What Real Revolution Looks Like: Heroes Exemplifying New Moral Ideals Lead the Way to Freedom and Progress


Revolution is in the air. From Greece to Russia to the Middle East, people have taken to the streets to protest perceived injustices, and have even succeeded in overthrowing long-entrenched dictatorships. In America, the Occupy Wall Street movement attempted to emulate the overseas protests and filled streets and parks in dozens of cities across the country. Reflecting on the unmistakable trend, Time magazine awarded its annual “Person of the Year” title to “the Protester.”

Yet the Occupy movement has already begun to retreat. We have heard less and less about the “Occupiers” since the fall, when their protests infiltrated over 900 cities. While this retrenchment is surely due in large part to police evictions, it is not due to external pressure alone. Occupy organizations have burned through cash while new donations to the movement have dried up. In New York, Occupiers vacated their office space. In Washington D.C., predictions that 1 million Occupiers would descend upon the National Mall failed to materialize when a mere 2,000 showed up instead.

The Occupy movement is still young and may yet have tricks up its sleeve. But the fact that the protests have dissipated so quickly raises a question: why does the movement not seem to be able to sustain its motivation or the interest of its supporters?

Many pundits have suggested that one reason for flagging interest in the movement is that the Occupiers have not clearly articulated their demands. While the lack of central leadership does make it difficult to gauge the movement’s demands, one can still discern common denominators among its grievances. Occupiers demand an end to corporate influence in politics and a radical reduction in economic inequality. They demand free health care and education and jobs for everyone. Common to these demands is an opposition to some conventionally vilified institutions (the banks, the corporations, the rich), and a vague set of abstractions (democracy and justice) in whose name they are vilified.

More likely to explain the Occupiers’ retreat are the Occupiers’ demands themselves. A revolution that focuses on venting anger towards its enemies but that offers only empty clichés as alternatives is doomed to burn itself out, and quickly. Hatred for a perceived evil can never motivate action over the long term in the way that enthusiasm for the achievement of a positive ideal does.

Consider the ideals that the Occupiers claim to champion. “Democracy” means majority rule (for instance, rule by “the 99%”). But what does majority rule mean for the rights of minorities? “Justice” means granting each his due. But what is each person due, by what means, and why?  All too often, these questions go unanswered by advocates of these ideals. Yet they are the questions we need answered if we are to know if the Occupiers’ revolution aims at improving our lives.

In contrast to the Occupy movement, some cultural and political revolutions successfully communicated the meaning of their positive ideals thanks to the leadership of extraordinary individuals who embodied those ideals in concrete form.

Consider, for example, the breakdown of institutionalized racism in the United States. Prejudice and bigotry that had been entrenched for centuries became intolerable in the space of a mere thirty years in the mid-twentieth century. What enabled this sudden transformation was not merely the end of ignorance: racial supremacist theories had long since lost any vestige of scientific respectability. And it was not simply that the demands of the oppressed had gotten louder: crucially, some of the white majority needed to identify with the cause of oppressed minorities so they could offer their support against white racists.

Take, for example, the Tuskegee airmen and the Navajo code talkers who fought tenaciously for their lives and for the lives of their countrymen in the skies over Europe and the jungles of the Pacific. What sympathetic observer could deny them the right to life? George Washington Carver and Vivien Thomas were pioneers in science from whose innovations we all now benefit. Who could deny them the right to the liberty of their minds? Or consider Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, each of whom had a marvelous capacity to achieve their happiness and the added strength to carry the rest of us along with them. Who could deny them the right to the pursuit of happiness?

These examples suggest that it was not merely rage against the crimes and injustices of the racists combined with empty language about “equality” which carried that revolution: arguably, it was also the admiration people held for exemplars of minority achievement that sensitized them to the minority plight. Racial prejudice became unacceptable in polite society when prominent minority entertainers, sports heroes, and intellectuals rose to prominence and displayed the dignity, prowess and outright tenacity that made their humanity undeniable. With their examples preceding him, Martin Luther King, Jr. could then naturally invoke the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and its promise of unalienable rights; his struggle then became one with the American struggle in the public mind.

A revolution of, by, and for individuals would naturally draw on the words and ideas of the American Founding Fathers, as when King invoked Jefferson. The Founders themselves not only proclaimed but exemplified a set of revolutionary ideals. George Washington volunteered for the Virginia militia at an early age, developing the discipline that would eventually inspire his troops. But he knew that the purpose of his war and his presidency was to defend life and the pursuit of happiness, and he resigned when his purpose had been achieved, returning to his life as a citizen-farmer. Thomas Jefferson rose to prominence as a man of letters and sciences, a universal scholar in the new mold of the Enlightenment. But his interest in philosophy was not idle and academic, and so he turned the work of his mind to the defense of the liberty of the mind, authoring famous declarations in whose name Washington—and King—would then fight.

But who are the heroes of the Occupy movement? The images we associate with the Occupiers are of raucous drum circles, smashed windows, and street fights with the police. Even when we focus on their less violent side, on their encampments which are alleged to embody the beauty of communal living, we are left with the image of the Occupiers’ “human microphone,” the sound of a hundred voices chanting in unison, repeating uncritically the words of a leader. It is probably not without coincidence that there is no recognizable leader of the Occupy movement. It is not a movement of individualists fighting for individual freedom.

So it was not only fidelity to their stated ideals that made the leaders of successful revolutions great and their revolutions benevolent. The ideals themselves were admirable. There is something uniquely powerful about a revolution staged to defend the right of the individual to pursue happiness. Whether it is a cultural revolution staged to overcome racial prejudice, or a political revolution staged to overturn rule by a foreign power, the stake the revolutionaries held in the outcome was the same: they sought only the ability to earn their own way as rightful citizens. Their demands were no threat to rational observers, who empathized with the struggle of the individual to freely pursue life’s ambitions.

Implicit in both of these successful revolutions, and at least partially responsible for their success at inspiring and transforming America, was a deeper idea, even more revolutionary than that of individual freedom. It was the idea that the ability to make a life for ourselves is not just something desirable or prudent to secure, but something deeply sacred and worth fighting for. The Founders caught a fleeting glimmer of the idea that each of us has but one life to live and that no one else has a moral right to make demands on our lives.

Yet today’s revolutionaries, the Occupiers, issue a litany of such demands. They say their demands pertain only to those whom they claim can “afford” to shed extra wealth. But in fact their demands extend even further than that. They seem not to consider that most of the “excess” of the rich would otherwise be invested in the development of new businesses and industries from which many of us would profit. They ask us to forsake the fruits of this longer-term productive effort, because the “99%” demands immediate consumption of its seeds instead.

This hostility toward “excessive” ambition would not have motivated the American Revolution or the rebellion against racism. Who were these colonists, the enemies of ambition might ask with some derision, to complain of an extra tax on their tea? Why did they need to forge new paths on the frontier of a new continent, when the majority of the British Empire demanded their obedience instead? Who were these racial minorities to demand the ability to make better lives for themselves? Why could they not remain content with their lot in life when the majority race preferred that they remain confined to it? Those unable to defend themselves against such questions would be disarmed of their revolutionary vision, and no longer convinced of the virtue of their cause.

There are, of course, many young supporters of the Occupy movement who see in it some hope for their own future. Oppressed by the burden of student loans and unemployment, they look for a sign from anyone who would offer a way out of our economic and cultural malaise. They too are in search of heroes. And we do desperately need a new economic revolution to combat real injustice in the American system, from bailouts for corporations who deserve to fail, to currency manipulation by secretive central bankers that fueled the housing bubble.

Why not look to the leaders of the technological revolution as models for a new economy? Men like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have led their companies to earn record profits and spawn whole new industries, all in the face of the worst recession in decades. Acknowledging the inspirational power of such men, the Occupiers themselves, who relied on a suite of Apple products for the sake of their activism, mourned Jobs’ death with a moment of silence at Zuccotti Park.

Many have accused the Occupiers of hypocrisy in mourning Steve Jobs while simultaneously lambasting corporate profits. Occupiers saw no hypocrisy, because like them he was influenced by the 1960s counterculture, liberal in his outlook, and a challenger of the status quo who urged us to “think different.” Yet Jobs was primarily an innovator in the world of business, anticipating what consumers would want to buy even before they realized it. He challenged the status quo as any ambitious American entrepreneur would have done. He saw the possibility of a better world, created it, and proceeded to profit from doing so.

So if the young admire Steve Jobs, why do they resist the values that he embodied, values that were unmistakably oriented towards profit, materialism, and the exultation of ambition? For that matter, why did Jobs’ own professed philosophical beliefs never seem to fall in line with the way of life he encouraged? (For example, Jobs practiced Zen Buddhism, which stresses the importance of suppressing one’s sense of self in order to avoid suffering.) Why have these idealists, unlike the American revolutionaries of the past, pitted their ideals against their heroes, or even against their own self-esteem?

The answer may lie in the fact that some of their ideals are not revolutionary at all. In fact, the Occupiers’ rage against ambition reflects the influence of a deeply traditional sentiment: they embrace an ancient code of morality at least as old as the Sermon on the Mount. For millennia this code has vilified “greed” and money-making. For millennia its advocates, whether priests or politicians or parents, have insisted that there is no private happiness exempt from the demands of others. By maintaining that each of us is his “brother’s keeper,” this code has tied productive people to the “needs” of the derelict through chains of guilt. From this stagnant idea, it is little wonder that we find ourselves amidst such stagnation today.

To reject such a long-entrenched code requires an act of rebellion. Just as it once took great courage to break chains of moral bondage to the demands of kings and race, so it will now take a greater act of courage to throw off the chains by which we are allegedly bound to the demands and needs of our neighbors. Nothing justifies this belief in unchosen moral bondage, which has been passed down, largely unchallenged, from our elders and our religious texts. Why should inscrutable authorities like these guide our lives and govern our societies? Should we not instead formulate our moral principles by the same method that produced past revolutions in science and technology, the method of rational demonstration based on observable, natural facts? If so, the first piece of data we must be brave enough to consider is that individual human beings flourish primarily through their own thought and energy, not by reliance upon the resources of others.

The Founding Fathers were among the first to see the plausibility of a revolution against this morality of subservience, but it was a revolution they could not complete. If young people want to harmonize their ideals with the heroes they admire, and more importantly, to see the full fruits of a revolution in favor of their right to pursue happiness, they should consider it an honor to help spark a new revolution in our understanding of our moral ideals, the principles that provide the fundamental motive power of human action. Rethinking what it is to be moral, we may discover that the motivation to sustain a battle to win our future is not as elusive as it might have seemed. To fight for “the best within us” is a battle we can and must win. As one author explained it:

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.

“But to win it requires your total dedication and a total break with the world of your past, with the doctrine that man is a sacrificial animal who exists for the pleasure of others. Fight for the value of your person. Fight for the virtue of your pride. Fight for the essence of that which is man: for his sovereign rational mind. Fight with the radiant certainty and the absolute rectitude of knowing that yours is the Morality of Life and that yours is the battle for any achievement, any value, any grandeur, any goodness, any joy that has ever existed on this earth.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged.)

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.