Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Celebrating Revolution

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

All the best holidays are in the summer, no family smarminess or religious hypocrisy, just celebrations of revolution, revolution, revolution. From an insurrection at the Stonewall Inn to the Bastille prison where an angry mob jump-started the French Revolution by liberating the king's prisoners, all seven of them.

They also lay the groundwork for ages of tourism. A couple days later, when the previously established National Assembly ordered the Bastille burnt down and ripped apart, a few enterprising souls like Pierre-Francois Palloy kept some of the stones, carved miniature Bastille prisons, and later gave them away (or sold them) for souvenirs. George Washington apparently got one. And there are a couple in the Musee Carnavalet, the museum of the city.

That may be the real lesson of revolution. How short a trip it is from a symbol of liberation to life as a geegaw at somebody's souvenir stand. Independence, likewise, isn't as inevitable as it seems standing with a hot dog in one hand and a beer in the other. Have you read the Declaration of Independence lately? It's a miracle that the document worked at all, getting people to risk their lives, uniting them enough to stick together afterwards.

That's quite an accomplishment for a mere 1300 words, practically a telegram, considering it gave birth to a nation. There's some poetry there, and lofty sentiment, but it's no revolutionary tract. They declare the need to "dissolve political bands" not kick British butt. They even worried what the neighbors would think, giving for the historical record a modest list of complaints against the king that had forced the colonies to seek independence. The writers actually transitioned from their grievances to the ending with the logical, but reluctant, "we therefore..." War seemed as rhetorically and morally inevitable as did their success.

Maybe that was the idea. To seem reasonable above all. To force destiny and Providence to join their team. They needed all the help they could get. Revolutions don't often bear the fruit of democracy or freedom, not right away. In France they declared the Rights of Man, grass grew over the Bastille, but still their efforts collapsed under the weight of internal battles and bloodbaths, and external pressures from their troublesome British and Prussian neighbors eying the carnage. The church clung to power long after the monarchy, and the bourgeoisie did their utmost to replace the nobility.

One revolution wasn't enough. Like most places, France moved towards democracy with false starts and hiccups. Spain was even worse. I pity the schoolchildren that have to memorize that revolving door of republics, monarchies, republics until the Franco got his hooks in. Ditto for many Latin American nations where independence led often as not to dictatorships of father figures and "providential" leaders.

Despite their carefully stated goals laid out like accounting principles, and their brand new Constitution, the United States could have taken the same road. Plenty of constitutions have been used as toilet paper. In fact, that's the fate of most, and George Washington was a popular man. He was a revolutionary general, a freedom fighter like Robert Mugabe or Fidel Castro. Why not be president for life? Why not be king? Whispered offers were made and pledges of support by people that were afraid of the hoi polloi and the instability of a changing presidency.

With another man it might have worked. There may have been a few comfortable years, but dissatisfaction and abuses would have followed, and the reign of George I would have dissolved into violence. Like most places, civil war would have been the rule rather than the exception in our mostly peaceful national history. It was a matter of luck Washington's ambitions were limited to the cherry blossoms of Mount Vernon, or whatever he had there. He deserved his souvenir Bastille.

The cakewalk of our democracy has shaped our national character for better and worse. Instead of being plagued with doubts and hesitations, we believe all we have to do is to declare something to make it come true. Bring democracy to Iraq, why not? Unite the country? I'm the man for you. We are a nation of magical thinkers. Though optimists are better than cynics if you want change, they can be arrogant and reckless. And lately we Americans have been playing with matches like children that have never been burned.

In fact, we've come close to reducing the house to ashes plenty of times. There was Jim Crow and Japanese internment camps, McCarthy and committees of Un-American activities. Maybe we'll even survive the War on Terror and Guantanamo. But we can't go on much longer. Despite its sheer longevity, American democracy can eventually be damaged beyond repair. Its seeming inevitability is an accident of history, a myth.

In this season, the moral, I guess, is to value revolution's gains and vigilantly protect them, without revering destruction itself. It's a fleeting joy, like breaking windows or burning cars or lighting firecrackers. It doesn't always lead to anything. Not change. Not freedom. Though sometimes, it's a start.

No comments: