by the Night Writer
“There’s a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it.”
With those words Mel Gibson as William Wallace in the movie Braveheart challenged a feckless Scottish noble, foreshadowing not only Braveheart’s battles with the English but also with the gentry that represented his supposed allies in the fight for Scotland’s independence. It also symbolically foreshadows an uncomfortable relationship between the Tea Party and the Republican leadership in the ongoing fight for freedom in America.
In 1297 the central players in an uneasy alliance were William Wallace, the upstart rebel who shocked and demoralized the English with a dramatic victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and Robert Bruce, the scion of a wealthy and politically powerful Scottish family. In 2010, Republican lion and presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner plays Robert the Bruce to Michelle Bachmann’s Wallace. Bachmann was out-front for the burgeoning Tea Party movement, driving her enemies to distraction and helping spark a historic Republican rout that changes the balance of power in much the same way that Stirling Bridge did. Her decision to now run for a leadership position in the Republican caucus has been greeted coolly by her nobles. I know there are those who will raise an eyebrow or a guffaw at equating Michelle Bachmann with a figure as historically significant as William Wallace but at the heart of the matter there are similarities.
Bachmann is derided by her enemies (both in and outside the Republican party) for being out-spoken, outrageous and deliberately provocative. That’s pretty much how Wallace was presented in Braveheart: coarse, blunt and sometimes appearing to be making it up as he went along. The way the Scottish nobles fought the English in those days is also not too different from the way the Republican leadership has historically contended with the Democrats: a show of force before the battle which merely sets the stage for a parley in the center of the field that ends in negotiation. When Wallace showed up — nearly unwanted — before one battle he was told to hang back and be quiet. When he rode forward to be part of the parley anyway someone asked him what he was doing and his response was “picking a fight.” The passion and taunts of Wallace and his men discomfited the “civilized” combatants who weren’t expecting to be mooned or to be told that their general could bend over and “kiss his own arse.” Similarly, Bachmann and her unwillingness to “play nice” is barely tolerated by the party elite, while the passion and populism of the Tea Party rallies and town halls has shaken the political professionals and pundits who hope it is an aberration and not a new fact of life.
Consider this as well — the English king, Edward I (aka “Long-shanks”) was as ruthless and canny a leader as there ever was. He controlled the Scottish nobles by also granting them lands in England as well as Scotland, meaning any true rebellion wouldn’t just undermine him, it would undermine their wealth as well. Similarly, the entrenched Republican leadership, epitomized by Boehner the Bruce, has gained power, prestige and wealth by managing the status quo. Like any good general, the Boehner knows how to take advantage of opportunity when someone rocks the boat, but also realizes that if the boat rocks too much there’s no telling who all will go overboard. (At least he may take comfort in knowing that President Obama is no Edward I.)
In the movie, Robert the Bruce is stirred by Wallace’s example and conviction, but also swayed by his father’s adamant insistence that the only thing that was important was keeping his land, his possessions and his title, even if it meant lying, cheating and betraying others. As for the Boehner and the others who have been in D.C. for a long time, they will have to search their own souls to determine whether to be guided by principal or the political equivalents of the land, possessions and titles they’ve acquired by playing the game.
Of course, the risks aren’t solely with them. History tells us that Robert the Bruce eventually united the Scottish clans and factions and became king of an independent Scotland (even if this was helped by Edward I dying and being replaced by a less resolute heir). History also tells us that William Wallace was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk, just one year after Stirling Bridge, when the Scots cavalry, commanded by the faithless nobles (Bruce was not present), abandoned the field when they could have routed a broken English attack and left Wallace and his pike-men and archers (under the command of one Sir John Stewart) at the mercy of the English cavalry and long-bows. Wallace and his surviving army were scattered and within two years he was ultimately betrayed into English hands, taken to London, convicted of treason and summarily drawn and quartered. While there are many who would like to see the same happen, metaphorically, to Bachmann (or perhaps literally given the vitriol some use in the comment sections of the newspapers), there are two historical lessons to be learned. One is not to trust your “leaders” to have your back. If they’re truly leaders then they need to be out front, which is what Wallace urged Bruce to do. In the movie he tells Bruce, “Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow titles, they follow courage. Now our people know you. Noble, and common, they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they’d follow you. And so would I!” In the movie Bruce is inspired by Braveheart’s passion and sacrifice and summons the will to ignore his father’s advice and to see the cause through to the end.
The second lesson is that a cause that captures people’s hearts and minds is greater than any one individual or group of individuals. While some might say that it’s silly to compare our modern circumstances with Scotland’s fight for freedom from tyranny, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Scots had little knowledge of what we call democracy. They were used to a feudal system of gentry and serfs where the individual was regularly at the mercy of his “betters” who could impose sanctions and indignities with impunity, even to the point of claiming “first night” rights with a bride. Yet the people still valued and longed for the right to live their own lives, even if it cost their lives. In comparison, our dealing with a government that would force us to buy health insurance, tell us what kind of light bulb or fast food we can buy or electronically strip-search us “for our own protection” seems almost petty. Or does it?
One of the remarkable documents that came out of Scotland’s battle for independence was the Declaration of Arbroath. Written in 1320, some 450 years prior to our own Declaration, it includes the words that I hope will resonate for another 400 years or more:
It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.