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How Empires Fall: An Interview With Jonathan Schell
Posted on Mar 3, 2012
By Andy Kroll, TomDispatch
There was, however, another aspect to the surprise of 2011. I think it may be the nature of such nonviolent movements that they come as a surprise, because at their very root seems to be a sudden change in the hidden sphere of the human heart and mind that then becomes contagious. It’s as though below the visible landscape of politics, whose permanence and strength we characteristically overestimate, there’s this other landscape we rather pallidly call the world of opinion.
And somewhere in this landscape of popular will, in these changes in hearts and minds—a phrase that has become a cliché but still expresses a deep truth—lie hidden powers that, when they erupt, can overmatch and bring down existing structures. That’s what John Adams said about the American Revolution: the revolution was in the hearts of the people, the minds of the people. It was amazing to find that very Vietnam-era phrase in Adams’ eighteenth century writings. What John Adams was saying you find over and over again in the history of revolutions, once you look for it.
Occupy and Freedom
I used to say that, before the Occupy movement here, we Americans were suffering from our own energy crisis, which was so much more important than not being able to drill for crude oil. We didn’t know how to drop a bucket into our own hearts and come up with the necessary will to do the things that needed to be done. The real “drill, baby, drill” that we needed was to delve into our own consciousness and come up with the will.
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JS: I was astonished. Even now, I don’t feel that I understand what the causes were. I’m not even sure it makes sense to speak of the causes. If you point to a cause—oppression, food prices rising, cronyism, corruption, torture—these things go on for decades and nothing happens. Nobody does anything. Then in a twinkling everything changes. Twenty-three days in Egypt and Mubarak is gone.
How and why a people suddenly develops a will to change the conditions under which it’s living is, to me, one of the deep mysteries of all politics. That’s why I don’t blame myself or anyone else for not expecting or predicting the Arab Spring. How that happens may, in the end, be undiscoverable. And I think the reason for that is connected to freedom. Such changes in opinion and will are somewhere near the root of what we mean when we talk about the exercise of freedom. Almost by definition, freedom refers to something not visibly or obviously caused by anything else. Otherwise it would be compelled, not free.
And yet there is nothing obscure—in the sense of clouded or dark—about freedom. Its exercise is perhaps the most public of all things, as well as the most powerful, as recent history shows. It’s a daylight mystery.
Andy Kroll is an associate editor at TomDispatch and a staff reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine. He writes about politics, business, and campaign finance. He can be reached at akroll(at)motherjones.com.
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Copyright 2012 Andy Kroll
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