Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer based in Cyprus and the UK. His work has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, The Scofield, and The Writers’ Magazine, among others. His short story Flames and Shadows was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Film projects include Behind the Mirror (writer/producer – winner of Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival 2015), Vita and Virginia and Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (executive producer). He loves Alfred Hitchcock films. And traveling. And the Cloud. And is currently working on a psychological horror script.
CONVICTION WITH TEMPERANCE
‘You must respect the body you’re trying to heal.’ ~ Malcolm Gladwell
‘Generous Orthodoxy’ is an outstanding episode in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast series, and worth a listen. Gladwell, always critical and forward-thinking, dares go beyond partisan politics to ask tough questions, shedding light not only on the inertia and racism of the old guard, but also on the self-defeating anger of today’s minority protest movements whose choice of words and attitude makes it hard for them to win the center.
To deal with this conundrum, Gladwell touches on the concept of generous orthodoxy, a way to reconcile opposing viewpoints by applying both tradition and open-mindedness to any issue in a pragmatic manner. It’s a subtle but solid approach to conflict resolution and reform.
Easier said than done, of course. The old guard are unlikely to embrace generous orthodoxy. Set in their ways, yesterday’s dinosaurs want to keep things as they are, no compromises. (Bad choice – the world changes whether they like it or not.) They’ve already lost, deny it as they try. It may take time but their downfall will register.
The rising tide of youth, on the other hand, is inexperienced and way too angry for anyone’s good. Vehement protest, rage, commitment to the cause of change are super important, but not when they occur at the expense of the institution one is claiming to defend. The past can’t and won’t be wiped clean, nor trashed in its entirety. Some cows are sacred, not subject to slaughter, and the youth better understand it, and fast.
Even Napoleon, the great upstart in the age of reason, knew when to back off, though not quite. He left the Church alone (wise choice, the masses need their illusions, especially those involving community and deliverance) but he went after every other pillar of the Ancien Regime, taking down the building around him.
Had the upstart General-cum-Emperor shown some restraint, he might have prevailed. Instead he overplayed his hand and ended up in the world’s bunghole, his cause set back by decades, the old players back on the throne, playing castles, bloodlines, and royal prerogative.
Today’s progressive movements ought to pay heed. A successful revolutionary marries righteousness with flexibility, conviction with temperance. Failure to be pragmatic sets back progress at least a generation. The old guard has a way of coming back to life when given the chance, and one has to defeat them all over again. They keep losing, but why give them one more chance? It’s a waste of energy, to say nothing of the insult to injury.
The old guard and their lap dogs are compost – that much is certain. They show no respect to the diversity that gave rise to the world we live in and will pay for their maliciousness, their hollow noblesse.
But one look around and it’s obvious they won’t go away quietly. They’re surging, getting their moment, a chance to push back because the opposition, today’s revolutionaries, are failing to respect tradition, giving the old guard a reason to scream bloody murder and cry wolf, Usurper and Bolshevik.
The revolution, like it or not, has not gotten off on the right foot. It seems eager to level the system, then rise to the top and assume power, put its honchos in charge and hold the world’s woes over the defeated till kingdom come, and that’s a problem.
Some deem this danger real, which makes the revolution toxic and counterproductive. Many people will not support change, not this kind.
If, on the other hand, revolutionaries are getting a bad rap, nothing more, the revolution needs to fix its image, do a better job on how it comes across. It’s scaring the center away – the center is everything, it has to hold for a cause to advance, and progressives are failing to secure it – which delays, if not impedes, the advance of progress.
To win the day, progress needs to move forward. As simple as that. Use the past to lay a better foundation, not recycle old grievances and failed power structures. Reform the dysfunctional without torching the building.
It all boils down to a simple statement: Respect the body you’re trying to heal.
Generous orthodoxy is a great idea. Those who embrace it command the future. The rest, fanatics on either side, end up in the trash, be they left or right, old, young or middle-aged, if not now, then in a hundred years, their deeds undone and their claims disclaimed. Their foundations crumble and their causes rot in the sun while others move in, reforming the body without killing it.
Revolution isn’t chemotherapy. Right?
Then again, some of the greatest leaps in history were made over the corpses of those standing in the way of change. That’s what revolution is about, at least in historical terms.
The conundrum persists, and not even Malcolm Gladwell has the answer.
But to get answers one must first ask the right questions, not just of others but also, chiefly, of oneself.
Is our audacious youth listening? (zing!) Is our children learning? (zing!) One hopes so.
YOUTH LOOKING FORWARD (AND BACK)
Skid Row’s ‘Youth Gone Wild.’ One of my favorite songs as a teenager. Listen to it and I realize how my world was very different to that of the famous Jersey band – unlike them I lived in an affluent home and went to a good school and had my whole life laid out for me,
and yet I can see how I identified with the song and why it inspired me. Its energy was raw, its lyrics appropriate in many ways:
Since I was born they couldn’t hold me down (true, I was making trouble all the time)
Another misfit kid (yes), another burned-out town (not so much burned-out as divided, semi-occupied by an invading army, a minor pitstop on Europe’s perimeter, a place from which I couldn’t wait to escape)
I never played by the rules I never really cared (word!)
My nasty reputation takes me everywhere (I had made a name for myself being a studious dick in primary school and a studious drinker in high school)
I look and see it’s not only me (damn right, we were an army)
So many others have stood where I stand
We are the young so raise your hands
They call us problem child (they did)
We spend our lives on trial (we did)
We walk an endless mile
We are the youth gone wild
We stand and we won’t fall (we rock)
We’re one and one for all (don’t mess with us)
The writing’s on the wall
We are the youth gone wild
Boss screamin’ in my ear about who I’m supposed to be (dad, mom, teachers, aunts, the parents of friends, random strangers telling me what to do, how to fit in)
Getcha a 3-piece Wall Street smile and son you’ll look just like me (they had a career all planned out for me, everyone expecting I would be thankful to follow in their footsteps, do as I was told, like a dog)
I said Hey man, there’s something you oughta know
I tell ya Park Avenue leads to Skid Row
(To be honest I didn’t know what Skid Row was, I thought the band was referring only to themselves – and rock music – and it kind of made sense at the time)
I look and see it’s not only me
We’re standin’ tall, ain’t never a doubt (look out)
We are the young, so shout it out (in their goddamn faces!)
They call us problem child
We spend our lives on trial …
Great song! Still resonates. Bar the quaint bravado (irony is what does it these days) it has energy.
Also a reminder that music is what you make of it, a magic pill that fits all ailments and situations. New Jersey don’t have the monopoly on anguish. We’re all poor and challenged to some degree, we all have people screaming at us and skid rows to avoid. We were all young at one point.
Some of us still are, in spirit anyway, and will forever dance to the runes of youth gone wild.
And when we do settle down and chill out, we will have done so having given it a go, looking back at our lives and at the youth around us with unlimited understanding, perhaps even realizing that the pressure we faced contributed to our strength and resolve.
Lyrics by Skid Row
CHAPTER 27: A STRANGE ENCOUNTER
Smyth is in the Place de la Revolution, in the midst of the Terror, looking for Cooley, who has vanished in thin air. For the first time in the tour, he finds himself stranded …
The executions seem to be over and the crowd is beginning to thin out. People are slowly receding into the adjacent streets and alleys, speaking loudly and excitedly. The smell of blood is strong and musty. There is a sense of accomplishment in the air, as if another day has been put to good use.
I shuffle around, unsure of what to do. People bump into me but no one pays attention to me. Some of them mumble but don’t break their conversations. Their words weave themselves into a din that covers the square from side to side. I try not to make myself evident but I feel that something is wrong, that someone is going to figure out I don’t belong there any moment now and call the guard to arrest me.
I freeze. A hand touches me on the shoulder. I bite my lip and take a deep breath. Perhaps if I walk away casually they will leave me alone.
I start to make my way forward but the grip on my shoulder tightens.
I turn around. A ragged man stares at me. I recognize him. It’s the alien-looking fellow I saw earlier. He’s wearing a worn-down brown jacket that covers him from shoulder to knee and a cap that falls clumsily on his messy long hair. His face is blotchy and his hands dirty, but his voice is steady and calm.
‘Take this,’ he says in fluent English.
He slips something in my hand – a tricolor cockade with a pin on it. He urges me to wear it. I kneel down, pretending to have dropped something, and plant it on my breast. He grabs me by the arm and beckons me to follow him.
‘To walk around without the protection of the tricolor is madness, if not suicide.’ Before I have a chance to respond he turns around and glares at me, sizing me up. A rush goes through me. For a moment I think this is Cooley, disguised in new form. I smile but his face remains aloof. No sign of recognition. Perhaps this is just an ordinary man, helping out a fellow human being.
He resumes his walk. I chase after him. He begins to speak without looking at me.
‘When I came to France in 1792, after having been here a few times already, and having immersed myself in its noble struggle from the onset, dedicating my entire life to it, I made the grave error of not wearing a cockade. I thought that my past actions would safeguard me from the tempest of French patriots, who, in their hour of urgency, all too easily allow their reason to be stripped away from their heads, like the breaches from their attire, turning into passionate, dangerous mobs.’
He points to a narrow street and makes his way there, his gait brisk and uninterrupted, his voice resolute.
‘They gathered round me and began to manhandle me. I told them who I was and what I had written for their cause, but they did not heed me. They merely took my words as proof of my guilt. I did not speak their tongue at the time, not one smidgen, and my voice rang with the tone and pitch of the beast from across the Channel. So they proceeded to molest me, with the intent to slaughter me. Fortunately, with a great deal of effort on my part, and with the intervention of some friends who came to my aid as if providence had steered them to me, I was able to release myself from death’s vise.’
He stops again, turns round.
‘I have learned my lesson well. I never leave the house without a tricolor. Two actually; one for myself, and one for whichever unfortunate soul happens to foolishly find himself in the streets without one.’
He pinches a flask from his jacket pocket and takes a snort. He offers it to me, and even I though I should know better, I grab it and take a gulp.
‘A very fine product. One may even call it nectar. England may have indeed been overrun by wretches, but it has not lost its spirit; its soul maybe, yes, but not its spirit. Though some may claim it has stolen much of it from the Scots, the Irish, and her current and former Colonies.’
I’m not sure if the man is trying to be humorous or deadpan serious, but something tickles me. The tension is too great and the way he speaks made up, like a character in a historical movie. The situation is too absurd. The alcohol burns my throat, a surge of electricity flows down my arms and legs, and a cackle escapes me.
It seems to please him.
‘Do you know I was right here, in Paris, when the king and his family were brought back from Varennes?’
I shake my head. He grins and signals me to have another shot, and I oblige. The spirits warm my body and I calm down.
I ask him,
Who are you?
‘Crazy Tom, they call me, once of Thetford, Norfolk, now of the great state of Pennsylvania, in the United States of America. I have come from over yonder, from the land of Eden, that generous host to all mankind’s dreams and aspirations, of which I have been so fortunate to become part, so that I may carry her word forth and imbibe the world with the spirit which gave birth to her. I am, my dear fellow, her messenger and scribe, angel of redemption to those who have been enslaved for centuries, wrath of destiny to those who keep mankind captive under the pretense of hereditary, or divine, right.’
He pauses, points his finger at me.
‘The question is, who are you, my friend? And what is your place and business here?’
I hesitate. I don’t know how to respond. I’ve not had to introduce myself thus far.
I decide to be as vague and cryptic as possible.
My name is N. N. Smyth, and I am but an observer to the turmoil of society.
It seems to strike a chord, and his grin widens.
‘Observers we all are, born to witness what goes on around us. But participants … that not everyone is; yet everyone ought to be. Taking action is what makes the difference between men of conviction and convicted men.’
He raises his brow.
‘Are you a man of action or straw in the wind? Do your words make a difference when you utter them, and do you intend them to, or do you speak them merely to populate the awkward silence that surrounds men during their solitary journey through life?’
I purse my lips. I’m having a hard time following his words. I say to him that I want to make a difference and that I’m learning how to make what I say count.
‘Splendid! A noble attitude more common to the common man than to the noble swine who rule over him. Tell me, where do you come from and what is your capacity?’
I come from a land far away, a land of greatness, where everything has its place and people know how to be civil to each other. I’m a student of journalism (lie) and I like to report what happens.
‘An investigator! Research! One of the most admirable drives in a man, exercised via one of the most useful, yet, underrated professions. Blessed be they, valiant journalists, who chronicle the events of the present, so that those in the future may look back on them and know what happened. You are in the right place at the right time, my young fellow, I assure you. You are going to carry out some unique reporting. Though, I have to say, not much can be said about the rightness of it all. It seems to be going very wrong at the moment; far worse than I expected.’
What did you expect?
‘Sanity. Common sense. Reason. There is no reason here. Only passion and suspicion, fear and cursing, madness, persecution, aftertastes of grandeur, illusion, delusion, danger. It is the fault of that jackal Robespierre and his bloodthirsty henchmen. Their wretched and self-declared “despotism over tyranny” has rendered this country a slaughterhouse. His demand that a man die so “that the country may live” squelches the life out of this nation. Look at France now, drowning in a pool of royal and common blood, drowning in the pits of despair.’
You’re talking about the king’s execution.
‘Of course I am talking about the king’s execution! Sad, tragic figure, Louis XVI was, too inept for his position, and rightly removed, but not rightly slain. He should have been exiled to America – the republic he helped forge, unwittingly of course, poor idiot. He had no idea what he was doing; that by coming to America’s aid he was fueling his own destruction.
‘But such are the ways of the world, driven by providence, my dear fellow. And so Louis’s end came, perhaps sooner rather than later, inevitable as it was, and more tragic than anyone could have foreseen. Who would have thought that he would be slaughtered in public like a pig? It was an outrage! And idiotic! Swinish the nobility may have been during their lifetime, ruling over men with impetuosity, but when killed like pigs it reflects badly not on them but on their executioners. Look what the guillotine has catalyzed. Death and Terror! The revolution has turned into everything its enemies said it would: the work of a “swinish multitude.” It gives the forces of oppression ground to stamp it out, making that idiot, Edmund, sound as if he were right all along.’
‘You don’t know him? Good, I will not dare disturb this rare piece of justice by volunteering his existence to you. Let your mind be free of his foppery.’
I don’t understand, not do I insist. Let it go, better that way.
No one speaks for a while. I’m happy to sit there in silence, digesting everything I’ve just heard, but something tells me to hurry it along. I have to find my way out of here, and this man, crazy as he sounds, knows something important, I’m sure of it.
I press the matter in a different direction.
Tom – may I call you Tom? You said something about the king and Varennes. Can you tell me more about it?
‘I was there. I saw him as clear as I see you know, him and his family, on 20 April, 1792, descending the carriage and marching to the Tuileries, escorted by the Sans-Culottes – the men without breaches. Such sadness I have never seen in a family, nor expect to ever see. Utter shame and defeat. It was all over, and they knew it.’
What was all over?
‘The game. The monarchy. Their precious lives. They had risked everything, choosing to flee Paris in secret and make for the border where they aimed to meet with the Austrians and their emigré allies. It was a risky plan, and they made it all the way to Varrenne, one hundred miles from the border.
‘But someone recognized them, and they were arrested and turned back to Paris where they returned not as monarchs but as traitors. The Jacobins rejoiced. Robespierre finally found his chance to play the death card, and here we are, the lot of us persecuted and terrorized.’
I take it you’re in some kind of trouble, too.
‘That I am. Robespierre’s thugs have been stalking me for quite some time, waiting for the right time to grab me, as they did my dearest Madame Roland.’
You knew Madame Roland?
‘Of course I did. She was my fellow Girondist, my friend and ally. A great woman, the likes of which the world has seldom seen up to now, but will henceforth witness more often, I am certain of it. It is shameful that she had to lose her life in such a way, though it does offer me comfort to think know that her demise will instruct us all, lessons that should have been well established by now, and for which we are fighting so hard.’
I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.
‘Say nothing then, you are not obliged to. But you are obliged to write everything as it happened when you report it, to say it as it was, sparing no quarters and speaking the truth at will, uncomfortable as it may be, so that people may understand.’
‘That he who would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.’
With that Tom gets up and paces down the street, taking swigs from his flask. He looks slightly drunk, or mad, I can’t tell. I’m not sure whether to follow him or stay put. If he’s a Girondin and under surveillance by Robespierre’s men, hanging around him will be dangerous.
But something tells me there are things I need to find out from him.
I chase after him.