Friday, July 4, 2014
As is their tradition, NPR today, July 4th, played the Declaration of Independence in it's entirety read by Americans of all backgrounds. Usually I listen to the first stirring sentences and then my attention trails off. But his year I listened to the whole thing carefully. I listened because the word "revolution" crops up more and more these days. Not necessarily a revolution of the violent kind. Often it's used in the context of social revolution or a revolution of the heart, but I think it's mostly used out of frustration, "We need a revolution", because so many Americans are upset with the current situation. It doesn't make any difference whether you're right or left, or whether you blame government or corporations (or if you understand that it's really both), whether you think there's too much regulation or not enough, the fact is that inequality is increasing, the rich are getting richer and the middle class is declining and social mobility is rapidly becoming an American myth. People feel the effects and get angry, but don't really know who to blame. Immigrants? President Obama? Republicans who won't compromise? The Supreme Court? But in fact what's taking place is a social process which involves a huge complicated system, really too big for most people to wrap their heads around. So for both left and right it's sometimes a great stress reliever to contemplate throwing everything out and just starting over.
In this context it's good to start thinking about revolutions and how they generally go. People point to the American revolution as an example of a courageous people with much sacrifice overthrowing the yoke of oppression and ending up with something not half bad. The states stayed together and whatever you think about our leaders we mostly have maintained a rule of law. The founders were not all motivated by high ideals, but they did craft a system aimed at preventing the worst abuses they witnessed in 18th century Europe.
But mostly revolutions haven't gone that way. Kudos to France for, after terrible bloodshed and several permutations of despots, ending up with a government that has a lot of things about it we might imitate. The English don't seem to do revolution very seriously, instead politely and quietly confining their despots to gilded cages. Poor Russia---no matter what kind of system they try they can't seem to escape the tyrannical oligarchy, which just seems to come back with new titles. Cuba lucked out to a certain extent in that their new leaders didn't end up looting the country as many do, and due to the plucky nature of the Cubans themselves, have managed to survive all manner of deprivations caused by U.S. sanctions. We had a lot of hopes for the Arab Spring, but now take it as a cautionary tale. If it seems too easy, it probably is. And you might start asking which of the various powerful forces in the background are really pulling the strings. And if it's not easy, you might want to think about the loss of life to millions, the creation of refugees, the breakdown of social order that opens the door to untold demons waiting in the wings for chance to grab power in the midst of disorder. The jury is still out for some of the Arab Spring uprisings. Possibly because many Tunisians speak French as well as Arabic, they will end up following the path of their linguistic compatriots. Maybe because French is the language of lovers.
So why did things go relatively well for us? I'm not a historian, but it seems to me that what should be properly called "The War for Independence" was not really an "American Revolution". It's clear from the list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence that the colonies had functioning governments. One of their biggest gripes was that the British Crown kept erratically and brutally interfering with that government, with no recourse on the part of the colonies, and was asking them to pay taxes for the benefit of this meddling. So we weren't tossing out anything. We were just asking to separate ourselves from somebody else's government.
This is really different from overthrowing the government you have in place. When you do that you create a power vacuum, like the U.S. did in Iraq. The results of this are not usually good. In the midst of social disorder, people do not meet in the town square and make rational and just rules for how to run society. They worry about not getting killed, how to get basic necessities like food, water and electricity. Mostly they panic. Things that were working before even if unfairly grind to a halt. I believe most people are good people, but disorder is a paradise for all manner of bad people who will try to capitalize on it. Often it will be the people with the biggest weapons. We're not talking guns here. We're talking tanks, rocket launchers, bombs.
So if things are really bad, should we just lay down and take it? Hell no. But here's a saying:
When you want to take down an old supporting wall, first you build the new wall.
Then you take down the old wall.
I don't know how much time we have, but we really need to get busy building the new wall. I'll leave it to you to think about ways we can do that.------Diane Peel