So I’m reading “The Quiet Before: On the Unexpected Origins of Radical Ideas,” Gal Beckerman’s excellent new book on the modest roots of massive sea changes and the butterfly effect-like flutter of a parlor game forms in my head. I make leaps of logic that, though overly tidy, are compelling.
For instance, if Filippo Marinetti, the ringleader of the Futurist activists in early 20th century Italy — a guy who resembled “a silent movie villain about to tie a woman to the railroad tracks” — had not written war-hungry, scorched-earth manifestos, if his ideas had not influenced Benito Mussolini, there might not have been the momentum for fascism in Italy. This means, leaping ahead, there might not be that Roman column near Soldier Field, gifted to Chicago by Mussolini, to honor Italo Balbo’s transatlantic flight during, its plaque insists, “the 11th year of the Fascist Era.”
Or who knows? Marinetti or not, there might be a Balbo Monument.
After all, fascism is very 2022.
But then, Beckerman isn’t interested in the outcomes, but the seeds that blossom into forests, for better or worse. He is all about the process, the incubation, the minor means to major ends. Or as he puts it, “the oil in the gears of idea production.”
History and hindsight aside, our end results are rarely predictable.
“The Quiet Before” looks at the percolations of many disparate movements — from #MeToo, suffrage and Soviet glasnost to the decline of colonialism in Africa and the recent explosion of white nationalism in the United States — though on that last one, Beckerman nods at the irony of how Saul Alinsky’s writings applied.
Alinsky, the influential Chicago community organizer, has had his methods linked to liberals and conservatives as ideologically different as Barack Obama and the Tea Party movement. Alinsky saw revolution as three acts; in the first two, revolution is muttered, people talk, then the future gains its shape. Alinsky saw the failure of many movements in a rush to the third act, to “confrontation for confrontation’s sake.”
Beckerman writes how enthusiasm for the Unite the Right rally in Virginia in 2017 gained traction on websites like The Daily Stormer and the chat platform Discord, and noted how Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin saw the teachings of “Jew Saul Alinsky” as a lesson for white supremacy.
Except they didn’t take Alinsky quite enough to heart, and as Beckerman explains, their impatience to create a Charlottesville-like coming-out event led to even larger counter protests and the eventual splintering of their Discord and Daily Stormer communities.
Not that it destroyed the movement itself.
Beckerman is not trying to explain how the world changes. He’s interested in the ether that fuels the change, the whispering that grows into large-scale movements. More often than not, this ether is underground.
Manifestos, letters, newspaper columns — stuff. But also social media posts, email chains. Anything nurtured outside the mainstream that chips away at authority. It always begins, Beckerman writes, with “a group of people talking.” But then talking soon takes the form of the riot grrrl zines of the early 1990s (precursors to the #MeToo movement), or the Facebook page We Are All Khaled Said that used the brutality of Egyptian security forces to build an Arab Spring.
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, I noticed an uptick of videos on TikTok of ordinary citizens confronting Russian soldiers in the streets, not debating but cursing, often shouting at them to turn back, to go away.
Regardless of what happens, it’s an alternate, inspiring vision of wartime rarely seen.
That’s the ether, too.
Among the joys of “The Quiet Before” is how it reframes the seeming flotsam of everyday communication as tacitly subversive. While reading, I noticed a pile of comics at my side that, each in its way, illustrated Beckerman’s point, too.
“Come Over Come Over” is a new reissue of cartoonist (and MacArthur Fellow) Lynda Barry’s “Ernie Pook’s Comeek” strips for the Chicago Reader, circa 1989, but now the anger and insecurity of her 14-year old Maybonne reads like the early groundwork for contemporary feelings about class, sexual harassment, depression. You picture the pimpled, awkward middle-schooler having an Instagram account these days in which she presents herself as proudly pimpled, sweaty and awkward, mocking the unreality of lifestyle influencers.
Similarly, it’s hard to even skim “Ms. Marvel: Beyond the Limit,” a new Marvel series by the South Side novelist Samira Ahmed, about Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenage superhero, without being reminded of how quietly influential superhero culture has been for cultural representation in general.
And not just name-checking underrepresented communities, but working underrepresented traditions into pop culture. If you want to popularize an idea, the most popular genre of the day is a smart start. I’m reminded of critic Manny Farber’s celebrated “termite art,” what he called works that burrowed beneath the listless status quo and immersed itself, taking the form of B movies, cheap TV and so-called low art, leaving room for the unexpected.
Critical race theory?
Twenty years before opportunistic politicians and angry school board meetings, one of the most mainstream looks at systemic racism was the piercing 2003 Marvel comic “Captain America: Truth,” a seven-issue series (reissued last month after decades of obscurity) that told the story of the Black Captain America who pioneered the job of the better-known captain, Steve Rogers.
Written by Robert Morales (who died in 2013) and drawn by Kyle Baker, it draws on the writing of W.E.B Du Bois, discussions of Chicago’s Red Summer of 1919, war cliches and, most pointedly, the Tuskegee experiments — in which Black Alabama sharecroppers with syphilis went intentionally untreated for decades.
“Truth” reframes that as a U.S. military attempt to create a super soldier, using a battalion of Black soldiers as fodder. Most die, but one, Isaiah Bradley, goes on to fight Hitler and become a prototypical Captain America (and Black folk legend), only to be abandoned by a government uneasy about a Black superhero in stars and stripes.
If that sounds familiar, its plot was incorporated into some of the better episodes of the Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” in which a Black Captain America (played by Anthony Mackie) learns about a Black super soldier kept silent for decades.
Quietly, before the shouting, the fictional Isaiah Bradley was doing the heavy lifting that many flesh and blood Americans still find too radical, but therein lies one of the knowing, bittersweet contradictions to “The Quiet Before.” All this whispering tends to go unheard.
Until, one day, it’s deafening.
Christopher Borrelli writes for the Chicago Tribune.