I don’t want no stinkin’ revolution

I’ve long said that any talk of “revolution” triggers the heck out of me. That’s the case whether it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders and his supporters talking about it, or, more recently, Rep. Jamaal Bowman.

I feel the way when the right wing talks about it too, of course.

And the reasons why? The Fourth of July is as good as any day to discuss. 

It’s easy to romanticize revolution on the day celebrating this nation’s own war of independence. Yet unshackling from colonial masters is distinctly different from an ideological revolution. The former is essentially a war of independence against outside forces. The latter? There is nothing romantic about them. 

Ideological revolutions are essentially civil wars. They pit family and friends against each other. They are bloody, messy, and brutal—and the wounds often last for generations. And given how easy ideologies are to warp, revolutions based in them seldom deliver the results expected. Egypt’s 2011 revolution was spurred by President Hosni Mubarak’s brutal regime, lack of freedom of speech, harsh political repression, and other economic concerns. The end result? The Muslim Brotherhood was popularly elected in the aftermath, enacting additional repressions. Indeed, the entire Arab Spring delivered not a single victory for freedom or democracy.  

Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 and 2005 successful overthrew a Moscow-installed strongman and ushered in a new period of seemingly successful democracy. Yet that sowed the seeds of Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas (eastern Ukraine) roughly 10 years later, and its full-scale invasion in 2022, which continues to this day and has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians. 

What else do we have? There’s the Houthi Islamist takeover of much of Yemen. And Sudan’s 2018-2019 revolution deposed a tyrant … only to lead to an ongoing civil war that has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions. 

Of course, many of you may be thinking, “American politicians and activists are not talking about that kind of revolution, sheesh.” And of course they’re not. But revolution isn’t democracy—it’s taking what one desires based on some other mechanism. 

Indeed, that is why the right has worked so diligently to subvert our democracy, and there’s nothing more undemocratic right now than our illegitimate Supreme Court. 

“We are in the process of the second American Revolution, which will remain bloodless if the left allows it to be,” said Kevin Roberts, the president of the influential Heritage Foundation.

That’s the crux of “revolution” talk: the belief that democracy has broken down and thus extraordinary means are required. This asshole understands that Republicans don’t have the popular support to enact their agenda, so they’re using the Supreme Court to dismantle our political and electoral system. They can afford to remain bloodless because they control some of the key institutions. And now, with court-approved lawlessness, a second Trump presidency can do just about whatever it wants. 

Sanders or Bowman want a revolution in the face of that? Good luck. The only thing protecting us from tyranny is our democracy. Any attempt to undermine it, even rhetorically, is a boon to right-wing fascists. 

For me, it’s also personal. 

I was living in El Salvador in 1979, during that country’s revolution/civil war, a war that killed an estimated 75,000 and displaced thousands … including me and my family. When you read about refugees and war zone displacement, that was me

And I didn’t even have it that hard, relatively. My family managed a safe landing in Chicago, where I was born. We could cross the border legally since my parents had legal status. They had friends and a network to help them reestablish themselves. I didn’t lose anyone in my extended family to the war. So no biggie, right? 

Yet I was nine when I was torn away from my friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I left a warm and inviting school and landed in an inhospitable environment, where I was brutally bullied because of my accent and lack of English-language proficiency, the funny way I dressed, and my inability to understand the local culture. 

Indeed, it’s been only very recently that I, with the help of psychedelics, have begun healing the alienation and trauma I felt from being torn away from that safe, loving space. I always thought, “I didn’t have it so bad, it’s so much worse for so many others—in Sudan, in Ukraine, in Gaza, in Myanmar, in Mexico, and in my own El Salvador”—but trauma is trauma, and that nine-year-old boy didn’t know or care about the relative merits of his suffering vis-à-vis that of others. It wasn’t a competition. 

To me, “revolution” means suffering, and suffering that seldom is rewarded. Say the word, and it somatically shows up in my throat, strangling me. It is viscerally offensive. 

Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms.” It certainly is challenging, and the frustrations from our own system are real. There is much that needs to be structurally reformed, like the Electoral College, the inequitable Senate, and the lawless Supreme Court (and now the lawless presidency). But imperfect democracy is preferable to chaotic, destructive revolution—a revolution where the right has all the advantages (not just structurally but also … guns). 

Democracy is hard work. Right now, it’s particularly unpleasant given all the drama around a Biden campaign that has truly shit the bed. 

But it’s the best chance we have of succeeding. Talk about “revolution,” and you’ve lost me; I’m tapping out. Winning in November is the only way we avoid catastrophe.