Volatility

April 30, 2010

Signal Lanterns

Filed under: American Revolution, Freedom — Tags: , , , , , , — Russ @ 12:55 am

 

A few weeks ago, April 18-19, was the anniversary of Lexington and Concord and Paul Revere’s legendary midnight ride. I didn’t think of it at the time, preoccupied as I was with stuff like the SEC and Goldman. But I intend to pay closer attention to these august dates from our lost revolution in the future.
 
It’s literally true that Paul Revere’s ride is a legendary matter. Throughout American history there have been many Reveres. There was the original story of the “wounded innocence” of 1775, the province of all who were forced by fate into the crucible of war and revolution. (Though when the participants were getting their story straight they rejected Revere’s own deposition because he wouldn’t swear to the alleged fact that the British fired first at Lexington, and he alluded too much to the patriots’ prior preparations for exactly such a British march, which planning tended to contradict the wounded innocence contention.)
 
The story of the heroism of the midnight ride and the signal lanterns was the folklore of Boston right from those first heady days. The legend grew though the first half of the 19th century. Then came the Civil War, and with it Longfellow’s immortal tale of the lone hero with his ringing call to a nation to fight for its freedom. It was carefully tailored to resonate with a public being fired up for war, and at the same time to flatter the already prominent American legend of the hardy, self-reliant man of action. The story had spectacular success from its publication in January 1861, and this has been the base of the legend ever since, while further hagiography as well as debunking built upon (or chipped away at) this base. Thus we’ve seen the martial “Colonel Revere” of proud imperial days, and Esther Forbes’ “simple artizan” [sic] of 1942, the common man who rose to the occasion, and even the capitalist-soldier of the Cold War, as well as the relatively playful satirical treatment of Revere and other patriotic-affiliated figures following the pointless horror of the Great War, or the far more angry debunkers of the Vietnam and Watergate era (some of them going so far as to claim the midnight ride never took place, or that Revere was drunk as he rode, or that he was a  snitch). And so on into modern times where between structural depictions of the social forces of history and “political correctness” Revere and his midnight ride have often disappeared completely.
 
While we can dismiss shallow liberal “correctness” with the level of respect it deserves, we are forced to recognize the power of history itself and its economic and social currents. Today especially we’re buffeted amid a vast turbulence of forces. So far as I can see the readers of this blog agree that the global financialized debt system is doomed and must collapse of its own weight, and also that there’s little even a large mass of the peasantry, let alone a few lonely denizens of the blogosphere, can do to affect the way these forces play out and the tempo of their doing so.
 
Where does this leave the people and events of our legends? Whether we take the legend of a lone midnight rider (or a handful of riders if you include Dawes and Prescott, who are the only other well-known names) and wounded innocence which spontaneously rose and fought back at Lexington and Concord, or whether we go with the more accurate story of a several dozen messengers acting out a well-laid plan which culminated in the vigorous resolution of the fight, either way it’s still just a relative handful of people.
 
Did history have greater space for contingency and small-scale agency back then? Was that too a casualty of the industrial age, the oil age, the age of masses, and by today nothing can any longer be contingent, and no one, not even among the powerful, can be an agent?
 
And then there’s the question of whether today’s events ever still concentrate such pivotal significance into such a small space, in terms of time, geography, and the number of actors engaged. If instead we expand the idea to just look for the metaphorical Lexington event, which could serve to fire the will to fight of millions, or if we go further and seek to envision the discrete moment which could signal the final breaking of the exponential finance and Bailout wave, it’s still hard to imagine. 
 
What can today be the equivalent of a General Gage marching upon Lexington? The latest and most exciting event has been the SEC’s filing against Goldman, which has indeed excited everyone to the point that we see speculation everywhere on whether this is the breaking point for Goldman, or even the turning of the tide against Wall Street itself. Almost as pregnant with portent is the looming European debt default unwind, which may roll up the EU itself, with incalculable consequences. We still have zombie Dubai, still extending and pretending. And providing eschatological backdrop as well as threatening economic devastation itself, we have the eruption of Iceland. Can any of these really provide the non-linear break? We’ll rightly keep doubting until the moment it happens, and probably for some time afterward, just as the newspapermen who witnessed the first Kitty Hawk flight said “that’s nice” and went home thinking, “that was a neat trick, whatever they were really doing”, and it was days before what had happened really sunk in. 
 
When I think of the early days of the crisis the date 9/29 still leaps out at me. I remember writing it on the cover of the notebook I started in August. On 9/29/08 I wrote, “Sarajevo”. It was the day the first TARP vote rejected it. Of course we know what happened next, and by now I don’t say that date was particularly important. But at the time it struck me as a critical moment in the crisis. I thought they might actually have to start letting the whole thing unravel right then and there. But of course that didn’t happen, then.
 
Can there really be such a day? Can there be Marches of the Regulars and midnight rides? And even if there still could be, could there again be a response? Can the Minuteman spirit ever reawaken?
 
Well, that’s just some musings when I thought about the old days. Paul Revere struck me because his legend has been so resilient and evocative for so long for so many. Like I said, I don’t know if they even teach him in school anymore. But should we ever be able to seize upon events, it would be of great use to have the legends to help render them familiar. Not just Revere (who’s really just an example here, but a good one) but the entire heritage is waiting and wanting to do real work once again. It wonders, How was our Revolution lost?
 
So I just wrote this as some notes and suggestions for further thought. Maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense, or maybe it’ll give people something to think about. We seem to have unfathomable time (meaning simply that we have zero idea if the zombie starts toppling tomorrow or five years from now or anytime in between) and not a huge number of options for what to do with it at the moment.
 
Oh well, another strange gizmo for the toolbox.