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Oct 17, 2011

Be Very Quiet -- We're Hunting Wabbits

Thirty-five years ago, Robert Gross published a remarkable social history of Concord, Massachusetts in the Revolutionary era. Minutely examining local records, Gross built a rich and precise social picture of the town, showing how local relationships worked and how people understood their world. On a foundation of a great deal of carefully examined evidence, Gross described a group of people who intended only one kind of revolution, and didn't mean to make corresponding social, economic, or cultural changes, hoping and expecting to go on living the way their parents had lived. Here's his conclusion about the nature of the violent revolution that the people of Concord helped to make:

"The men of 1775 had not gone to war to promote change but to stop it. Most would have preferred to ignore events in distant London -- to pay loyalty to their king while going about their own squabbling business. But the outside world would not leave them alone. Boston kept sounding the tocsin, the British threat kept pressing closer and closer to home. Always in the background there was the town's downward slide, heightening the inhabitants' fears of the future and undermining their old, cherished ways -- even a father's hold over his sons. Finally, they were forced to act if they wished to retain their traditional life. Indeed, they did. They rose in fury against the assault on their autonomy, and at the peak of the Revolutionary movement they were attached more strongly than ever to the ideals and values of the past. They would restore order to their lives by clinging to custom -- and making revolution."

That paragraph makes me feel joy in my bones. Radically, violently, people made a revolution to preserve the past, to cling to the old ways, to restore a fading order. Human action was complex, ambiguous, giving and taking, advancing and receding, revolutionary and reactionary. Change and preservation tangled into one another, in a fluid mix of shifting intentions.

Now, here's the distinguished Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, offering his own explanation of the American past:

"A fundamental war has been waged in this nation since its founding, between progressive forces pushing us forward and regressive forces pulling us backward.

"We are going to battle once again...

"Yet the great arc of American history reveals an unmistakable pattern. Whenever privilege and power conspire to pull us backward, the nation eventually rallies and moves forward."

This couldn't be more of a cartoon if Elmer Fudd ran through it waving a shotgun. This is what a public intellectual looks like in the 21st century United States? What an embarrassment.

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