New Internationalist

Great American Rebels

Issue 351

True originals abound in a country that has much to thank them for – here is just a sample of them.

1. Daniel Shays (1747-1825)

A veteran of the Revolution who fought at Lexington, Bunker Hill and Saratoga, Shays resigned from the Continental Army in 1780 after not being paid. He returned to his small farm in western Massachusetts. Here, like many others, he quickly fell into debt. Farmers had begun to resist the use of the courts to enforce repayment. When the Supreme Court of Massachusetts indicted 11 rebel farmers as ‘disorderly, riotous and seditious persons’, Shays organized 700 armed farmers and went to Springfield where hundreds more joined him. The judges adjourned the court. Confrontations between farmers and militia multiplied in what became known as Shays’ Rebellion. Wealthy Boston merchants raised an army against the rebels. Arrested, condemned to death and pardoned in 1788, Shays eventually died in poverty.

2. Geronimo (1829-1909)

I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures,’ said Geronimo, the last great leader of Native American resistance. His Indian name was Goyathlay (‘one who yawns’); he was born to the Bedonkohe Apache group in what is now New Mexico, but was Mexican territory until 1846. He was reputedly given the name Geronimo (‘Jerome’ in Spanish) by Mexican soldiers. Geronimo was not a chief but a shaman or ‘medicine man’. He believed that the spirits had conferred on him an invulnerability to bullets. In 1858 the murder of Geronimo’s wife, mother and three children by Spanish soldiers from Mexico increased the level of Apache resistance to a new wave of American settlers. In 1876 the Chiricahua were removed by the US Army to an arid ‘reservation’ at San Carlos, eastern Arizona. Geronimo escaped three times. The US Army sent 5,000 troops to hunt him down. In 1882 he agreed to return to the reservation, but escaped again in 1885 until the last of all the Native American surrenders in 1886. In breach of the surrender agreement, Geronimo and some 400 Apache men, women and children were transported to Florida and then, in 1894, to Oklahoma, where he died.

I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful and radiant things.’

3. Emma Goldman (1869-1940)

An influential and celebrated anarchist, Goldman was an early advocate of free speech, birth control, women’s equality, labour unions and the eight-hour working day. She was frequently harassed or arrested; her talks were often banned outright. In 1893, amidst mass unemployment in New York, she urged hungry children to go into stores and take the food they needed. She was arrested for ‘inciting a riot’ and sentenced to two years in prison. Of the rising price of food after the Spanish-American War of 1898 – which centred on American ‘interests’ in Cuba – she said: ‘When we sobered up from our patriotic spree, it suddenly dawned on us that the cause of the war was the price of sugar… That the lives, blood and money of the American people were used to protect the interests of American capitalists.’ She worked with the first Free Speech League, a direct progenitor of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her opposition to conscription during the First World War led to a two-year imprisonment, followed by deportation in 1919. Thereafter she was forced to live a peripatetic life, eventually dying in Canada.

4. Mae West (1893-1980)

I believe in censorship. After all, I made a fortune out of it.’ Mae West grew up as ‘The Baby Vamp’ on stage in Vaudeville. In 1926 she wrote, produced and directed the Broadway show Sex, which led to her arrest for obscenity. In the following year her next play, Drag, was banned because it dealt openly with homosexuality. As a result, she made innuendo and self-parody into a fine art, writing the scripts of five out of her nine Hollywood movies. George Raft, whom she was hired to ‘support’ in the 1932 film Night After Night, complained: ‘She stole everything but the cameras.’ Her 1933 film She Done Him Wrong was credited with saving Paramount from bankruptcy. Her popularity reached such heights that sailors named their inflatable life jackets after her: she remains the only actress whose name features in English dictionaries. She was offered the part of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard but turned it down. ‘When I’m good, I’m very good,’ she said, ‘but when I’m bad I’m better.’ And she coined the immortal: ‘Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?’

5. Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

When asked by the infamous McCarthy ‘un-American activities’ hearings why he didn’t leave the country, Paul Robeson replied: ‘Because my father was a slave and my people died to build this country.’ Robeson was a brilliant athlete and scholar who quit his New York law firm when a stenographer told him: ‘I never take dictation from a nigger.’ After working on the stage with playwright Eugene O’Neill, he discovered his singing voice and in the musical Showboat began to receive popular acclaim. Travelling the world giving concerts to popular audiences in the 1930s, he thought of himself and his art as ‘serving the struggle for racial justice for nonwhites and economic justice for workers of the world’. In the Soviet Union he felt ‘here, for the first time in my life… I walk in full human dignity’. He developed a commitment to Soviet communism which he never relinquished. He urged black youths not to fight if the US ever went to war with the Soviet Union. In 1950 his passport was revoked and he was ‘blacklisted’ by concert managers. Unable to earn a living but refusing to compromise his political loyalties, he became depressed by the loss of contact with audiences and friends, tried twice to commit suicide, and eventually died from a stroke.

6. Rachel Carson (1907-64)

Trained as a marine biologist and zoologist, Rachel Carson spent her early working life in public service, eventually becoming Editor-in-Chief of the publications of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. During the 1930s Depression she supplemented her income by writing lyrical features for the Atlantic Monthly. After the publication of The Sea Around Us in 1952 she left government service to devote herself full-time to writing. Together with Silent Spring, published in 1962 – which drew attention to the impact of synthetic chemical pesticides – Carson’s writing challenged prevailing orthodoxy and was seminal to the growth of the environmental movement. Vilified as ‘alarmist’ by the chemical industry and government officials, her testimony before Congress in 1963 (a year before she died from breast cancer) helped to initiate legislation protecting the environment and human health.

7. Cesar Chavez (1927-93)

Born near Yuma, Arizona, Chavez became a migrant farm worker when his father lost his homestead during the Great Depression of the 1930s. He fought in the Pacific with the US Navy during World War Two; on his return he became an organizer among the huge Hispanic migrant labour force in California. ‘You can’t change anything if you want to hold on to a good job, a good way of life and avoid sacrifice,’ he said after founding the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in the early 1960s. Membership came largely from the vineyard workers. In 1966 the NFWA merged with the United Farm Workers and affiliated to the AFL-CIO. In 1968 Chavez conducted a 25-day fast to reaffirm the union’s commitment to non-violence. By 1975, 17 million Americans were supporting a boycott of Californian wines. Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, passed a collective-bargaining law which grape growers were forced to support. In 1988 Chavez conducted a 36-day ‘Fast for Life’ to protest the poisoning of grape workers and their children by pesticides. Like other officials he received subsistence pay of less than $5,000 a year. Forty thousand people attended his funeral.

8. Noam Chomsky (1928- )

A unique combination of eminent academic, political radical and grassroots activist, Noam Chomsky remains the most inspirational radical thinker in America today. Challenging corporate power with forensic skill and seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge, his most obvious distaste is for American self-deception and hubris. A self-effacing Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his academic reputation rests on a theoretical revolution he created in the impenetrable discipline of linguistics. He says that it was the politics of socialism and anarchism learned from ‘the radical Jewish community in New York’ that drew him to linguistics. He first came to political prominence as an opponent of the war in Vietnam. Since then he has documented the progress of American interventions around the world and is outspokenly critical of US policy in Israel. A complex network of activists inspired by his work has grown up around him.

9. The Simpsons

America’s most famous TV family, the Simpsons, are everybody’s subversive anti-heroes. The show champions the struggles of ordinary human beings to get by, pitted against the powerful – whether it’s evil Mr Burns the nuclear power-plant owner (allegedly modelled on Fox TV owner Rupert Murdoch), assorted local bullies, crooks, shyster TV showmen, small-town hypocrites, corrupt state politicians or the makers of tasteless Duff beer. Homer naps and eats donuts, his laziness shining through despite his oppressive boss and mechanized, production-line style workplace. Bart is a one-kid revolution against the stupidity and conformity of high school. Lisa always stands up for what she believes in, whether it’s feminist dolls, saving trees, or world peace – but what she wants most is a pony. And Marge will do anything to protect her kids, including taking on Itchy and Scratchy, the violent TV cartoon. Genuine, dysfunctional, contradictory, selfish, altruistic – all of us trying to walk upright in this world are the Simpsons. George Bush Senior hated it, saying Americans should be ‘more like the Waltons, and less like the Simpsons’. What higher recommendation could one ask for?

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