Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sundry Thoughts on Current Events, Revolution, History, and Humanity

As the crisis of North Africa continues, I find myself reflecting further on its various elements. The idea that Quaddafi might exit the stage has touched deep chords: I think he is the only loony dictator who is still around from the days of my childhood (I can't remember which Kim was ruling North Korea back then). My gosh, even Fidel Castro has retired! But the Q-man has been ranting and raving in funky attire for as long as I can remember following world news with any kind of consciousness (and I am old enough to remember Vietnam).

Now anyone who knows me or who has read this blog knows that I am not a fan of revolutions. On the whole, history has shown them to be at best ambivalent affairs that create as many problems as they solve. At worst, they lead to anarchy, bloodshed, and then the arbitrary establishment of despotism in the hands of anyone who has the power to restore order. If the United States seems like an exception to this, it is only because the "American Revolution" was not really a revolution. It was a War of Independence, which was--granted--influenced in part by a kind of revolutionary ideology (an ideology which has been detrimental to America in the measure in which it has penetrated America's national identity).

The War of Independence emerged from a previous process that had already taken place: the process of the maturation of an independent nation and people. It was the painful separation of what had become in fact two nations separated by 3000 miles of ocean. There was a structure of American self-governance already long in operation and an extraordinary group of statesmen in positions of leadership and ready to guide the process of fashioning appropriate institutions. Even with all that, it was a "close run thing," that could have degenerated into a mess (and that did leave enough ambivalence for a bloody and tragic Civil War several generations later). Anything that even resembles a revolution is dangerous business.

Standard revolutions are different. They overthrow existing governments (however bad they may be) without having any structure or public authority adequate to replace them. Hence they tend to fragment society. Aquinas said that even tyranny is preferable to anarchy. The tyrant at least provides a minimal level of social order, if for no other reason than that it is in his own corrupt interest. Anarchy does no one any good.

So far, Egypt and Tunisia have not fallen into anarchy. The global interconnection of institutions may account for the fact that the beginnings of these revolutions are peaceful and stable. If there is bloodshed in Lybia, it is on Quaddafi's hands. My fear, as I have stated it before, is that these countries have no political culture, and that the most compelling and organized groups that will emerge in the ensuing "transition to democracy" will be parties of Islamic law. As of now, these revolutions remain without significant leaders at all.

There is another side of this phenomenon that I want to consider now, however. It is the simple human fact of what has taken place in these days. For all that I have said about revolutions, they are difficult to avoid in situations where the human person is smothered socially, i.e. given no active participation in the building up of the common good. The disorganized explosion of mass rejection of thugocracy in Tunisia, Egypt, and Lybia did have something to do with that fundamental human desire to be "free"--by which I mean not "liberty to do whatever," but the human space that allows for personal and corporate agency in an active contribution to building society as a whole.

The human heart cannot be kept "in order" by force, and neither can human civil behavior be entirely governed by an external authority that takes no account of the participation of the persons who are governed. This was understood by classical political theorists in their conception of the "mixed regime," and in the understanding that law is a pedagogue and not only a constraint. What we continue to witness in North Africa is an elemental expression of the human hunger for the freedom to live as persons in an interpersonal community. It is elemental, fragile, easily manipulated, and may be taken in many directions. It is occurring in societies with ancient and dangerous traditions of oppression and dehumanization that may take advantage of the opportunity to reemerge.

But it is at its root a human movement. And there is some hope in that.