Agitators created America, and it's their feisty spirit and outright rebelliousness that we celebrate on our national holiday.
Are you an agitator? You know, one of those people who won't leave well enough alone, who's always questioning authority and trying to stir things up.
If so, the Powers That Be detest you -- you ... you ... "agitator!" They spit the term out as a pejorative to brand anyone who dares to challenge the established order. "Oh," they scoff, "our people didn't mind living next to that toxic waste dump until those environmental agitators got them upset." Corporate chieftains routinely wail that "our workers were perfectly happy until those union agitators started messing with their minds."
In each case, the message is that America would be a fine country if only we could get rid of those pesky troublemakers who get the hoi polloi agitated about one thing or another.
Bovine excrement. Were it not for agitators, we wouldn't even have an America. The Fourth of July would be just another hot day, we'd be singing "God Save the Queen," and our government officials would be wearing white-powdered wigs.
Agitators created America, and it's their feisty spirit and outright rebelliousness that we celebrate on our national holiday. I don't merely refer to the Founders, either. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Ben Franklin and the rest certainly were derring-do agitators when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, creating the framework for a democratic republic. But they didn't actually create much democracy. In the first presidential election, only 4 percent of the people were even eligible to vote. No women allowed, no African Americans, no American Indians and no one who was landless.
So, on the Fourth, it's neither the documents of democracy that we celebrate nor the authors of the documents. Rather, it's the intervening two-plus centuries of ordinary American agitators who have struggled mightily against formidable odds to democratize those documents.
America's great rebellion didn't end with the British surrender at Yorktown. It was only getting started -- and the rebellion has moved through such great forces of agitation as the abolitionists and suffragists, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, the Populists and the Wobblies, Fighting Bob La Follette and Huey Long, the Square Deal and New Deal, Mother Jones and Woodie Guthrie, Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez -- and on into today's continuing fight for economic fairness, social justice and equal opportunity for all.
Without agitators battling in politics, on the job, in the marketplace, for the environment, on Wall Street, in education, for civil liberties and rights, and all across our society, democratic progress doesn't just stall, it falls back.
The Powers That Be -- especially America's overarching corporate and political forces (often the same) -- give lip service to democracy, but tend toward plutocracy, autocracy and kleptocracy. They prefer (and often demand) that We the People be passive consumers of their economic and political policies. Don't rock the boat, stay in your place, go along to get along -- be quiet, they urge.
Be quiet? Holy Thomas Paine! How could freedom-loving, democratic citizens shrink into quietude, especially when the Powers That Be feel so entitled to run roughshod over us? Even a dead fish can go with the flow. We've got to be livelier than that.
July Fourth is a time to enjoy fireworks, flags, hotdogs, ballgames and such -- but it's also a time to remember who we are: agitators!
It's not easy to stand against powerful interests. Sometimes it's lonely, and you get to feeling like the guy B.B. King sings about: "No one likes you but your momma, and she might be jiving you, too." It's not easy, but having those who dare to stand up is essential if our country is ever to achieve our ideals of fairness, justice and opportunity for all.
And when the establishment derisively assails you as an agitator, remember this: The agitator is the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out.
Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of the new book, "Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow." (Wiley, March 2008) He publishes the monthly "Hightower Lowdown," co-edited by Phillip Frazer.