A lot of what passes for wisdom often comes out in proverbs and clichés. They’re used to support whatever the speaker wants to favor at the time, and their applicability varies widely with the situation. Many of them conflict with each other:
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” vs “Take care of the small stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” vs “You never stop learning.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” vs “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” vs “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” vs “Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Two heads are better than one.” vs “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”
So I thought I’d run through some clichés that often go around in activist circles. Among the naïve, they can sometimes pass for actual tactical observations.
“From a spark, a flame”
A little history about this cliché says a lot, but it’s a long story. Be patient.
In the years after Napoleon’s defeat, some small societies formed of Russian army officers who were fond of some revolutionary Western ideas to which they had been exposed, such as constitutional monarchy. In 1825 they tried a palace coup, thinking that some confusion about the succession after Tsar Alexander I died gave them an opening.
Alexander I had no surviving legitimate offspring, but two younger brothers: the older Constantine, known as something of a reformer, and the youngest, Nicholas. Constantine had renounced any claim to the throne some years before, making Nicholas the obvious heir.
On December 26th, 1825, the “Decembrists”, as they were later called, formed a group of about 3,000 troops in the Senate Square in Petersburg and demanded “Constantine and a Constitution”.
It was a failure in almost a comic opera sort of way, over in a few hours.
These small societies of officers were of the aristocracy, far better educated than the ordinary Russian, and had no popular support to speak of.
The only reason that about 3,000 soldiers initially sided with them was an administrative screwup. One of their senior officers was unaware that Constantine had renounced the throne, and thought it was a matter of routine to have them swear loyalty to him upon Alexander’s death. Once the corrected news got around, that Nicholas was the heir recognized by everyone, no more soldiers would join a revolt in Constantine’s name and the “revolution” fizzled. Constantine, of course, took no part in any of this.
Though it sounds like a joke when I tell it, the “Decembrists”, as they were called, made a place for themselves in the imagination of the Russian élite, since there was some sympathy for their ideals among the educated. Pushkin and Odoevsky wrote poetry about them in their journal in the 1830’s. Odoevsky is the one often quoted in reference to the Decembrists: “From the spark a flame will ignite.”
Alluding to this line from Odoevsky, Lenin named his Bolshevik newspaper “Spark” in 1900.
From a comically ill-prepared palace coup attempt in 1825 to the first little gesture of a constitution in 1905 is 80 years. Enough time for four generations to grow up.
So what’s the idea that I want to debunk here?
There’s a rhetorical flourish that you might hear just about anyone engage in who’s a bit full of himself while commenting on current affairs. Something like: “Things are so bad now, people are so frustrated and discontented, all it would take is a spark to make people rise up and make some changes!” This is indulged in by people of nearly all belief systems, and is nearly always extremely wishful thinking.
I started to make a list of times when “things” (whatever those are) were worse than now, with plenty of “sparks” happening, and the “people” (whoever THEY are) wouldn’t rise up to change a battery in the remote. The list came to include most of world history.
Nevertheless, an archetype persists in our imaginations that “some little thing” could set off big changes, with little or no organizing, fundraising, clerical drudgery, lengthy study, or any of those activities that might not sound very exciting. It’s magical thinking.
Even the spontaneity myth of Rosa Parks still persists some. Though it has been debunked before, I’ll give a quick recap here.
The way it’s often portrayed, Mrs. Parks just decided one day that she had had enough, and refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, and that started the Montgomery bus boycott. She was sometimes called the “Mother of the Civil Rights movement”.
The truth is that she was the Secretary of her local NAACP chapter and very much involved in the Civil Rights movement for some years before the incident that made her famous. She said in an interview later: “I didn’t plan to get arrested…” and that might be true, but she was certainly aware of a sizable, very competent network that would back her up if it came to that. She knew that there were people looking for a good test case to challenge bus segregation. Rosa Parks was not stupid or spontaneous. She had a plan, though she might have decided upon it one day on short notice.
So how do we know when it’s REALLY a good time for big changes to happen?
That’s a good question, and we can spend a lot of time on it if we want to. It’s all speculation, really. Anyone who talks about big changes in the past and why they happened is likely to be talking deterministically, i.e., taking the fact that something happened as evidence that it somehow HAD to happen. There are lotsa pitfalls in that.
The opposite idea is sometimes called the “butterfly effect”: the notion that tiny, unmeasurable differences can make huge differences down the road. This is one big pitfall by itself. Its whole point is to say “We can’t really predict ANYTHING beyond a certain point, and it’s pretty uncertain even before that point.”
So, in a choice between arrogant determinism and proclaiming absolute ignorance, we’ll have to pick door #1 if we want to say anything at all.
If anyone wants to contribute to the GUTGWWW please comment about this.
“We happy few”
It comes up sometimes when the bodies and other resources seem very unequal to the task. We like to quote that thing from Henry V:
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”
The whole speech, with a little intro, can be found here: http://www.gonderzone.org/Library/Knights/crispen.htm
A few lines have been cut in Olivier’s performance, but it’s here: http://youtu.be/P9fa3HFR02E
Branaugh’s is more to my taste, but not perfect: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRj01LShXN8
Let’s go through this speech, one thing at a time, and see what Shakespeare (as Henry) is really saying.
“The fewer men, the greater share of honour.”
“Honor” here is something that might need translation. Nowadays, it often means some kind of award you give someone when you can’t give him anything that matters. Then, as now, “honor” was what other people thought of you.
In Shakespeare’s (or Henry’s) time, it was something quite tangible that had a lot to do with how much you got to eat. An “honor” was often a title to property or a “right” to something like trading or extraction rights. It was worth money, often given as a reward for good service to the king.
“By Jove, I am not covetous for gold…
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.”
“Honor” for a monarch was his stock in trade. Whether nobles and other monarchs respected him, recognizing his “sovereignty”, was the basis of his power. Gold was only one form of wealth. Most wealth was tied up in land. People owned land because the chief thug in the area (the king) said so. Nearly all wealth depended on respect for the monarch.
“Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.”
Think of what “with advantages” might mean to the men he’s talking to.
” We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, “
In a world where so much depended on heredity, for a king to promise to treat you as a brother was no small thing. Note also that “happy” used to mean “lucky”.
“This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”
“Gentle” means something very specific. It’s related to the word “genetic”. It means coming from certain families, having hereditary “honor”. Though saying nothing specific, Henry is making a vague promise that anyone who serves him well in the coming battle will be given some degree of nobility at the expense of gentlemen who were not there. This is a very big deal. He’s promising to make them rich.
I don’t know whether Henry ever made good on such inflated promises, but would guess that it’s comparable to what politicians promise today. He would have needed to make a good profit from the battle (not unusual in its time) to pay the men well, but Agincourt was notable at the time for the number of French nobles who were killed rather than captured for ransom (the most lucrative part of battle, normally).
This is one reason that I never wanted to be a “leader”. As with a different old English ruler, I usually have nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”. We’re usually up against people motivated by money or fear. Very powerful, those are.
So what DOES motivate people to do good, not to kill and die for some ruler, but to resist the very profitable businesses of war, environmental destruction, and state-sanctioned robbery?
Make your comment. Contribute to the GUTGWWW.
But what am I debunking here? I think it’s the strange fact that this lives on as a “great motivational speech”, despite it being just a simple promise to pay people for their work.
As the word “honor”, meaning title to property and respect for one’s means of violence, has become obsolete, modern audiences have to give it some other meaning to make sense of it. It might sound more like Henry is appealing to his men’s personal pride.
That would certainly be a motivator for us, if we could claim some victories. So I suggest we concentrate on that: making some tangible results. See above, about how much was prepared long before Rosa Parks went “unto the breach”.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
It’s an ancient proverb in several cultures. My earliest memory of hearing it was a quote from Chairman Mao as the USSR and China had some border disputes and China opened up talks with the U.S. (though Mao might have written it earlier about cooperating with the Kuomintang against the Japanese).
It certainly has applications, especially in open, armed conflict. The fiercely anti-communist Churchill sending aid to Stalin comes to mind immediately. There’s a supporting quote from Nietzsche, the idea predating him by many centuries:
“‘My neighbor’ is not my neighbor, but my neighbor’s neighbor. Thus thinks every nation”
Long-standing alliances between France and Poland, or France and Russia, or Britain and Prussia, come to mind.
But most of us don’t engage in open, violent conflict, where the main purpose is to destroy an enemy. That’s not our business, and not the business of this blog. Politics and non-violent action are more what we do. In that realm, persuasion and image-building is nearly everything.
We’ve all been there. You’re standing there at a demo, trying to talk as calmly as possible to a passer-by who thinks Saddam did 9/11, and someone comes up from behind you shouting that “the Jews” did 9/11. Is this your friend?
How about those Dems in 2008 who wanted to turn every antiwar demo into an Obama demo?
Yeah, there have to be some ground rules. I mentioned that in my last post. If you’re working in coalition, everyone needs to understand what NOT to say to avoid misrepresenting other members of the group. The problem comes when you’re so happy to have ANYONE participating with you that you can’t be picky. In a public place, the way we usually gather, free speech rights apply to everyone equally. There’s also a possibility of infiltrators trying to mess up your message.
How do you get your own message across without inviting every clown with a “related”, but wrong, viewpoint to drown out your message?
That’s a very serious tactical question. Please comment.