Since I can remember, I’ve preferred the fifth of November, a.k.a. Guy Fawkes Day, to Halloween. It was a secret I kept close because it’s a perverse preference; it goes against what everyone else likes, and most Americans have no idea what it is, anyway. It’s also a rather plebian celebration, a cause for British working-class hooligans to misapply the name of anarchy and burn stuff and torture cats… there are always horrible tales of cat torture, usually with firecrackers.
The similarly themed American Independence Day has never held any interest for me. Yes, it celebrates a worthy revolution as well as the formation of the most effective system of governance humans have yet to create, although we still have a long way to go to perfect it. For me July 4th has always been a halfhearted, noisy, jingoistic pageant, more of an excuse for the consumption of disgusting American processed food grilled outdoors, and frequently gaudy displays of pyrotechnics.
Guy Fawkes Day also has fireworks and bonfires, but it commemorates subversion, the thirst for change in government. Yes, it celebrates the thwarting of an inexcusable act of terrorism that would have also destroyed those beautiful Houses of Parliament. But that spirit of upending the status quo, of eradicating that corrupt establishment, is appealing to me. I’ve been trying to overthrown the establishment since childhood, beginning with my parents, albeit in subtle, passive-aggressive ways — I don’t get along with things that go boom.
The Occupy Movement adopted November 5 by way of the Guy Fawkes masks used in the camp, noodle-brained, wet-noodle movie V for Vendetta starring Natalie Portman, one of those odd choices the actress makes now and then when she reverts to the Harvard grad she really is and bottoms out with the geek thing. But the Occupy Movement is a colossal failure, a non-revolution, entirely because of its lack of focus. It’s not a movement so much as it’s a motley clown posse without a cause, or a clown posse with so many causes they got lost in a tangled maze of their own creation and never came out.
Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators on the other hand were focused. They had a single mission — to blow up the House of Lords — and they failed at it, thankfully; aside from the senseless violence, their reason was religion-based, the most idiotic basis for any conflict. But that doesn’t mean that the need for revolution “at least every twenty years… [the] medicine necessary for the sound health of government,” as Thomas Jefferson advocated, isn’t imperative. It’s simply that it can be achieved so much more easily in this day and age without violence.
A revolution of sorts is taking place in New York City today. The way-left-of-center Bill de Blasio is likely to become the first Democratic mayor in almost twenty years. There is clamor all over the Internet about New York City slipping back to what it was in the late 60s, 70s and 80s, when it was under Democratic control. But that’s poppycock, nothing more than the feverish apprehensions of conservative minds, which we now know from psychological studies are more prone to fear than liberal brains.
While I don’t have an opinion about de Blasio, other than he clearly has a good head on his shoulders and the experience to execute the job, I am sure he’s not out to break a good thing, or more accurately to try to fix an unbroken thing. And what the Republican administrations of Giuliani and Bloomberg have done can only been seen as a good thing for the City overall. If anything, de Blasio’s brand of liberal social activism will only enhance the solidified and renovated infrastructure his ‘conservative’ predecessors have left for him. (Let’s be honest: calling Bloomberg right wing is as much a misnomer as calling Obama liberal.)
The lament among the New York arts community is that the City swung too far into Yuppieville over the past twenty-two years, cleaned up too well. Now it’s boring, safe, the artistic community that gave it an edge over other great cities of the world like London and Paris has been pushed out from Manhattan into Brooklyn, if not further afield. As a native New Yorker from Manhattan who grew up during the aforementioned dangerous, anarchic period under Democrat mayors, I say good riddance. I have young nieces who should be able to take public transportation to and from school without the fear that I experienced daily when I was going to and from the same school.
Artists don’t need to be in urban environments to create; on the contrary, they need tranquility, beauty and focus, and New York has none of those qualities. Yes, it is spectacular in some instances in terms of scale and grandeur, but it isn’t beautiful. And it is loud at all times and entirely distracting. I am an artist, I cannot afford to live in my native city, but I would rather it be safe, clean and fiscally in the black than back when it was, admittedly, far more interesting but still just a massive, dangerous slum.
Has New York City lost its cultural edge? Hell, yeah. Does it need to get it back? Absolutely. And liberal activists are good at doing that. If we were to look at the political parties as the twin deities of the Hindu pantheon, conservatives are Vishnu the Preserver, and Democrats Shiva the Creator and Destroyer. All specious comparisons aside, the election of an ultra-liberal doesn’t mean that we’re going to see the city revert to what it was in the dark ages, an era that frankly would have happened regardless of who was in charge of City Hall.
New York Republicans are completely different from their retarded teabagging cousins in the American hinterlands, always have been. They are fiscally conservative and Wall Street-centric, but socially relatively liberal by comparison to the rest of the country. While their primary concern is the protection and advancement of the City’s mercantile interests, there is no doubt that New York Republicans have kept a keen, somewhat balanced eye on the social contract.
New York City as we currently know it owes its existence to the forward-thinking Republican governor DeWitt Clinton, who built the Erie Canal, linking the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, thereby kicking Boston out of the competition for the nation’s most powerful city. When he was mayor of New York in various terms from 1803 to 1815, Clinton also caused the grid plan to be laid out and developed, which remains without doubt the most ambitious urban design project ever. And he never took a salary in the fourteen years he served on the canal commission. It is a pity this man failed in his attempt at the White House against incumbent James Madison; his face might be on Mount Rushmore. At the very least we should think about renaming the city Clintonville.
We tend think of revolutions as being violent upheavals. If they’re not Tehran 1979 or at least Tahrir Square 2011 with a high death toll and a dead despot, it doesn’t count. But revolution isn’t defined as just the forcible overthrown of a government, it’s also the overthrow of a social order, and in that respect I’ve seen two in my lifetime: the sexual revolution (also known as sexual liberation), and the digital revolution that began almost concurrently. Both can be said to still be unfolding; for instance, we’re only now getting around to true gay equality, a good forty-four years after the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
The American Revolution itself had a long way to evolve from the beginning of the War of Independence in 1775 to the time the Constitution stopped being amended in 1791, if you see that as a milestone for when the United States finally became itself, which I don’t; it took far longer than that — I’m not sure it ever stopped. It could be argued that Jefferson’s dream of constant healthy revolution is alive and well and raging today. The sexual and digital revolutions can be seen as mere rebellions, or even battles, merely a part of the greater, continuously morphing revolutionary that is this country’s spirit.
Then again, one could argue that we have become politically static, and I would agree with that, too. This binary political party system is rubbish and has become cancerous. The GOP has abdicated responsibility as the honorable party of opposition and become not just dishonorable but downright insane — the Democrats have won the country over almost by default. One of the apotheoses of the digital revolution, the Internet, has allowed citizens to educate themselves in place of a broken public-education system; they can pick and choose their course of study. The result is average Americans are becoming increasingly liberal, or less blinkered and ignorant. They are becoming more humane, more aware of their place in the world, of how and why people see them a certain way.
The original spirit of the GOP as inherited from Jefferson himself survives in small pockets of the country like New York City — and it could be said in New Jersey with that vulgar Chris Christie (who will never be president) — but otherwise the Republican Party is dying from dementia. A new political party will hopefully arise out of this other subtle social revolution brought on by the digital education of the average American. Several, such as the Centrist Party, have already sprung up, and they are well funded and vocal and armed with thoughtful long-term plans. These alternatives will push the Democrats back to the left, maybe even to lie fallow for a while as the opposition party — they’ll need a breather after Hillary.
Perhaps I’m being a wrong-headed optimist and the American revolutionary spirit has already died out, long ago. Perhaps we will slit our own throats with complacency. I don’t see it unfolding that way, but mine is the opposite of a fearful conservative mind. I see a thousand mutinies every time I go online, acts of insurrection that unfold at blinding speed, which would have taken decades to foment pre-digital revolution, if they ever got a chance to take hold at all. Here we have Edward Snowden taking down a wannabe Big Brother, there we have Russell Brand making us question the core values of democracies everywhere. And everywhere we have digital petitions that do sometimes sway the course of government, or viral content that helps the oppressed stand up and vanquish their oppressors.
So that’s why I love the fifth of November. It might commemorate a thwarted act of terrorism, but it’s also a reminder that constant revolution is our heritage and an imperative. As I imagine those bonfires crackling in England, I like to think that old order is burning away to make way for the new. But there I go being that radical optimist again. Or maybe I’m just another crazy cat with an M80 up his ass.