Revolution or Reform

It's one thing to spark a movement; it's another to see meaningful action because of it.

“To escape its wretched lot, the populace has three ways, two imaginary and one real. The first two are the rum shop and the church; the third is the social revolution.” — Mikhail Bakunin, 1871

His father was killed by British cannon fire when the boy was only two years old. The youngster grew up as an aristocrat, attempting to fit in as a courtier before finding that his independent nature was ill-suited to such a role.

So, two years after hearing about the American struggle for independence, he set sail for the young country. An idealist with a pure-heart and an enthusiastic spirit, he endeared him to many in his new country.

One of those was General George Washington, who grew so fond of the young man that he considered him almost a surrogate son. He confided in his protégé and gave him assignments to help turn the tide against the British.

The young man’s name? Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette. Or, more succinctly: the Marquis de Lafayette

The namesake of Lafayette Square.

The now-infamous Liberation of Lafayette Square (click through to see the definitive timeline of action) stuck in my mind not only because of the spectacle itself, but because of the rich irony served up by the actions.

Lafayette Square is a public park — a symbol of freedom and openness — the kind of space that we typically consider appropriate for public gatherings and peaceful protests. It was placed behind fencing that surrounds the White House and associated grounds, stretching two linear miles.

“It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” — Dolores Ibárruri, 1936

In an interesting twist of fate, the fencing meant to keep protesters at bay (in addition to the wrought-iron fence that's surrounded the White House grounds since the 1960s) has turned into something of a makeshift memorial:

The reason the caging in of the park strikes me as ironic is that Lafayette himself was caught up in the French Revolution, where he was captured and imprisoned for five years. This champion of justice and independence suffered by virtue of his station, and because of political sensitivities, Washington was unable to secure his freedom.

In the two weeks following George Floyd's death, we've seen the volume of peaceful protests against police brutality grow. And to be sure, there's been looting and vandalism amid this, but the vast majority of these events have been peaceful.

“Revolutions cannot, or rather can no longer, be accomplished by a minority. A revolutionary minority, no matter how intelligent and energetic, is not enough, in modern societies at least, to bring about a revolution. The cooperation and adhesion of a majority, and an immense majority, is needed.”  — Jean Jaurès, 1901

In some ways, it feels like a revolution is happening.

Back in April, I wrote about revolutions, but from the perspective of the coronavirus crisis, when some of the public was revolting against shelter in place orders:

The Revolution Will Be Televised

The response to years of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement feels like a revolution of sorts, but is beginning to turn into more than that. If it’s going to have any impact, it must be more than a revolution.

What we need is a reformation.

Consider the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century: it was a movement that grew out of frustration with corruption in the Catholic church. More than simply leading a revolt, the schism created a new branch of Christianity.

And that's what we’re seeing today: governments are beginning to take action based on widely expressed dissatisfaction.

It's not too different to what we see when customers revolt against brands. Usually because of some misstep, either in the company’s evolution of the product (e.g. New Coke) or a tone-deaf approach to marketing (e.g. Pepsi’s Black Lives Matter ad with Kendall Jenner), the offenders get called out.

To turn a revolt into a reformation, meaningful and tangible actions need to be taken by leaders. It's not enough to simply mouth the words (“thoughts and prayers,” “we regret any inconvenience,” “customer-centric”).

Listening can pay off: Coca-Cola eliminated its plans for the new formulation. Pepsi admitted it missed the mark with its ad. Each recovered in time.

And now, we have local, state, and federal government looking at laws and regulations currently on the books and making plans to update them.

“An unjust law is no law at all.” — Saint Augustine, 395

Solon was the great lawmaker of Athens in the 6th century BC. His primary concern was the political, economic, and moral decline of the city-state. Plutarch described the events that led to Solon's leadership in Parallel Lives:

“At this point too, the inequalities between rich and poor, had, as it were, come to a head. The city stood on the brink of revolution, and it seemed as if the only way to put a stop to its perpetual disorders and achieve stability was to set up a tyranny. All the common people were weighed down with the debts they owed to a few rich men. Many parents were even forced to sell their own children (for there was no law to prevent this), or to go into exile because of the harshness of their creditors. However, the majority, which included the men of most spirit, began to make common cause together and encourage one another not to resign themselves to these injustices, but to choose a man they could trust to lead them. Having done this, they proposed to set all enslaved debtors free, redistribute the land, and make a complete reform of the constitution.”

Enter Solon. As a man of wealth, he was acceptable to the rich. As a man of principle, he was acceptable to the poor. Both sides thought he should consider establishing a tyranny. But Solon refused.

He understood the importance of maintaining arrangements that worked, and reforming those that were broken, and only introducing changes where he thought he could achieve his ends through persuasion or enforce it with authority. With a deft hand, he “made force and justice work in harmony.”

“All men recognize the right of revolution, that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” — Henry David Thoreau, 1849

And isn’t that what we need today? Leaders who can balance their response to competing demands from a variety of sources, whether it’s the citizenry, shareholders, employees, customers, or others.

Leadership is a balancing act. Very rarely are decisions simple or black and white. Nuance abounds. If it were easier, everyone would be a leader.

And movements hit leaders with the momentum of a wall of water. They’re externally generated, have a mass and volume that is unavoidable, generating momentum that carries with it an unstoppable force and all kinds of debris.

When a revolution begets a movement, as a leader, you can resist it, ignore it, or embrace it.

The choice is yours.

“Revolutions never go backward.” — Thomas Skidmore, 1829


“When I hear any man talk of an unalterable law, the only effect it produces upon me is to convince me that he is an unalterable fool.” — Sydney Smith, c. 1807



We’re seeing real results, particularly in southern states, where statues of confederate leaders are coming down. (NPR)



Greg Glassman, CEO of CrossFit, made some questionable choices with statements he made on Twitter regarding the death of George Floyd. It resulted in an immediate backlash, including many members dropping their membership and sponsors canceling deals. He has resigned as CEO of CrossFit. (NBC News)



After years of sweeping kneeling players’ silent protests of police brutality under the rug, the NFL has admitted it was on the wrong side of the Black Lives Matter argument. Due in part to the rising public sentiment but also to a rogue NFL employee who created a video of players speaking up. (Yahoo! Sports)



“If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of revolution, when the old and the new stand side by side and admit of being compared, when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope, when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era?” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1837



Human movement is not linear, but circular. The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory explains how we evolve in cycles and why the phrase “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” Their book The Fourth Turning lays out the timeframes of the past and where we’re headed. (The Art of Manliness)

  • Crisis (Fourth Turning): Great Depression/WWII (1925-1945)

  • High (First Turning): Postwar Boom (1946-1960)

  • Awakening (Second Turning): Consciousness Revolution (1961-1981)

  • Unraveling (Third Turning): Reagan Revolution/Culture Wars (1982-2006)

  • Next Crisis (Fourth Turning): ? (2008?-2028?)



I have to admit, while I try to stand up for those who are disadvantaged, I sometimes struggle with what to say. Kim Clayton is holding a seminar on June 27th, Introduction to Being Antiracist, an event designed specifically for people who are struggling with where and how to start their antiracist journey.



Between the Lines: Does anyone today write protest fiction, novels designed to mobilize sentiment and influence events? Do they find a ready and enthusiastic audience? A look at the crossroads where literature and politics meet, and the relationship between art and ideas. (Lapham's Quarterly)


Recommended Listening / Reading

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” — James Baldwin, 1963

🎧 Just what is going on with white people? Police shootings of unarmed African Americans. Acts of domestic terrorism by white supremacists. The renewed embrace of raw, undisguised white-identity politics. Unending racial inequity in schools, housing, criminal justice, and hiring. Some of this feels new, but in truth it’s an old story. Why? Where did the notion of “whiteness” come from? What does it mean? What is whiteness for? Scene on Radio host and producer John Biewen took a deep dive into these questions, along with an array of leading scholars and regular guest Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, in this fourteen-part documentary series, Seeing White.

📘 It’s shocking how little has changed between the races in this country in the last 60 years, when James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, a coolly impassioned plea to “end the racial nightmare.” A national bestseller when it first appeared in 1963, the book galvanized the nation, gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement—and still lights the way to understanding race in America today.

While we’re on the subject of books, here’s a bit of bonus content — some black-owned bookstores to support in the U.S.:

While I have you here, I wanted to share one more thing: last week’s newsletter, which was really just a frank and vulnerable admission that I didn’t have the energy to write a full edition, got more responses than any other issue in recent memory. I appreciate you reaching out and showing your support.

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.