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Essay

Romanticising Rebellion

The idea of rebellion holds a special place in our culture. There are not many themes as ancient and well-loved. It keeps reappearing in our stories, from Biblical tales to modern franchises like Star Wars or The Matrix. In a broader sense, such stories depict personal search and growth. It takes courage to go against the system, to make difficult choices and face the consequences, and it takes resolve to continue the journey. Some rebels want nothing but personal autonomy, leaving the rest of the world to decide its own fate. Others, however, seek to change the society around them according to their particular understanding of justice.

Rebellions are often romanticised in works of art. Eugène Delacroix captured the feeling of the romantic fight for freedom on the canvas of his famous Liberty Leading the People. While celebrating the Revolution of 1830, the painting also honestly depicts its vices: the brutality and shortsightedness that accompany popular revolts. Liberty herself is assertive and self-righteous enough to ignore the corpses at her feet. The masses follow, unstoppable as a force of nature, and thick smoke covers the scene, focusing the viewer’s attention on the momentary passion rather than the big picture. For when the smoke clears, what remains is a destabilised nation torn by internal conflict.

Fictional rebellions invite us to side with the underdog, the oppressed group of likeable characters who oppose the evil overlords. Their actions are often questionable at best, but we are supposed to overlook that since their cause is presented as morally justified. All too often, the rebels plan to fight without planning to rebuild. The story conveniently ends with their victory and a few absentmindedly added lines implying ‘happily ever after.’ In this oversimplified world, the old system goes down in flames, offering a spectacular picture, but leaves no ruined lives and no unhealable scars—nothing to contradict the idea of a newly found paradise.

That said, sometimes it is hard to distinguish between reality and fiction. Historical events are surrounded and ultimately replaced by myths of heroes and martyrs, the sacred figures who could do no wrong, and villains who deserve no sympathy. There is hardly a person nowadays who cannot recognise the iconic picture of Che Guevara. The American Revolution is also greatly romanticised. The Founding Fathers were all but sanctified, while a certain British lieutenant colonel named Banastre Tarleton became an embodiment of imperial wickedness, primarily famous for the extravagant war crimes he had never committed. In Ireland, rebellions turned into a national sport, with as many as fourteen major uprisings and a whole series of minor ones taking place throughout the five centuries of English rule. Each created new legends, new songs to glorify them, and new generations to follow their example. Such fiction legitimises uprisings and sometimes even encourages them, contributing to the formation of violent radical movements.

Blood and ashes were always the true price of idealistic dreams. Worse still, sometimes those dreams come true. It is no secret that most successful rebellions, otherwise known as revolutions, end in dictatorship. By destroying the previous government, they create a power vacuum, and their fight usually leaves the country in chaos; at such a moment, someone decisive, ruthless, and uncompromising takes the reins, establishing a new order. His regime is rarely much better than the previous one. England was a merrier place under Charles I than under Cromwell and his Puritans. Robespierre was by far a worse tyrant than Louis XVI. Nicholas II could never compare to the Bolsheviks in sheer cruelty. In each of these cases, revolutionaries were motivated by a wish to change their country—or even the world—and remove its sins, forcing the people to forfeit their established freedoms in exchange for nothing but a promise of happiness.

Ironically, suppressing an armed rising usually requires about as much courage, resolve, and defiance as starting it. The war against an unknown enemy hiding among the civilians is never easy, and enforcing order is not a glamorous task. Harsh measures are inevitable. So are mistakes—and their cost is often high. Therefore, the government must be prepared to exercise good judgement and carry out unpopular policies, staying within the bounds of necessity. Successful counterinsurgency efforts strike the right balance between aggression and restraint; they benefit from common sense rather than illusions and ideological fervour.

Unlike the government forces, rebels are not constrained by the need to protect the population. Putting bystanders in harm’s way is sometimes one of their tactics. Terrorism provokes retaliation, which can result in massacres on both sides. According to some estimates, the Irish Rebellion of 1798 had a death toll of about 50,000. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 resulted in 6000-11,000 British casualties and as many as 800,000 Indian, though the majority on both sides were victims of epidemics, heat, and famines. Even during the recent BLM riots, which were not suppressed by the military, at least 19 people died, and hundreds were injured. This is to say nothing of enormous property damage.

No system is without its flaws, and, granted, sometimes these flaws become unbearable. Yet rebellion should be the final, not the first, response to the government’s policies. Its appeal to the impatient idealism of youth is understandable, but it is not as pretty in real life as in the stories we tell. Fanatics usually lead the way, stopping at nothing to achieve their goals. At the same time, opportunists fan the flames, hoping to loot a corner shop or win a ministerial seat.

The conservative understanding of liberty is very different. It does not welcome government interference into personal matters. It abhors radical experiments and is based on the practices, laws, and traditions that already exist within a nation—those tested by time and found acceptable. Necessary changes are to be introduced gradually and handled with care. This approach may not be as straightforward and romantic as waving flags on the barricades and definitely looks less inspiring on the screen. But it is a safeguard against mistakes that cost lives and livelihoods.

We can still enjoy romantic art and learn independence through personal resistance. There is nothing wrong with testing one’s ideas and resilience, and it is indeed very commendable to live according to one’s principles regardless of society’s opinions, as long as one does not do others any harm. However, every reaction should be proportional; not every protest has valid motives, and very few rebellions do. This is the truth we should teach our children before they are exposed to the illusion.

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.

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