“Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.” – Woody Allen

For a few years there – as George Bush “won” a pair of shady elections and then repeatedly defied the Constitution, the will of the people and any decent measure of common sense – Americans disenchanted or disgusted by his reign could be forgiven for wondering if some sort of coup might be required to remove the Republicans from power. Such a measure seemed unlikely, of course, and not just because violent overthrow is about as un-American as, say, torture. It’s worth noting that, in order to stage a coup, a large number of us would have needed to get our asses up off the sofa and take to the streets! Instead, we spent seven years watching dejectedly, furiously – but, for the most part, passively – as Bush and his minions screwed up every single thing they touched.

Election nightIn the end, however, electing Barack Obama and ending the Bush era didn’t require violence, or even civil disobedience. All it required was the force of our better ideas, the inspiration of a great young leader – and the resolve to stand steadfast against a stream of vitriol from politicians (and their dwindling core of followers) who couldn’t believe their house of malfeasance and misanthropy was at long last crumbling around them. American democracy finally proved capable of withstanding even Bush and the modern GOP – assuming, that is, that Bush and Dick Cheney actually vacate their residences on January 20.

We did stand with Obama this fall, and we did it in huge numbers. It’s been a big year for big crowds – big, peaceful crowds, fortunately. Since the beginning of this election cycle we’ve all marveled at the turnouts for Obama’s rallies, from 15,000 freezing souls at his announcement speech in February ’07 to a convention crowd of 90,000 in Denver, 100,000 in St. Louis, 200,000 in Berlin, and 250,000 in Chicago for his victory speech. Guesstimates of the turnout for his inauguration are already off the charts; officials are preparing for an onslaught of up to 4 million celebrants on the National Mall.

BerlinOf course, Obama’s big crowds were never a perfect measure of his qualities as a candidate. They certainly did bear witness to his charisma, and his strength as an orator. More than that, though, I believe they were a testament to Americans’ pent-up desire to express ourselves politically, to participate in the act of changing this country, simply by virtue of Showing Up. It was a spirit of urgency and, yes, patriotism that also led millions of us to click a button on the Internet and send Obama another $10 or $100 every couple of months, and led many thousands to volunteer in campaign offices, on the phone and around our neighborhoods.

I’ve been thinking about those crowds a lot lately – and not just because I’ve been weighing the question of whether or not to fly cross-country and join the revelers on the Mall. (I’m currently leaning against it, though if Clooney or Spielberg has a couple seats open on the Gulfstream I’m willing to rethink.) The real impetus has been my recent viewing of a wonderful documentary, The Singing Revolution, that is being readied for DVD release in early 2009. It recalls the people of Estonia’s inspiring efforts to keep their culture alive through decades of Soviet occupation and even genocide, and shows how they finally gained their independence without spilling a drop of blood – by expressing their national pride through song, and by simply Showing Up in large numbers, unarmed, to assert their right to freedom.

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As a tiny nation with strategic access to the Baltic Sea, Estonia has struggled to maintain its unique culture through 800 years of invasions and occupations by Germans, Swedes, Danes, Poles and Russians; only twice during that entire period – between the World Wars, and since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 – has Estonia actually attained self-rule. The directors of The Singing Revolution, James and Maureen Tusty, use archival footage to explore the enduring political power of Estonia’s Laulupidu, or mass song festivals, which for 140 years have preserved long-threatened traditions by bringing hundreds of thousands of Estonians together for days of folk singing and cultural celebration.

A 1988 rally in EstoniaWhen the Soviets lowered the Iron Curtain following World War II, they brutally imposed Communism upon Estonia, collectivizing agriculture and industry and forcibly indoctrinating the citizenry with Russo-centric culture and pageantry. But Estonians continued to gather in the capital city of Tallinn for the song festivals – and as early as 1947 they snuck a nationalist anthem into the Laulupidu program amongst the Soviet dreck. In 1969 they closed a festival by singing the song repeatedly, in open defiance of Soviet orders to stop. By 1988, Estonians were taking advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies to push the envelope of patriotic expression through music, even dragging long-banned Estonian flags from their attics for the first time in five decades.

Eventually this “Singing Revolution” morphed into an actual independence movement, with the formation of political parties and escalating provocations of the Moscow government. Events came to a boil in 1991, during the military coup that ousted Gorbachev, as Russian tanks and soldiers descended upon Tallinn to quell the movement. The flashpoint of the incursion was a radio/TV tower, where tens of thousands of unarmed Estonian civilians gathered in minutes to face down a Russian brigade until, back in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin had dissolved the Soviet Union and the coup had collapsed.

To an American glowing with pride over the events of 2008, The Singing Revolution plays quite differently than it might have a couple years ago. I certainly wouldn’t want to stretch a comparison of Bush’s government with the Soviets past its point of malleability. What I’m referring to is the impulse of a people to get on their feet and challenge the status quo, to create change (at least in part) via the sheer force of their presence and their willingness to work for it. The Estonians, at least, had a long history of coming together to perpetuate their shared culture and values. Hopefully, now that millions of Americans have finally risen to our feet, we’ll stay upright and play an active role in accomplishing the vast work that remains.

The Singing Revolution offers many lessons – not least of which is an admonition to those who are currently on their feet in California, to keep their protests positive and nonviolent. Gays in my home state have every reason to be disappointed in their fellow citizens who voted to take away their existing right to marry, and furious with the individuals and groups (religious and otherwise) who funded the campaign of lies that helped Prop 8 pass. However, too many of the actions and words at their post-Election Day protests have aimed to punish and insult, not to change hearts and minds. Supporters of gay marriage – gay and straight alike – need to put our anger aside, at least in public, and begin showing our fellow Californians all the love and humanity they have chosen narrowly to reject.

A post-election Prop 8 protestThe arts – and music in particular – offer a powerful forum for doing just that. As California moves toward its inevitable next vote on gay marriage, it’s not difficult to imagine rallies that center on the singing of love songs – universal songs that reflect the yearning of all (well, most) people, and not just heterosexual ones, to connect with one another and find mates to share our lives. A massive rally of gays and straights, standing together and singing “Chapel of Love” at the top of our lungs – it just might work! Heaven knows we could change the hearts of 3 percent of the populace, and overturn a 52-48 margin…

Now that would be one revolution worth showing up for.

Pre-order The Singing Revolution DVD at Amazon.