Revolution #256, January 15, 2012

Of Pendulums, Pits and Getting Free

We are told that the genius of the American political system lies in the pendulum swing. Don't worry... things can't go too far in the wrong direction... because before too long, the pendulum will swing back.

"Don't worry about environmental catastrophe," they say, even as the present course seems, if anything, to be accelerating the horrifying momentum in that direction. "Don't worry about the endless wars," even as U.S. drones rain down terror on at least half a dozen countries, and threats are issued to others. "Don't worry about the evisceration of fundamental political rights," even as Obama signs bills and issues edicts that Bush couldn't even dream about [See the January 8, 2011 Revolution, for example, the National Defense Authorization Act signed by Obama]. "No, don't worry, for after all the pendulum will swing on back soon. And don't worry about the persecution of immigrants, either," even though Obama has deported many more people than Bush ever even tried to... "or the mass incarceration of Black and Latino people," which has ground on just as mercilessly under Obama as it did under Bush, Clinton and Reagan.

Leave aside for now the narrowness of this theory—how it leaves the people of the whole rest of the planet out of consideration. Leave aside its incredibly low sights—really, can we think no higher than the petty improvements offered by the best of what this notion supposedly offers people? Leave aside all that and just consider, right now, how even on its own pitiful terms this theory crashes into the hard rocks of the reality of the Obama presidency.

And yet there is one use of the pendulum metaphor that does strike a political chord. Here we refer to Edgar Allan Poe's classic story "The Pit and the Pendulum." The hero of this story is a victim of the Spanish Inquisition—a centuries-long reign of terror launched by the Catholic Church in Spain in which anyone who was suspected of harboring heretical thoughts (that is, thoughts that differed with Catholic doctrine) was hunted down, tortured, and often killed. The hero at one point lies in a cell, strapped to a board with only his left hand left free, and surrounded by hungry rats waiting to feast on his corpse. Meanwhile, a weighted pendulum descends toward him. As the pendulum swings to and fro and slowly lowers, he notices the gleam of a sharp steel blade at its end, inexorably moving to slice his chest to ribbons. He strains against the ropes, but death seems certain and he almost gives up hope. At the last minute, however, he hits upon a stratagem: he uses his left hand to rub the grease from a piece of meat onto the sash that bound him to the board. Attracted by the grease, the rats gnaw through the sash and the hero rolls free of the pendulum at the very last minute—and just before an invading army throws open the doors of his cell.

We won't belabor the point and we won't claim it fits every particular—and we certainly won't claim that Poe had this in mind when he wrote his classic story. But just think about the way in which the pendulum in Poe's story, though it swings back and forth, ultimately has but one destination; about the way in which the ropes that bind the hero keep him paralyzed as the blade hypnotically progresses toward his chest; and about how his freedom depended upon his ability to free himself from those constraints through daring and imagination. If there is anything to draw from the pendulum metaphor in the American political system, it is Poe who came closest.

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