The bully-boy often goes too far.
When I was a boy, there was a bully in school who with his jackals made all our lives a misery. They kept pushing until finally anyone not “cool” or who played in the band or who read books was getting slammed into the hallway lockers. It got more frequent.
Finally, many of us, the losers and nerds, grouped together (in the Pirates Club. . . I told you we were nerds) and made them quit. There were no fights, just an uprising against bullying that had gone far enough. We said: “We are together against you and we are more.” Or something like this in the words of a 1970s sixth grader…
The bullies pushed a bit too far, the worst of it, and that caused us to push back, the best of it. The bullying ended, at least at that school, in that way, at that time, because the worst thing they did was the best thing they did. They roused (our limited) sense of justice and so brought on the end of the rule of the bully-boy.
Tyrants, elites fat on usury and injustice, always go just a step too far. We look back and say: “How could they not see the end was coming?” They keep testing the folks, pushing harder, until the folks cannot take it anymore. The reaction is swift and the ruin massive. Slaver culture in the Southern states endured for hundreds of years until the enslaved, and allies, could not take the evil any more. They rose up in Haiti and claimed liberty against the masters.
The rulers, the elite of any age, must take care. If they practice injustice, rig the system, go too far, then they will end the bad parts of the system. In the United States, slavery was defeated because the worst demanded more than the best could stand. The best of the time, not so great really as none of us are, were stirred against the worst. This is a terrible way to make good change as sometimes the reaction, say in Russia in 1917, ends in a government worse than the one replaced. France got rid of an amiable monarch, who dimly wanted change, for a reign of terror and the tyrant Napoleon.
The blame should be laid mostly on the academics, the aristos, the elite, who knew that there were problems, but kept talking, talking, talking and ignoring the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved. They made fun of the amiable who might have done better and prodded, poked, and produced an explosion. Sometimes the worst is just bad.
The man who stands up to the slaver is never wrong. The woman who refuses to pick the cotton is not the problem. The freedman who votes for a free Kansas does not make Kansas bloody, that is the job of the Southern man who will not let that man be free. His worst brings out the best: a resistance to tyranny! The worst brings out the best, but history is not a linear ascent to God. We go backwards. We fail. We should not plan on the tyrants undermining themselves, because new tyrants can use the chaos to bring new tyranny.
History is complex: retreat and advance. God is in His Heaven and the long, long, long direction of history is toward justice, but no man in any particular time can know or see that justice for sure. We should never be sanguine in the toleration of tyranny hoping that our worst will bring out our best. Instead, best we know, each of us must stand for justice in our time. We should react to the bully-boy and bring liberty. We can hope that even in a bad time when laws strip the unborn of humanity and systems make men jump Jim Crow, that this worst will bring out our best.
So the poet suggests in an even darker time:
’Tis the Worst and the Best
“This bill is, at the same time, both the worst and the best bill ever acted upon by Congress.”
— Speech of Honorable Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, on the final passage of the Kansas and Nebraska bill.
By The Workshop Bard [Marietta, Ohio] Frederick Douglass’ Paper, August 25, 1854
’Tis the worst and best of the deeds ye have done,
And destiny’s angel the records shall trace
It shall tell that the race of the traitors is run,
And that freemen henceforth shall be found in their place.
From New Hampshire’s tall peaks, frowning darkly and dun,
To the valleys which sleep by the far Western Flood,
Shall be echoed the deeds of her recreant son,
Who hath bartered in shame what was purchased with blood.
Too long, like the ravenous vultures of war,
Have the traitors been fed,
while our rights have been sold;
Those rights, which, to freemen, were dearer by far
Than the gems of a crown in their settings of gold.
’Tis written! Aye written!
For lo! on the wall,
The pale finger of doom hath engraven it deep;
And a voice, which presages your ultimate fall,
Is awakened at last, and shall never more sleep.
It shall thrill through the land, like a wail from the dead,
And a voice shall reply from our forefather’s graves,
That “the soil where the blood of the martyrs was shed,
Shall be evermore free from the footfall of slaves.”
All hail to the Future!
Its promise is ours,
Though the storm and the tempest should herald its birth;
Ye shall look, but in vain, for a spirit that cowers;
Ye shall learn, for a truth, that there yet is a North!
“’Tis the worst, and the best;” for abroad through the land,
The pent fires of Freedom at last shall break forth;
And Liberty yet shall have whereon to stand,
Till she shatters the thrones of the tyrants of earth!
*Voices Beyond Bondage . NewSouth Books. Kindle Edition.
This poem is written of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which formed the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, respectively. Under the law, residents in each territory were to decide, by popular sovereignty, if slavery would be allowed therein. (See note in “Nebraska and Slavery” and “Southrons.”) The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Both pro- and anti-slavery advocates considered the Act a blow to their causes.