Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Tale of Two Revolutions

At this time of year, it's always good to reflect on the real significance of the American Revolution – and to compare it, as much as possible, with other revolutions – first and foremost that of France. As I sit on my back-porch vantage point and view the horizon bejeweled with fireworks, of both the professional kind and the back-yard variety, I have to ask – precisely what are these people celebrating? I mean, OK, some people just like to set things off that make loud noises and bright lights; that's perfectly fine. But there is an air of, let's say, a kind of patriotism about the whole thing. It's a celebration of... what? Of America, of the American identity... of the freedoms that we once claimed as our just due as human beings because they were God-given... even as we sink slowly into the quicksand of socialism, authoritarianism, political correctness, and moral numbness. So in a sense it's all about nostalgia, and very little about the realities of our time. But there is, nonetheless, an American consciousness, which persists even though we are, historically and currently as well, a nation of immigrants, exiles, and rootless wanderers. (In a more optimistic time the term would have been “pioneers”.) Much of what we seem to be celebrating is exactly that – the fact that “at least we're not Europeans” -- you know, that cynical, jaded, decadent race that we gladly left behind when we traveled to these shores. We're not tied down to Old World ways, hang-ups, prejudices, traditions, customs, superstitions, etc.; we are, in a sense, a “clean slate” -- and this is considered a good thing, even though it constitutes a cultural and psychological starvation diet.

And for a while after our own revolution, we exulted in the idea that we were a chosen nation, a shining city on the hill, an exemplar for the benighted of this world. We embraced concepts like Manifest Destiny in order to justify running roughshod over “native Americans”, and allowed ourselves, for a time, to take advantage of slavery. We took the Industrial Revolution out of the hands of the British and turned it into an article of faith called “progress”... and that has evolved from the hard, smoky, noisy industries of yesteryear into what is called “technology” -- but it is, again, the alleged answer to all the world's woes. “If only” the benighted, superstitious peoples of the “Third World” could get their act together and embrace technology, we would all be better off. But then when places like India and China start to do just that, we complain about “piracy”, “balance of trade”, and “losing ground”. And likewise, when we spread the blessings of “democracy”, through propaganda and the sword, and then complain when people actually start voting and elect all the “wrong” people to office... well, it starts to call into question the sincerity of our principles.

Some have commented that all wars are, ultimately, religious wars, and all revolutions are ultimately religious in nature. And there is plenty of evidence to support this, although it is obviously not true in every case. Our own revolution was a revolt against monarchy, but in the religious sense it was, by and large, Anglicans on our side of the Atlantic fighting Anglicans on the other side. (I'm talking about who was really in charge – and I could offer a footnote that the Episcopal Church is still the power center in the state of Virginia, despite being outnumbered by Evangelicals.) The English, for their part, have been engaged in a struggle, ever since the Reformation, between the Church of England and the “nonconformists”, AKA “everybody else” -- and we, being much more tolerant (ahem), have been engaged in a struggle between Protestants and “others”, AKA Catholics. But it's true that, despite our claimed heritage of “the rule of law” -- an inheritance from Britain -- we have, from the outset, claimed an antipathy toward anything even remotely resembling “royalty” (even though the Kennedys – Catholics, no less! -- were, for many years, popularly described as “America's royal family”). So yes, there is that residual ambivalence which, I think, serves as a perennial stumbling block when it comes to seeking true democracy. There is always a feeling that the educated elite ought to be in charge, because they're smarter and they “know better”... and that they don't suffer from the lower, carnal, animalistic urges and impulses of the unwashed. But then we have the populist impulse, which bubbles up on a regular basis when the elites start to abuse their power and position – as witness the “tea party” movement. It is this “dynamic tension”, I guess, that makes America what it is – a battleground for a perpetual struggle between elites and common people, a battle which the elites always win, but which involves some sort of compromise with the masses. That is, our elites never come right out and say “Let them eat cake” -- although their actions constitute pretty much the same thing. And our common people never wheel the elites to the guillotine in a tumbrel, although they certainly dream of doing just that from time to time.

The French Revolution, on the other hand, was a much more direct and obvious rebellion against monarchy and all of its pretenses and abuses. Right? Well... consider that the French, before the bodies that fell during the Reign of Terror were even cold, crowned an emperor – not even a king, but an emperor! And it took them 80 years from their own revolution to finally settle down and establish a republic, which is better described as “government by committee”. So their revolution was really not a revolt against monarchy at all. But it was certainly a revolt against the Catholic Church, as it continues to be to this day in a less virulent form.

Likewise, the Russian Revolution, which was ostensibly a revolt against monarchy, bestowed upon the long-suffering Russians two dictators in succession – Lenin and Stalin – who lived in the same palaces and ate off the same gold plates, only to be followed, 36 years later, by, again, government by committee. But it was most assuredly a revolt against the Christian church, this time the Russian Orthodox (and Catholic as well, if you include Ukraine), and that revolt lasted through the Soviet era. (In Russia today, one can see the last royal family of Russia – the ill-fated Romanovs – represented as icons in Orthodox cathedrals.) So what was the main impulse of the Russian revolution, anti-monarchy or anti-church, and I'm going to say anti-church.

And then we have China, which actually had two revolutions, one against a decadent monarchy and another against, basically, colonialism. But can anyone claim that Chairman Mao was significantly different from an emperor of old? He lived in the Forbidden City, reclining on silk cushions, surrounded by a thousand concubines, and had life-and-death power over every one of his subjects. A better definition of “emperor” can hardly be found. But religion – whether Christian, Buddhist, Moslem, or anything else, was ruthlessly suppressed throughout his reign.

And then – out of many other possible examples – we have Spain, and their civil war was, basically, a war between the God-fearing and the communists. Mexico – same story. Portugal – same story. Vietnam – similar. And so on. So a good case can, indeed, be made that most, if not all, of the revolutions of the 20th Century, and a good many prior to that, were, in fact, more concerned with eliminating the power of the Church, or of religion in general, than with eliminating monarchy or its substitutes.

But let's get back to the American and French revolutions for a moment – very close in time, and certainly the French were inspired by our success. But the results were quite different. They reverted to monarchy in no time, whereas we established an “imperial presidency” that was, nonetheless, subject to the vote of the common people every four years. Theirs was a revolt against monarchy and the Church, and ours was a revolt against a distant monarchy but not really the Church, because that was already an accomplished fact thanks to the English Reformation. (A revolt against the Reformation would have made this a Catholic country, and surely we couldn't have that!) But nonetheless, there were common elements, of which the foremost was the triumph – or tyranny – of “ideas”. We have been an ideational nation, and culture, since the beginning, and those ideas have, arguably, saved us from the worst abuses of governments in the Old World, but they have also made us vulnerable to political impulses, rumors, delusions, and just plain hysteria. If there are differences, they are not in the ideas per se but their application. The French, prior to the revolution, had a “brain trust” of sorts, consisting what we would call “eggheads”, who had never done an honest day's work in their life – not unlike many of our academicians and media types. The ideas they came up were, by and large, abstractions... and they remained abstract, because they weren't grounded in reality on any level. Our own Founding Fathers, on the other hand, were, by and large, gentleman farmers, and had at least that much going for them – that they were familiar with nature and with natural processes and cycles, and realized that even the best and most noble-seeming ideas have to be modified with ample doses of everyday reality and common sense. So the ideas they came up with had at least a tinge of humility about them, unlike those of the French which were unbounded in their hubris. To give an only semi-political example, we never made the mistake of trying to change the calendar... and, more recently, we resisted the temptation to go over entirely to the metric system (originated by guess who).

And it's not as if lowly and irrational urges – the down side of an ideational society -- have been confined to the underclass -- the proletariat. We have had presidents who have succumbed to the same things... or, even worse in a way, ones that have exploited those urges in the populace while remaining cynically aloof. France, at least, has the merit of having discarded or ignored most of the ideas that energized their revolution, even if they do crop up again from time to time, mostly in the form of nostalgia. But we soldier on, doggedly, mouthing the same words generation after generation, even as those words come less and less to correspond to reality. And this, I suppose, is why no one in our time can accuse the French of hypocrisy; they have long since succumbed to the same decadent, cynical mind set that afflicts the rest of Europe. And this may be because they took those ideas too far, too soon. What was the Reign of Terror, after all, but a Reign of Ideas, which – right or wrong, it mattered not – led directly to the guillotine? You see, it is one thing to have an idea, and another thing to turn it into instant dogma, which must be observed to the very letter under pain of death. The French Revolution showed the way to communism, fascism, and Nazism in this sense. We have at least allowed for the possibility that tolerance is more important than ideas. In other words, setting an example is preferable than pointing a gun at someone. And we have, in fact, retained some of this attitude, even in the face of, as I said above, socialism, authoritarianism, and political correctness. We avoided, by and large, the temptation to “enforce” ideas – which is a contradiction in terms anyway. Any idea worth considering, or implementing, should be able to stand on its own without the threat of violence. Otherwise, it deserves to be discarded. Our failing is not so much about domestic intolerance (although there has been plenty of that, heaven knows) but in intolerance when we survey the rest of the world. In that case, we have a template that we are satisfied with, and we can't see any reason under the sun why others should not be equally satisfied with it. So what totalitarian regimes did, or attempted to do, within the confines of their own borders, we are doing, or attempting to do, on an international, foreign-policy basis. So we become, at times, as much of a monster as far as the rest of the world is concerned as the governments of France, Russia, Germany, China, Spain, etc. became to their own people.

Now, some would say, well, isn't that better? Isn't that an improvement, after all? We've had only one civil war in all this time... no mass executions, no gulags, no concentration camps (although some Japanese-Americans might argue). Well, yes – but, again, as a matter of principle we ought to question the notion that our ideas, no matter how well they seemed to work for us (in the past, at least), are equally applicable to everyone, and that we have to prove it through force of arms. I mean, think about... well, about blood transfusions, for example. (Stick with me here, OK?) They only work if the “donor” and the “receiver” are of certain blood types; otherwise one man's blood is another man's poison. But that isn't even the whole point. The other point is that the means by which we “transfuse”, or attempt to transfuse, democracy may in itself constitute the poison. Can anyone seriously imagine, for instance, that the example we're setting in Iraq and Afghanistan is going to inspire anyone in those countries to start doing things our way? In those cases, the transfusion winds up being more like an inoculation – they will do anything to avoid becoming like we are. And, at the risk of sounding like just another egghead mouthing words about Marshall McCluhan, I have to point out that, when it comes to foreign policy, the medium really is the message. It doesn't matter, at all, how sound our ideas are, or how well they work for us, when we “deliver” them by means of bombs, missiles, “drones”, bullets, assassinations, and CIA intrigues. That sort of ham-handed, bullying technique is a sure-fire guarantee against success – and one wonders, after all, how serious our leaders really are about “spreading democracy”. Maybe the whole thing is a ploy – a fake – a fraud. I mean, you take Hillary Clinton, who co-ruled Arkansas as a private fiefdom, and attempted to do the same with the country... and now all she talks about is what a good thing American-style democracy is, and how nice it would be if the rest of the world embraced it with open arms. Please. Anyone with half a brain can tell that's a total scam.

And this, I guess, is the reductio ad absurdum of the American experiment – the fact that it worked here for a while, and has now fallen on very hard times, yet we see nothing wrong with trying to export it to the rest of the world. Almost better to be like the French, who had their fun, then woke up with a huge hangover and vowed “never again” when it came to ideas. And here they are, co-ruling the EU with Germany, while we wallow in debt and are struggling to defeat a bunch of goatherds in the Middle East.

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