Starting from Zero, the Eternal Recurrence

G.K. Chesterton once described tradition as “the democracy of the dead:”

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.


But then, the left has shortened Chesterton’s aphorism considerably — as New York Timesman Thomas Friedman, former Obama economic adviser Peter Orszag, Gov. Bev Perdue (D-NC) and even President Obama have all recently told us, they simply want to see democracy itself dead.

Along with tradition, of course, but in America, they shot the daylights out of that in the 1960s and ’70s — though not as badly as in other regions and in earlier periods of time. Ever since the days of first the French Revolution, followed by what religious scholar Martin Marty once called “the Bearded God-Killers,” of the 19th century (Marx, Freud, Darwin and Nietzsche — and to be fair, Nietzsche simply sported a mustache the size of Harley-Davidson handlebars), the left has savored the notion of hitting the CTRL-ALT-DLT keys of civilization and chucking all of its accumulated wisdom. The Soviets tossed a millennium of accumulated history down the drain in Russia, the Bauhaus chucked a millennium of accumulated history in the arts, the Nazis chucked a millennium of accumulated history in Germany (along with the Bauhaus), PolPot declared Year Zero in Cambodia in 1975. That same spirit drives the environmental movement’s desire to ban the light bulb, dams, air conditioning and some of the whackier members on its far fringes to suggest that the president ban the internal combustion engine via executive order.

The problem with throwing out the baby of civilization with the bathwater is that you quickly find you miss both civilization — and the bathwater. Tom Wolfe dubbed the idea “Starting from Zero” in an article he wrote originally in the mid-1980s or ’90s, but it’s amazing how well it dovetails with what we’re seeing with the Occupy Wall Street gang:


In 1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the hippie movement. At the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, there were doctors treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. And how was it that they now returned? It had to do with the fact that thousands of young men and women had migrated to San Francisco to live communally in what I think history will record as one of the most extraordinary religious fevers of all time.The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start from zero. At one point, the novelist Ken Kesey, leader of a commune called the Merry Pranksters, organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon’s point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside–quite purposely–were those that said you shouldn’t use other people’s toothbrushes or sleep on other people’s mattresses without changing the sheets, or as was more likely, without using any sheets at all, or that you and five other people shouldn’t drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning…the laws of hygiene…by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.

This process, namely the relearning–following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero–seems to me to be the leitmotif of the twenty-first century in America.

* * *

In politics the twentieth century’s great start from zero was one-party socialism, also known as Communism or Marxism-Leninism. Given that system’s bad reputation in the West today, it is instructive to read John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World—before turning to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The old strike-hall poster of a Promethean worker in a blue shirt breaking his chains across his mighty chest was in truth the vision of ultimate human freedom the movement believed in at the outset. For intellectuals in the West the painful dawn began with the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1973. (See above, pp. 101-2.) Solzhenitsyn insisted that the villain behind the Soviet concentration-camp network was. not Stalin or Lenin (who invented the term “concentration camp”) or even Marxism. It was instead the Soviets’ peculiarly twentieth-century notion that they could sweep aside not only the old social order but also its religious ethic, which had been millennia in the making (“common decency,” Orwell called it) and reinvent morality . . . here . . . now . . . “at the point of a gun,” in the famous phrase of the Maoists.


Using something once called the Gregorian calendar (whose origins are, not coincidentally, also under attack) let’s flash-forward to October 2011 and Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan. When even left-leaning New York magazine compares your movement to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, you know you may be in trouble:

All occupiers are equal — but some occupiers are more equal than others. In wind-whipped Zuccotti Park, new divisions and hierarchies are threatening to upend Occupy Wall Street and its leaderless collective.

As the protest has grown, some of the occupiers have spontaneously taken charge on projects large and small. But many of the people in Zuccotti Park aren’t taking direction well, leading to a tense Thursday of political disagreements, the occasional shouting match, and at least one fistfight.

It began, as it so often does, with a drum circle. The ten-hour groove marathons weren’t sitting well with the neighborhood’s community board, the ironically situated High School of Economics and Finance that sits on the corner of Zuccotti Park, or many of the sleep-deprived protesters.

“[The high school] couldn’t teach,” explained Josh Nelson, a 27-year-old occupier from Nebraska. “And we’ve had issues with the drummers too. They drum incessantly all day, and really loud.” Facilitators spearheaded a General Assembly proposal to limit the drumming to two hours a day. “The drumming is a major issue which has the potential to get us kicked out,” said Lauren Digion, a leader on the sanitation working group.

But the drums were fun. They brought in publicity and money. Many non-facilitators were infuriated by the decision and claimed that it had been forced through the General Assembly.

“They’re imposing a structure on the natural flow of music,” said Seth Harper, an 18-year-old from Georgia. “The GA decided to do it … they suppressed people’s opinions. I wanted to do introduce a different proposal, but a big black organizer chick with an Afro said I couldn’t.”


As Orrin Judd quipped in response, “Hey, hippie, don’t mess with Christie Love.”

More from New York magazine:

To Shane Engelerdt, a 19-year-old from Jersey City and self-described former “head drummer,” this amounted to a Jacobinic betrayal. “They are becoming the government we’re trying to protest,” he said. “They didn’t even give the drummers a say … Drumming is the heartbeat of this movement. Look around: This is dead, you need a pulse to keep something alive.”

The drummers claim that the finance working group even levied a percussion tax of sorts, taking up to half of the $150-300 a day that the drum circle was receiving in tips. “Now they have over $500,000 from all sorts of places,” said Engelerdt. “We’re like, what’s going on here? They’re like the banks we’re protesting.”

At the start of the month, Bryan Preston wrote at the Tatler, “I wonder, do these Occupiers realize that they’re now forces for rolling back the clock on history? They’re supposed to be ‘progressives,’ right?” But that’s what “progressives” invariably do, before having to relearn the laws of civilization the rest of us take for granted on the fly. More from Bryan:

But their lack of leadership and goals, coupled with an adolescent mindset, are producing a kind of neo-anarchy on the greens. The only thing they’re missing is a peasant named Dennis railing at the king. The inevitable raids on their stuff by homeless addicts vomiting their way across the makeshift camps has already given rise to a kind of Occupy camp security, the most basic duty of a government. And note, one that isn’t being performed well on our border, but the Occupiers don’t care about that.

Next will come a kind of feudalism, as various Occupation (without vocation) voices vie for power and control and minions form factions. And after that, the revolution will become just another institution. That’s the arc of history, being played out by college students who probably don’t even know enough history to be able to grasp the irony of it all.

Until the Occupiers vault from their primitive state to a Leninist oligarchy (a process which should take another week or so), supposing they don’t just dissolve once they realize that camping out in urban parks paid for by others is no way to go through life or feed yourself, let’s enjoy their principled devotion to Luddism.


There’s one man left who’s celebrated Starting From Zero in all of its nascent forms — because he’s old enough to have seen them all firsthand, save for — perhaps — the French Revolution. Since he had an appearance last night at OWS, I’d like to formally apologize to the New Yorkers living in the area. As Egon Spengler once said, “I blame myself.” But then, as always, life imitates Ed Last Saturday, after I asked, “Hey, When Do They Sign the Non-Aggression Pact?” I ended with a snark too far; the equivalent of shouting for Beetlejuice:

While President Obama proved not to be much of a uniter, this month’s Obama-friendly protests have sure proven that they can bring people together: “Nazis and Communists Throw Their Support Behind Occupy Wall Street Movements,” Jim Hoft writes.

Nazis and communists on the same page? Inconceivable! The far left’s motto in 2008 was “Recreate ’68!” They’ve apparently decided to turn the clock back a few more decades into the past. There was a brutal Occupy Italy riot today; and while Occupy Poland at least has a Facebook page; shouldn’t they have begun the actual invasion early last month, if only for the sake of old times? (Speaking of old times, Pete Seeger, your moment has come once again.)

And he’s ready to seize it!

Pete Seeger’s grandson says the 92-year-old activist musician is “all fired up” about plans for a late-night march in New York City in support of Occupy Wall Street.

Tao Rodriguez Seeger says he plans to play “Pied Piper” after performing with his grandfather and other musicians Friday night in Manhattan.

Tao Seeger says he expects 750 people to attend the Clearwater environmental benefit at the Symphony Space performing arts organization. He’s inviting them outside afterward to sing and walk together.

Tao Seeger is a New Orleans resident. He recalls how a man there screamed at protesters. He says music may not change everyone’s minds but it can help people get along better.


No question about that, Tao. No question about that.

Related: “Editiorial Cartoonist Rejects Reality, Substitutes Own.” But what’s a revolution without airbrushes and Memory Holes?



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