Thomas Paine wrote those words after the shooting had already begun at Lexington and Concord, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a fact that always surprises me. We tend to think that by that time, the game was on, lines were irrevocably crossed, and everybody who was going to take a side and get involved was already committed. But not quite so.
We of course haven’t even had our Lexington moment yet and frankly I pray we never do. Even in the best cases (and the American Revolution was certainly one of those), shooting wars ultimately play into the hands of the most wily statists. Who shoots first, shoots straightest, has the biggest weaponry, or has “God on their side” doesn’t always determine how free people are once the smoke has cleared.
Oh, for sure, if our Lexington moment comes, let us be brave and let us be on the right side — and remain strong there. But we do better in the long run simply living around the present regime, learning and teaching freedom, waiting for the fall, and hoping when it comes we’re prepared not merely to survive, but to build something better on the ruins.
Though it could come as suddenly as that other famous recent fall, this regime’s fall may be a long way off. (How many hundred years did it take Rome to crumble before those definitive Barbarian invasions?)
These remain the times that try men’s (and women’s) souls.
I’m watching an excellent three-part documentary this week on the Irish Rebellion. April was its 100th anniversary, which I wish I’d marked. The documentary came out this spring to honor and explain the occasion. Though it’s narrated by Liam Neeson, a Hollywood gun hypocrite I generally boycott, it’s irresistible. It’s got beautiful music and strong visuals, as well as a clear telling of this poignant, tragic, inspirational, educational, and ultimately triumphant story.
You may know the short version. I’ve mentioned it here before: After centuries of suffering under British rule and being treated as second-class citizens in their own country, a handful of no-hopers, including poets, journalists, teachers, and naive young kids, took over the Dublin General Post Office and a few other strategic buildings on Easter Monday in 1916 and held off authorities for a few days before being forced to surrender (as the ruthless British leveled central Dublin with artillery shells and fire, murdering some 300 civilians).
Their act was widely unpopular even with other fighters for Irish freedom. Rash, radical, and tactically stupid. Morally, this handful of radicals felt they had no other choice. But in the days before they took over the GPO, their 20,000 hoped-for guns had been sent to the bottom of the sea. One of their most important compatriots was arrested for trying to smuggle the arms from Germany. And thousands of would-have-been supporting fighters were called off by their commander.
No question about it: occupying the GPO, etc. was a hopeless, dimwitted move. And everybody else knew it.
Worse, it was an act of aggression at a time cooler heads felt it was better to wait for the British rulers to make some provocation that would justify armed self-defense.
Then the British stood the captured rebel leaders up before firing squads. Poets, teachers, starry-eyed kids. They killed them one-by-one. In cold blood. Under color of law. And in dying of official overkill, this pack of inspirational fools sparked the very thing they’d tried and failed to achieve: Irish independence.
But cut the soaring patriotic music.
Because, for years ahead there was not only war with and punishment from the British. But after that, there was civil war, with old Irish friends and long-time Irish leaders killing, or suspected of killing, each other. And even when that was over, they still ended up with a divided, chaotic country. A country dominated by poverty and a rigid, politically powerful priesthood. And government. Always government. And all the costs that go with it.
So those, too, were the times that tried men’s souls.
As I watched the first part of the documentary, which covers the lead-in from the late nineteenth century to the takeover of the GPO, I felt regret and guilt for not being a leader on the scale of Patrick Pearse or John Devoy, or even Maud Gonne or the Countess Markievicz (that’s her below). Never mind that I’m devoted to the idea that quiet, daily freedom is ultimately a bigger, though far less cinematic, way to restore and preserve liberty. There’s that craving to do something dramatic, decisive, definitive, and forever bold.
Personal feelings aside, one of the things that stands out about the run-up to Irish independence is that it was a cultural movement before it could be a successful military one. It’s no coincidence that so many Irish revolutionary leaders, both military and inspirational, were poets, schoolmasters, actresses, playwrights, journalists, students of the Irish-Gaelic language, and collectors of Irish folklore.
After centuries of physical, legal, religious, and military battering at the hands of the British, the Irish first had to reclaim themselves as a people before they could organize successfully for independence.
Americans may not share the cohesion around the arts that the Irish are so known for. But I think you can see the parallels here, right?
You can see that at least part of what we need to do is … well, what we are doing, but more of it: to remind people of who and what we were and are.
Prepare the ground for millions to stand on when today’s “normal” crumbles and we have an opportunity to grow a new world.
It does seem as if this fall’s election — with its anger and frustration and horrendous candidates — is likely to be a turning point. Well, already is a turning point, no matter what happens from here. But it’s probably not a turning point in exactly the way any pundit would think to predict.
Similarly with yesterday’s amazing Brexit vote across the water. Everybody’s got their own prediction of the consequences of the Brexit. Everybody’s got their own predictions about the horrors of a Trump presidency or a Clinton 2 presidency. Everybody will be wrong.
But no matter what anyone guesses, people are rising to reclaim who and what they are. They’re finally telling the elite and powerful (“foreign” rulers, even if they’re native-born), “You do not define us. You do not plan for us. You do not fool us. You do not rule us.”
Done wrong, with crazy leaders, this will be a disaster. Done well …
Sigh … these are still the times that try men’s souls.
But there’s hope. Perhaps more hope than political freedom has had in quite a while. In part, that depends on we the remnant and what we do with the opportunities ahead of us.