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The Spirit of ‘76

Boston

These are the times that try men’s souls. No Revolution, but the remembrance of it disrupts the peaceful populace of every Middlesex village and farm, not to mention metropolitan Boston and, soon, the thousands of other officially designated Bicentennial Communities across the country. Patience is short, prices are high, traffic is congested; patriotic pride runs rampant. The Disney in us all has created a nationwide American Revolutionland and, at least within these borders, there is no place to hide.

In “Boston, where it all began,” it has begun again, with an enormously drawn-out and diffuse celebration marking the two-hundredth anniversary of Paul Revere’s aborted ride from the North End of the city toward the outlying towns of Lexington and Concord. Revere was delayed by drink and fell into the hands of the enemy before he finished his journey. But a hundred thousand followers in his hoofprints this year were not so lucky. They had to go all the way, and although many were similarly intoxicated, they were trapped in the ancient battlegrounds while orators lobbed volleys of rhetoric more deadening than any cannon’s shot. Boston, Arlington (formerly Menotomy), Medford, Lexington, and Concord all reenacted scenes of their past glories while thousands cheered. Massachusetts was graced by a visit from the President for the first time in eleven years, the territory being thought hostile to national leaders.

Ford seemed to suffer from a confusion of roles and played George III rather than Sam Adams, but he played it well enough for all the King’s wit and wisdom. No doubt he will turn up in other Bicentennial locales as the scene shifts. In the Old North Church on the night of April 18th, he kindled a “third lantern,” bettering Revere’s beacon by half again,* to symbolize the beginning of the Republic’s third century, and he delivered the first of his several weekend orations extolling the nobility of America’s imperial mission.

American sea power now ranges to the most distant shores,” he boasted at the Old North Bridge in Concord on the next morning. Before him, the statue of the Minuteperson (in the obligatory non-sexist style of the day) gazed upon the presidential reviewing stand, still looking more like an insurance company advertisement than a patriotic symbol. Ford stayed on the “British side” of the bridge; across that rude structure, where once embattled farmers had fired their well-heard shots, sodden demonstrators jeered and taunted the President’s speech. Policemen and soldiers of all the available authorities provided a semblance of physical protection, but in fact the solemn celebrations were “marred” by protests, as the newspapers and commentators later lamented.

It was impossible for the People’s Bicentennial Commission—organizer of the protest rally at the national park—to avoid a kind of unintended collusion with the official celebrants. Every Bicentennial event will need its contingent of rabble, and who is better suited to fill that slot than the infantry of Woodstock Nation? Demoralized but not demobbed in the decline of the “counterculture” since 1969, the armies of the young have for these many years constituted a rabble without a cause, ready in a Minute to heed a rousing call. PBC’s was not the clearest: too much serious radical rhetoric obscured the pure folk and heavy metallic tones that draw the biggest crowds. But the pitch of Bicentennial propaganda contained a compelling allure, and forty thousand people (not necessarily The People) braved rain, mud, dark of night, and the threat of no-shows among their favorite musicians to spend long hours in concert and congress assembled by the Concord River marshes.

Both the Bicentennial officials and the protesters believed they were facing off for combat. The upper crusty suburban burghers of Concord tried to head off the People’s Bicentennial rally, and when the National Park Service—with White House acquiescence—granted a permit, the locals chose to disregard all but the approved events. On the town maps and at the press briefings, the PBC was popped into a memory hole, in the vain hope that if they were ignored they would go away. The rally organizers, for their part, fought for exclusive legitimacy as the heirs of Revolution, and the “alternative” media (which flourishes in Boston’s collegiate market as nowhere else in the land) proclaimed their importance. Only from a distance, however, could it be seen that Revolutionland needed both factions to provide a more perfect pageant. An unwritten script allowed catcalls but no violence, and it was closely followed.

No doubt successive segments of this fifteen-month-long historical soap opera will present similar standoffs, and it will be surprising if unscripted material is used. There is a certain inevitability to the Bicentennial that draws press, politicians, protesters, and the public to it like bugs to sticky paper. No way to deny the magic of anniversaries in multiples of one hundred years: the necessity of observance is unquestioned, and only the logistics are left to the imagination. Grown men and women indulge their tattered patriotic fantasies and get themselves up in colonial drag, parading through famous fields and hallowed halls like children at a fancy dress birthday party.

And of course it’s good for business. Boston’s semi-official Bicentennial sponsoring agency, “Boston 200,” is supported by—and supportive of—all the fattest local cats, the banks, insurance companies, and manufacturers of war matériel that keep the local economy going. (At present, Massachusetts is one of the hardest hit states in the economic slump, and the Bicentennial is seen as a possible savior.) Boston 200 recently folded a twenty-page, four-color advertising brochure into an edition of the Sunday New York Times to drum up tourism and trade; Mayor Kevin White, up for reelection at the end of the year, was prominently featured in the text, like some foreign dictator who sponsors a throwaway in the Sunday papers to foster good will toward his underdeveloped country.

The Bicentennial is mired in the crassest kind of hard-sell: of plastic Minutepeople as well as papier-mâché ideologies. Patriotism is not only the scoundrel’s refuge; it is the merchant’s haven, the ad man’s paradise. Motorists streaming into Boston for the season’s events see such highway marvels as The Hilltop Steak House’s “Steak Revolution,” with a herd of life-size plaster cows tangled in red, white, and blue bunting; or a billboard proclaiming the revolutionary importance of the Honey-well Corporation of historic Lexington, maker of the antipersonnel bombs dropped on Vietnam.

The People’s Bicentennial Commission has more or less cornered the market on “radical alternatives” to the various establishment celebrations staged by local and state offices and coordinated by the federal American Revolution Bicentennial Authority. The PBC is spoken for, if not guided by, Jeremy Rifkin, an intense and ambitious organizer with more fondness for working-class issues than the other paths taken by recent radical movements. The PBC is promoting “economic democracy” as its objective for the second American Revolution, and its targets, naturally enough, are corporate conglomerates, multinational monopolies, and—everyone’s favorites—the oil companies. “Send a message to Wall Street” was the theme of the Concord festivities, and at some point in the dead of that drizzly night Rifkin read “A Declaration of Economic Independence” to the dozing throngs:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the economic bonds which have tied them together…,” he began. The rest of it was an earnest essay in forcing new clichés into fossil forms:

The Giant Corporations have subverted the Constitution of the United States and the principle of Government of, by, and for the people: By illegally financing their own candidates for local, state and national office. By placing their own supporters in key government commissions and regulatory agencies. By using massive lobbying operations to virtually dictate the legislative direction of the State and Federal Governments.

Seven pages later, Rifkin concluded:

We, therefore, the Citizens of the United States of America, hereby call for the abolition of these giant institutions of tyranny and the establishment of new economic enterprises with new laws and safeguards…. Such is the necessity which compels us to act in support of decentralized economic enterprises, with control being shared jointly by the workers in the plants and by the local communities in which they operate….

At the end, Rifkin called for a vote on the Declaration, yea or nay. “Yea,” the shout came back.

Not much in the PBC’s published political documents would offend American radicals of the old or new Lefts, or the various tendencies around and about them. And the speakers’ roster at the Concord rally displayed the customary catholicity in issues: Barry Commoner on environmental economics, George Wald on peace and participation, Richard Chavez on farm labor, a pro-PRG Vietnamese student, an American Indian, an aging suffragette, a black hospital workers’ union organizer.

But as the words do not offend, neither do they unduly inspire. At the rally, they fell on surprisingly polite but inactive ears. Only a minority of the multitudes came out of political interest or conviction; despite the PBC’s worthiest hopes and claims, most of the crowd was there “for a good time,” to listen to the music (Arlo Guthrie, the headliner, did not arrive until 7 AM), and to re-create images of long-ago rock festivals as legendary as Paul Revere’s ride to the young people there. They did not object to the speakers’ exhortations, but neither did they seem particularly moved. Of course there was no way of polling people’s consciousness; random samples of opinion on the affair I gathered ranged from an airy “far out” to a bitter “male, macho, and manipulative,” with many more extolling the pleasant vibes. But politics to such a crowd consists primarily in a generalized antipathy to the better-known figures of authority—in this case, Gerald Ford. It is a healthy enough sensibility, but hardly the ideological foundation for Rifkin’s revolution.

Underlying the PBC strategy as well as the official celebration is the baseless belief that the “ideals” of the American Revolution are both relevant and available for use today. The PBC, which has been working on Bicentennial projects for years, has published pamphlets and books attempting to draw on radical values of the 1770s for inspiration and motivation to modern rebels; Tom Paine and Sam Adams, of course, are primary sources. In the same way, politicians from President Ford on down to the selectmen of Sudbury find reassurance in their own readings of the deeds and documents of two centuries ago. Like the Bible, the Declaration of Independence can be used by the legions of the Devil as well as the disciples of the Lord.

For most of the protesters as well as the patriots at the Old North Bridge last week, the Revolution was a collection of fairy tales, as relevant as the men in Franklin knickers and the women in Martha Washington gowns. Attempts to align the history of a white English gentry fighting for its property rights against a mad king on the throne of the past with the new struggles of minorities, an anomic bourgeoisie, and sexually oppressed women are forced analogies at best. Of course there are enough ironic connections between the two eras to fill any rhetorician’s copybook. Here we were at Concord, a bedroom suburb for the executives of the country’s defense industries, laid out (on circumferential Route 128) in the heart of empire at a time of a dying colonialism—on the very day, as it turned out, that our new colonies were winning their independence. But such parallels amuse more than they motivate; even the heaviest ironies do not win battles.

The Bicentennial may briefly distract America from the economic crisis and the political depression, but it is unlikely to enliven a new social movement. Except for a few New Englanders, most Americans feel no historical connection with the events of 1776: history is still what happened in Vilna or Catania or County Cork, or the Lower East Side in the Nineties or California in ‘49. Perhaps only the children of the 1960s are assimilated into a new American history: but that began at Woodstock, not at the Old North Bridge. So far, as we enter the Bicentennial year, the American Revolution seems as dormant as a dinosaur’s egg, although it will take some nerve for anyone to admit it. Only one person I spoke with in the week before the beginning in Boston called it that way. Representative Elaine Noble, a lesbian feminist who was elected last year to the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, was posing for a Bicentennial film crew in the Governor’s Office of the State House. She stood under a portrait of Sam Adams, an earlier governor.

What do you think of the things going on this weekend?” I asked her. “Are you going to be out at Concord?”

Hell no,” she replied. “I’m going to Cincinnati.”

  1. *

    On a visit to Boston last year, then-Vice President Ford dismayed a Harvard Club audience by malapropriately misquoting Longfellow: “One if by day, two if by night,” he mumbled from memory. This year he got it right, with cue cards.

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