27 May 2011

The paranoia of the prosperous or the return of the 'revolutionary syndrome?'

In 1966, the young historian Gordon S. Wood wrote:

It may be that ideas are less meaningful to a people in a socially stable situation. Only when ideas have become stereotyped reflexes do evasion and hypocrisy and the ... mistrust of what men believe become significant. Only in a relatively settled society does ideology become a kind of habit, a bundle of widely shared and instinctive conventions, offering ready-made explanations for men who are not being compelled to ask any serious questions. Conversely, it is perhaps only in a relatively unsettled, disordered society, where the questions come faster than men's answers, that ideas become truly vital and creative.

Wood, who has since become the dean of historians of the American Revolutionary era, was addressing the historiographical debate over the significance of rhetoric and ideas for the Revolution. At the time, historians led by Bernard Bailyn were re-emphasizing the importance of ideas as a motivating force in their own right, in opposition to the "progressive" interpretation that dismissed ideas, or at least dismissed rhetoric, as either a smokescreen concealing materialist motivations or expressions of unreasoning fear or suspicion of power. Wood agreed with Bailyn that ideas needed to be taken seriously, but added that historians needed to study where ideas came from in sociological as well as intellectual terms. In "Rhetoric and Reality in the American Revolution," his first published work, Wood considered the possibility of a "revolutionary syndrome" that could be recognized in different times and places by the "typical modes of expression, typical kinds of beliefs and values ... at least within roughly similar Western societies." But in the quote above, he allows that under certain historical circumstances, the same rhetoric might not be so sincere. The suspicions expressed by "progressives" and other skeptical historians toward revolutionary rhetoric might be justified when such rhetoric is voiced in non-revolutionary times.

If, then, we see today, or have seen over the last fifty years, modern Americans echoing the rhetoric, and in some exotic cases the costuming, of the Revolutionary era to portray the present regime as a conspiracy to corrupt or enslave the citizenry, they might be guilty of the "evasion and hypocrisy" that skeptical historians sometimes ascribed to the Founders. Wood would caution us, however, before we jump to that conclusion. The conclusion might have been more obvious when the young Wood wrote, when the U.S., despite ghetto riots and rising opposition to the Vietnam War, could still plausibly be described as a "relatively settled society." Wood may well have had the reactionaries who typified Richard Hofstadter's "paranoid style" in mind when he wrote that passage 45 years ago. But what about now? Are Americans still so settled a society in the 21st century that the sometimes-hysterical, often-excessive rhetoric circulating today can be dismissed with indifference, or is that rhetoric a sign that a revolutionary syndrome is asserting itself again? It may be too early to tell. If this rhetoric seems to say nothing new, skepticism might be justified. If it turns out to be a starting point for the articulation of ideas relevant to the time, they may yet have revolutionary potential.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let's face it, ideas may have been behind the rhetoric of revolution, but the truth is, in ALL cases of revolution, the motivation is that those not in power want power and feel the only path to that power is to overthrow those who have it.

That's not to say that those in power are not guilty of abuse of power, but simply revolution is merely changing - usually in a violent manner - who has power. Who says what to do and who obeys. As long as there is "power" there is no true freedom.