Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Making Sense of Revolutions

We are witnessing what may be the birth pangs of nascent democracy in the Middle East. Or, we may be witnessing something else entirely. A region which has long trailed the rest of the Western world in basic freedoms for its citizens is in the process of long-needed transition. What it will be and what form it will eventually take has yet to be established. This doesn't mean, of course, that we won't try to transpose our own understanding upon the scene that lies before us. Especially when we contemplate the unknown, we can fall so easily into dichotomies. When comparing two things simultaneously, it is easy to believe that everything must belong to one part or the other, or, failing that, nothing can belong simultaneously to both parts.
Egypt is not Libya, nor is Tunisia exactly like Egypt.

We watch Al Jazeera with rapt attention, looking for some greater meaning behind the images. The high passions, chants, and rioting often have no context to us. Seeing the world through Western eyes, we long for a metaphor, or a helpful parallel so that we might understand. And through it all, we see how our national, regional identity complicates our comprehension. Though we may now live in a global world, our vision has yet to be corrected. We would best be fitted for bifocals.

What I have observed in American discourse are fears that dictatorship will circumvent democracy and with it the peoples' prominent role in government. Seeking greater understanding for the sake of analysis, references have been made to France during its revolution. The French Revolution began in a moderate, even conservative phase, then quickly gave way to radical chaos, then to a slightly more moderate form. The Revolution was eventually dissolved by a coup d'état led by General Napoléon Bonaparte. Napoléon ruled as a dictator for the next fifteen years. But it must be noted again that this is one particular scenario, one that is not necessarily fated to reestablish itself.

Historians love a good narrative, because it makes their work easier. I say this as someone with a history degree and half of another. High intrigue is easy to dramatize. Easily understood delineations between factions and warring parties grab the attention of the audience in ways a mere listing of past events cannot. Thus, we are more likely to have an understanding of 18th Century France than of other revolutions. By contrast, that which is often termed the English Civil War was a convoluted affair. Taking place a century or so before that of France (or of America's), it contained multiple theaters. It was an asymmetric affair beholden to fits and starts. For example, Scottish concerns and battles were different than those of their English counterparts. The common thread linking all of these together was a singularly incompetent King, who is still, and likely to be the only sovereign that Great Britain ever beheaded.

And as for the American Revolution, we are taught in totality only of the its first few stirring years. These are meant to appeal to our sense of national pride. It's this degree of patriotism that empowers certain groups to latch hold to it and claim some sense of identity with its stated goals. But in reality, the American Revolution did not exist in New England alone, or take a lightning pace down to New York and then to Virginia. Battles also raged in the South, and it is in this region where the British had the most success. By the end, the Southern theater began to turn in the favor of the American colonists, but this wasn't before years of British dominance. Because of this, we don't often study that portion of the conflict in much detail. It doesn't exactly fit the profile.

Nature abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes. And when details are faint or imperceptible, ready made answers are dusted off and brought out. Until 11 September 2001, most people were either ignorant of Islam or the Middle East, or uninterested in knowing more. They believed it didn't have much relation to their own lives. Then after a horrific attack, suddenly it was important to understand, though most of what passed for "understanding" was jingoistic propaganda girded by fear and hatred. This should never be confused for knowledge. Now, nearly a full decade later, a reduction of our own history has been co-opted by those with an particularly close-minded agenda. These revisionists should not be given license to do this.

C. Vann Woodward wrote,

Every self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past: about its origins, its mission, its righteousness, its benevolence, and its general superiority. The conformist is not required nor expected to abandon his distinctive religion. But whether he remains a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew, his religion typically becomes subordinate or secondary to a national faith.

It is this national religion that encourages short-sighted attitudes. Politicians know better than to remove flag lapel pins or to criticize the scriptural passages of the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution. But the irony I have seen personally would be amusing, were it not so tragic. I have observed people arguing over the meaning of these sacred documents who have never actually read it for themselves. Imagine two people bickering about an interpretation of a biblical passage when neither of them have so much as opened the Book in years!

To me, nothing summarizes the current State of the Union more than this.

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