This weekend, in between having my first real Shabbat in 10 weeks and meetings to discuss aspects of the R3volution, I have been impatiently thumbing through Naomi Wolf's Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries and I watched Revolution with Al Pacino, the new DVD version of the 1985 movie.
I bought the book out of sheer depression on Election Day 2008. Although I was certain of the outcome, what depressed me was that the election was the epitome of a game, a show put on for the American people; a show whose outcome did not really matter, because either of the major party candidates were going to be taking us to same dismal place. I remember reading the introduction and then life, and university papers, took over, and the book remained on my shelf until one of our Shabbat guests casually mentioned it when we were discussing our own R3volution over tea and cherry pie.
The book is a disappointment because despite Wolf's promising premise that the people of the United States have the obligation to be rebels, ". . . to take the most serious possible steps and undergo the most serious kinds of personal risk in defense of this freedom that is your natural right", she does not wrestle very deeply with the ideas; where those rights come from and what they mean. Thus, she dismisses the Founders as dead white males (what could they possibly know of tyranny, she seems to ask), and she continually mistakes the Republic they founded as "democracy" where one's rights can be voted away by the tyranny of the majority. Nevertheless, her idea that every generation of us who have inherited the idea of liberty is obligated to rebel against the new tyranny of an out of control executive branch that had imposed upon us the Patriot Act with all the depredations of our rights in it, and an unconstitutional war in Iraq and Afganistan. (She clearly hated Bush II, but I wonder what she would think of the current administration, the one that has instructed its loyal minions to report on their "fishy" neighbors who oppose its plans? Does she see the continued destruction of our liberties, or is she partisan to her party, right or wrong? I hope that she is an equal-opportunity critic of tyranny whether it comes in Democrat or Republican form.)
The movie was far more satisfying. I had seen the VCR version some years ago, but this new version, with added narration, made what had been a beautiful film with a botched ending into a more comprehesible portrait of an illiterate fur trader who is caught up in the American Revolution. At the beginning of the movie, as he and his son bring their boat into New York, Tom Dobb (Al Pacino) muses:
"Revolution: A word spoke everywhere. It’s about the bringing down of a king and the noisy shouting, celebrating on the day my Ned and me come into New York. My boy asks what it ‘tis. I don’t know."
The boy Ned enlists in the fight, and his father goes, somewhat against his will, to protect the boy. However, he makes his son cut and run with him after the battle of Brooklyn Heights, determined to protect their lives, saying:
"I, being born of another place, sold and sent [into indentured servitude: EHL] to this land makes me only some little bit American. For I would as leaf be back in the natural land of my birth than caught in this butchery for a cause not mine. I’ll take freedom for Ned and me from this bloodshed now and here."
But gradually, through a series of events, we are shown the rigid class structure of the Brits, and the ways in which the colonists are seen as "Friday's Children", those who must work for a living, the fruits of their labor and their very persons confiscated for the folly of the landed gentry, and the momentary pleasure of the nobility. Coming back to New York to find work he notes:
"New York is not as we left it. It’s now a place of complete England with its ceremony and soldiers. Oh, but the throne itself fills every street and alley. They that were called the Continental Army, broken as a dry twig. . . "
There being no foxes for the pleasure of the British officers before battle, he and fellow worker from the rope factory are made to run before the hounds, tied to an effigy of George Washington.
"So strange and cruel a thing to die a hunter of animals for means to live and now the animal hunted. All for the foolish sport of kings. I am made prideless, crawling to survive for my Ned’s life. "
But the turning point comes after his son is impressed into the Redcoat Army to be a drummer boy, and refusing the advances of a lord who fancies little boys, is badly injured by a beating to his feet. Dobbs, a frontiersman, tracks and saves the boy, and when Huron scouts find them, they treat Ned's feet. As he is holding and rocking his son through the painful cauterization of his wounds, Tom Dobbs comforts him, saying:
"I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you. We’re gonna find us a place where there ain’t no one to bow down to. Where there ain’t no lord or lady better than you. Where you can say what you like and climb as high as you want. And there ain’t nobody gonna treat no one like a dog in the dirt. I look around me, Ned, and I see all kinds of people. Men, women. And they got families like mine. And we all stand together like brothers and sisters. And we make a place for ourselves. We’ll make a place where our babies can sleep safe through the night.”
“Are we there, Pa?”
“We’re almost there, son. You come through, Ned.”
Then, holding his son, he reflects:
"I spake words to Ned I did not know were in me. And now with them said, I am new. And there’s new purpose in this bloody and uneven fight. I can now see what parted Ned from me these many a month. He knew deep in him this land of his birth was home."
And thus Tom Dobbs joins himself to the cause of Liberty. He sees that it is his fight.
As I watched the transformation of this man, who at the end of the movie tells his son to tell his own children and his children's children "how we fought. And you tell them, Ned, how far we come," he says. I also thought about the idea that we, the children's children's children's children, have the obligation to continually join ourselves to that same cause of Liberty. To stand up anew against those in Congress who have forgotten that they are not our masters, but our servants. Those who mean to impose upon us a system of socialized medicine, one that they, who fancy themselves better than we, do not mean to impose upon themselves. And I think about our president, who continues to lie to us with impunity even as the last one did, twisting the truth* of what he previously said, in order to better ride the tide of politics, to win his own way, even if that win means bringing down the economy of the United States.
*First it was healthcare reform, now it's health insurance reform. First he said no middle class taxpayers making under $250,000 would pay a dime in new taxes, now he says that he doesn't mean that they should pay the whole burden. Etc. etc.
"So ends the American dream," says one of the foppish and bewigged foxhunters in the movie, as he lops the head off the effigy of George Washington. He wasn't counting on the endurance of patriots at Valley Forge. He wasn't counting on the British surrender at Yorktown, when the world was turned upside down.
Sons and Daughters of Liberty, flawed as her book might be, Naomi Wolf is right in this:
" . . . the Declaration's specific call to liberation from George III's tyranny is also a timeless contract that implicates each one of us, forever . . ." (p. 20).
So dies the American dream? By G-d, not while we live and breath, the fire of Liberty, ignited by those first American Revolutionaries, burning within us.
We see the Pols running scared from us. We know this by the plummeting approval rating for Congress and the Executive. We know this by the viciousness with which their press whores attack an ordinary housewife who dares stand up to a twice-turncoat politician from Pennsylvania for her termerity when she said:
"I don't believe that this is just about healthcare. It's not about TARP, it's not about left and right; this is about the systematic dismantling of this country . . ."
Now that we know this truth, we must stand together as brothers and sisters in Liberty, arm in arm, and say to these would-be lords and ladies, "You shall not pass these bills that put in place the structure of tyranny over us for your own momentary power and profit. It shall not stand."
For as the character Tom Dobbs watches the celebration in Philadelphia after the victory at Yorktown and the winning of a new country, the likes of which the world have never seen, he seems to speak directly across the generations to us, who claim its inheritance:
"My lost family comes back to me in all these I see before me. I feel Kaitlyn in the young ones on high released from all they suffered here. I see also in these shining faces the bright-eyed, tender and gentle face of Daisy McConnahay. Many from different lands be they exiled or fled from want of respect and free thought, now share a home where as one or all, they will have a voice that can be heard. No more to be divided into the lowly and privileged; but equal in chance and opportunity. And all the children of all the children to come will know this of this word: Revolution. And what it meant and never let down their will to protect it."
A fictional character comes back to admonish us that the dreams of those whose fought and died to secure Liberty to themselves and to us that we should never let down our will to protect it. In the words of the founders:
"[W]hen a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security." (Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, 1776).
Never let down your will to protect precious Liberty.