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Revolutions Incorporated

Probably my favorite Fourth of July memory is the afternoon in Arcata when I got drunk early and wandered over to the ballpark just as the Redwood City team was taking pregame infield. Their massive first baseman called out the throws, one by one, in the routine every team goes through to prepare for the contest, a few grounders, fly balls to each outfielder, the double play combinations, a time-honored approach to getting ready for the game, getting loose. Because the Arcata ballpark has that flat green wall in left field to make room for the freeway, the first baseman’s voice echoed right back onto the field, booming advice on how to play the wall, where the sun would be, using baseball jargon for baseball purposes. Since I was drunk, I was awash in that euphoric, convivial mood which makes it all worthwhile, feeling good about life even if, at a micro level, there were flaws.

Instead of dwelling on that, however, I thought of all the times I’d taken infield, since third grade, waddling toward grounders and lost under pop-ups, eventually getting a little better command until I could hold down an outfield spot respectably. In those days I was playing recreational softball so the memories spanned a good deal of my life, giving it all a sense of continuity not necessarily present elsewhere. Later on that night they shot off the fireworks down at the softball complex a short walk away, and it was as usual possible to watch the Eureka show going on in the distance, the glamour and passion of it all somehow making up for the essential hollowness of a celebration based on firing off small colored bombs after a day of eating hot dogs and drinking beer to honor the independent spirit of our forefathers. My girlfriend had called that morning from New Hampshire (Live Free or Die) to break up, unexpectedly if not predictably, so the drinking which had started early continued late, long after the last ashes had settled and all the happy, connected people had squeezed through their little traffic jams and gone home.

La cucaracha, la cucaracha, 

ya no puede caminar,

porque la falta,

porque no tiene,

marijuana que fumar.

That was in the sixth year of the Zapatista Revolution, which received a lot of attention in Arcata and none at all in Eureka, barely a cannon-shot away. The by-then-crusty old poet/journalist John Ross came to open mike at the Jambalaya to inform us of human rights abuses and the overall collapse of democratic reform movements, and numerous fliers on the walls dealt with Zapatista causes, so that even an ordinary citizen knew at some level that dissent existed somewhere in the world, although by then the mainstream press had forgotten Commandante Zero’s cell phone number.

Six years after that I sat in a Yucatan taqueria gazing upon framed portraits of genuine revolutionaries, men whose stories went tragically wrong in part because of their dealing with and at the hands of the United States. There was no portrait of the president or any other contemporary political figure, only a few old timers with bandoleros and sombreros, smiling at the camera with rifles held at jaunty angles, menacing with playful stares. What I’ve read about Pancho Villa doesn’t paint a glorious picture, more the small time bandido idea, but no doubt what I’ve read has been heavily filtered. What he meant to Mexicans a hundred years ago, and ten years ago, has more to do with events that just seem to keep following the same old pattern of abuse, injustice and capitalistic exploitation, which gives him a potent symbolic presence in the absence of high profile reformers since 1916, Commandante Zero notwithstanding, at least in scrappy little taquerias on the gritty fringes of tourist towns.

There had been visible evidence of displeasure with the existing political system during the bus ride from an airport carved out of what must have once been a picturesque rainforest coastline, down arid roads covered in limestone dust where even the humblest hovels--roofs but not walls, and hammocks slung for bedding--displayed evidence of knowledgeable dissent, in the form of placards and banners, of a tenor considerably bolder than anything I’d ever seen in the U.S. Since the area has no rivers, only cenotes which are vulnerable to all sorts of contamination and abuse, being nothing more than holes in the ground full of standing fresh water and the bones of Maya sacrifices and latter day scuba divers, there was also a lot of propaganda in view concerning the benevolent public spirit of a certain pesticide corporation. In short, it was the same old top heavy arrangement familiar to me as a factory worker, taxpayer, voter, etc., except spelled out in cement dust at a much more brutal cost than a North American would tolerate. Revolution was not just in the air but settling onto the leaves of rainforest shrubbery within windblown distance of the powdery ribbon of asphalt with a no-doubt sturdy or at least sturdy-on-paper concrete footing, a kind of pulverized whiteness made up of long since abandoned civilizations whose leaders had failed to account for the legitimate concerns of their constituencies.

I had previously concluded that the “mysterious” failures of the abandoned cities of stone perched around those cenotes probably involved more than one revolution that would have looked familiar to a sans coulotte or a Bolshevik. Top heavy aristocracies and priesthoods have always taken their own interests and prerogatives as priorities over the interests of the great humping masses, who sort papers or drive trucks because that’s what they are told to do, or die trying. No doubt, squads of peasant farmers armed with hammers and sickles had descended on watchful but outnumbered nobles and father figures, and took them apart with skills earned hoeing the cornfield and trucking the produce downtown.

As long as the weather held out, the share the farmers were allotted was adequate for subsistence, so nobody got hurt despite the ongoing ridiculousness of a society stratified and regulated in the interest of the few, but when things went bad: soil lost its vigor, the rain did not fall despite the prayers and onerous religious obligations, but the priests still wanted their share of everything without visible recompense, it’s not a long leap to suppose the masses saw that their interests were better served by destroying (harvesting) everyone in a feathered tophat and melting back into a simpler life.

That life was not much different than their previous peasanthood devoted to support of the great cities, except without the need to support a bureaucracy and a priesthood. They probably became accustomed to taking it easy during the heat of the day, and found time to investigate the properties of the agave plant and psychedelic mushrooms. In fact, the palapas along the roads were inhabited by the descendents of those onetime revolutionaries who had simply dispensed with statehood and reverted to an easier life of growing corn, beans, and squash, swimming in the cenotes instead of having priests pitch them in headfirst, and leaving the stone cities to become a series of immense flowerpots under the thundering Yucatan skies.

On the one hand there was evidence of a cement industry in firm control of things, and on the other hand, pressure was obviously building underneath. We in the U.S. have heard nothing of any political leaders in the region, just as we have heard little of affairs in Chiapas since 1994. I’m reminded of the article about airline pilots who fly regularly over small pockets of isolated, forgotten, reclusive rain forest cultures. We can see them down there living stubbornly along in their old way, as if they had never heard of Bill Cosby or the government in Brazil, which controls their fate. Then we have to fly on to New York or Los Angeles and disembark back into the polluted mess, the consumerism, the endless pursuit of mythic states of being, eroded at the edges by narcotic compulsions, distorted by greed, fed on by more powerful beings who have long ago organized themselves along the same old rotted and disposed-of lines of priesthood and bureaucracy.

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, men of great wealth and influence, could hoodwink, if not their fellow men—who required sometimes violent repression and intimidation before they could be persuaded to fight in support of the noble ideals of freedom and liberty—then all subsequent generations of Americans, into violently (ignorantly, stubbornly) defend those ideals while specifying nothing of the sort in the accompanying constitution, which blandly accepted the 3/5ths compromise, denied women any rights whatsoever (despite Abigail Adam’s pointed remarks to Mr. Adams), denounced Native Americans as subhuman (despite centuries of trade, cooperation, and mutual respect including scenes nearly as poignant as that conjured by Mayflower mythmakers), and reserved liberty and democracy for white men with large bags of gold in their breeches.

Yankee Doodle came to town,

a-riding on his pony,

stuck a feather in his cap

and called in macaroni.

The farcical idea that American patriots spontaneously rose up to throw off the cruel yoke of monarchic rule without adequate representation deserves much more critical analysis than it generally gets. If one considers how little things changed for those at the bottom of the socio-economic system after the thirteen colonies became the thirteen states the standard interpretation of American history doesn’t really hold up. Most Americans don’t probably know that in 1676 there was a much more authentic revolution in the Virginia colony, when white and black workers together took control of the government by armed insurrection, and sent the powdered-and-wigged types (more feathered tophats) scurrying for their lives across Chesapeake Bay. Nathanial Bacon died of disease before the Brits could hang him, but they left a few of his captains dangling from ropes by way of revenge and to quiet things down.

A hundred years later it was the tophatted crowd that had to convince the poor whites to fight professional soldiers (better fed and well trained unfortunates taken off London streets by press gangs) while somehow keeping four million keenly aware black slaves out of that same British army, which offered an attractive option. So many slaves ended up fighting against their masters in British uniforms that racism could be used as a recruitment tactic in Continental armies.

The real sleight of hand was in convincing posterity than what happened in that rebellion was a revolution, when it was anything but. The only really successful revolution in the Americas occurred in Haiti when slaves overwhelmed their French masters and made things so hot that the French just abandoned the place.

In the colonies, on the other hand, the same grandees who had been the target of Bacon’s Rebellion a hundred years earlier, in the same fertile Virginia tidelands which produced their inherited fortunes and helped build a native American aristocracy, descended from the exact same British aristocracy the Pennsylvania Line and whoever limped out of Valley Forge was ordered into battle against—by aristocrats in splendid uniforms. The war from 1775 to 1783 can honestly be called a rebellion, in which the British upper class fought its own descendants for the right to control the American working class and extract profits from American land. That the descendants won the war was not the result of fiery enthusiasm for any cause as abstract as liberty, since the soldiers knew they were fighting the rich men’s cause and not their own.

The American soldier had no dog in the fight, and knew it.

The Fourth of July is not a celebration of the home team gaining independence by defeating the visitors, but, and I suppose this is why if feels weird to me, it is descendants of the people who lost the class war in America celebrating the fact that they managed to defeat a properly constituted parliamentary government in open warfare, using real bullets, without at some point turning those bullets against the grandees, riding around every major battle in brass buttons like targets, while barefoot soldiers took on their equally unfortunate counterparts.

If you don’t believe be, ask yourself if you would have been allowed to vote in the first presidential election, then look it up. Odds are that you would have been excluded, no matter who you are.

The great thing about baseball is that there are rules and regulations handed down over generations, tinkered with from time to time but essentially unchanged dating back to the game Walt Whitman saw Civil War soldiers fooling around with in their spare time. Tim O’Brien could use baseball as a meaningful metaphor while writing his stories about the Vietnam war because to do so harkened to a much ballyhooed and romanticized past. His fire-dropped GI’s could fraternize a quick game of fast pitch against the VC with nothing more than some duffel bags to use for bases and a flat stretch of rice paddy, because, once they agreed it was baseball, they agreed there were rules. Unlike real life, people are not generally allowed to flout the rules, arrogantly declare themselves in power, and take over. The fans won’t stand for it, and the commissioner always takes some sort of action.

The other thing baseball allows for is for the permanently downtrodden, say the Cubs, to suddenly become elite, powerful, and influential, through careful planning, thorough scouting, and practicing the fundamentals. In real life doing those things just means you’re a bigger sucker than you looked like.

In politics, it’s the worst move you can make.

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