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April 18, 2014
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You say you wanna revolution


“Well you know, we all want to change the world...”

—Lennon/McCartney

Google the word “revolution.” Your first result might be the Wikipedia entry, which provides a useful place to begin exploring this wide-ranging concept. The entry opens with a definition: “A fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time.”

Straightforward enough—but go back to your Google results. You might expect to see mention of the recent overthrows in Egypt and Libya, say, but no. The second result that I got led to information, not about spontaneous overthrow of oppressive governments, but about an anti-parasitic medication for dogs and cats made by multinational pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. (“The revolution for cats!”) Also right up there in the top ten I found the “Revolution Ice Centre,” over in Scranton, where one can play in a hockey league or learn how to execute a perfect double axel.

Revolution?

The Ancient Romans, in their sparse and laconic way, referred to revolution with the euphemistic term “res novae” (literally, “new things”) while the Chinese phrase commonly rendered as “Cultural Revolution” is supposedly better translated as “Agonizing Reappraisal.”

Steve Jobs, the recently departed and much-mourned co-founder of Apple, has been hailed for being a “revolutionary”—but Ho Chi Minh was condemned for being one. The term has been used to describe historical figures ranging from Spartacus to Fidel Castro, George Washington to Ayatollah Khomeini, Che Guevara to, well, Ron Paul, not to mention artists and musicians like Salvador Dali, Frank Zappa and Prince.

The term “revolutionary product” yields more than 1.5 million hits. Make it “revolutionary new product” and that number becomes 12 million.

In this kind of context, it’s worth asking: what the heck do we mean by “revolution,” anyway? What do we expect from it? Why do we long for one?

Perhaps the best definition I’ve come across doesn’t use the word at all. It’s from an article by Stewart Brand called “Theory of Game Change,” and it was included in the first “New Games Book,” written a generation ago in 1976.

“You can’t change a game by winning it,” writes Brand, “or by losing it or refereeing it or spectating it. You change a game by leaving it, going somewhere else, and starting a new game. If it works, it will in time alter or replace the old game.”

This, I think, is what the people who as I write these words are occupying Wall Street (see www.adbusters.org/campaigns/occupywallstreet), and the people avidly following their progress and following their example in cities and towns across the country (see occupytogether.org) are looking for. On the other side of a revolution, we want new ways of interacting, different goals, different values. We want a new game: one that is more fun to play.

All too frequently, what we call “revolutions” are nothing of the sort. One group just replaces another and gets to play the oppressor for a while. Too often, people expect a revolution to change everyone else, while leaving themselves to be as they were. And as history shows, such “revolutions” don’t stick very well.

What Brand suggests, and what I believe, is that a real revolution is more like a migration. Something inside says, “Time to move.” It isn’t imposed from outside. It comes from within. That revolution, the one that begins within the human heart, is I believe quite literally unstoppable.

So look inside: has it begun?