small hill, for you must shell out for a lawyer, spend many hours in court, and out-duel the corporation’s slick legal department. But the Crawfords gave it a try, challenging TransCanada’s common-carrier status before a Lamar County judge. Overwhelmed by the high-dollar corporate lawyers, however, he cravenly surrendered the Crawford land to the faux common carrier. Afterwards, he refused to offer any legal rationale for his brusque, 15-word edict–which he transmitted by his iPhone! Surreal.
This legalized thievery would crush most spirits. But, did I mention that Julia is scrappy? Far from giving up, this six-foot-tall former Texas A&M basketball player has expanded the fight. She is appealing the judge’s ill-considered decision; she rallied a broad statewide coalition to demand that legislative leaders convene a series of public hearings all across Texas on this perversion of the eminent domain law; a “Stand With Julia” legal fund is drawing support from around the world; and she’s bringing way more internet and media coverage to TransCanada than it ever wanted.
This has to be the costliest tract of land the pipeline bully has ever seized–and the fun has only begun. “We may lose,” Crawford concedes. “But I was raised to compete. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to get your teeth kicked in. You go out there and fight.” Join her: www.standwithjulia.com
POLITICAL MORALITY MATTERS. “They’re not thinking straight. They’re not rational.” That is Barbara Parramore‘s understated assessment of the feral, mad-dog politicos now in charge of North Carolina’s state government.
In the past half century, this southern state had built a reputation for having a relatively moderate government that provided good schools and other essential public services to enhance the common good. No more. Today’s GOP supermajority is sledgehammering all traces of basic decency. It has rammed through hundreds of bills to decimate and corporatize public schools, has denied health coverage to half a million people, gutted jobless benefits, unleashed big oil frackers on local communities, suppressed access to the polls, shredded progressive (and effective) campaign funding laws, shifted taxes on the rich to the sore backs of the middle class and poor, restricted the rights of women and labor, and even killed the state’s proud Racial Justice Act.
The whole of their perfidy is worse than its many parts, for these are not just a few laws, but a total assault by a government gone rogue, wildly stomping on the majority of its own people. It goes beyond mere politics. As Parramore points out, the state’s betrayal is now “a moral issue.” But what can one 80-year-old longtime teacher and school principal do about that? “Speak up,” she says. “Be arrested.”
She is one of thousands of North Carolinians who’ve come to the capitol rotunda for one or more of an ongoing series of non-violent, clergy-led, weekly protests by the state NAACP, a wide variety of groups and just plain citizens that are now part of these “Moral Mondays.” Since April, some 500 of these voices of reason–including Ms. Parramore–have been arrested and hauled to jail in handcuffs. They are being charged with the crime of “trespassing” on a public building! Mindboggling!
Not satisfied with arresting their state’s concerned citizens, North Carolina’s petulant Republican overlords are also insulting them: “Moron Mondays,” snorted one learned solon. And Gov. Pat McCrory, apparently taking his cue from such clueless reactionaries as Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey blames outsiders for fomenting the insurrections, calls their gatherings “illegal assemblies,” and even refuses to meet with them.
Worse is the brutish suppression attempted by Art Pope, the state budget director and the governor’s chief hatchetman. A multi-millionaire discount marketing mogul (Variety Wholesalers is the name of his discount chain), Pope is one of the nation’s top funders of extremist right-wing causes and politicos (including McCrory). One of his front groups has launched a website that targets every arrested protester for harassment (or worse) by far-right wingnuts. The online database includes each protester’s name, city of residence, occupation , other arrests, group memberships, voter registration information–and a mugshot.
Not only is Pope punishing citizens for having the audacity to speak out against their government (and, specifically, against him), but he also hopes to intimidate others from joining the movement.
It’s not working. Moral Mondays are persevering and growing so much so that they’ve recently added “Witness Wednesdays” to accommodate the crowds and up the pressure. In part, the growth is due to the political pettiness of plutocrats like Pope. As one observer of the protests said of Pope’s repressive tactic, “The more info posted about arrestees, the easier it is for us to thank them and support their businesses, schools, and churches.”
States are becoming the new front line in the Pope-Koch-ALEC war to subjugate government to the agendas of corporate lobbyists and ideological extremists. The Tar Heel State is showing the way to shine the spotlight of public shame on the immorality of their actions. So, why not a Moral Monday movement where you live? For information on how North Carolinians did it go to the Institute for Southern Studies: www.southernstudies.org
Spirit of ’76
From the start, the hot core of American politics has been fiery populism. Fueled by the people’s innate distrust of what Jefferson called “our moneyed corporations,” it is sparked whenever ordinary folks find themselves being run over by those inherently abusive concentrations of power.
This populist spirit is flowering today all across our country, from dozens of battles against Big Oil frackers to numerous actions against the unconscionable labor practices of Walmart. The stories we’ve highlighted here (or any of thousands of equally good ones we could have pulled out of my hat) exemplify the point that genuine patriotism is us. Forget the overstuffed politicians, phony “job creators,” media hypers, and other charlatans who keep running games on us for their enrichment and the preservation of the status quo. Just as in the original revolution, the democratic future and populist potential of America is in the heads and hands of rebels.