Our American Revolution was successful, and therefore it seems like revolutions should work. Yet most don’t.
Most revolutions deal with people with a grudge taking up arms against a regime they dislike. After that strongman is gone, usually an almost okay guy takes over, then a real whack job shows up and clamps down. Why were we successful when most revolutions aren’t?
We had 150 years of effective self-government under our belts before we told King George III to stuff it. The first two Georges didn’t even speak English — they were Germans, living in Germany. We couldn’t call and say, hey, what about a bridge across the Rappahannock? So we figured it out ourselves. Sure, we had British Colonial Governors, but they LIVED here. They breathed our air.
Secondly, ours began because we weren’t getting our proper rights as Englishmen. And in the Declaration of Independence, we enumerated our gripes and what we had done about them. Then the wealthiest man in Boston, John Hancock, signed his signature EXTRA LARGE so Geo III would know exactly who he was dealing with.
Third, by the time of the revolution, Harvard was nearly 140 years old: it was founded in 1636; we revolted in 1776. The revolution was led by the intelligentsia and the wealthy, not by goons with a grudge. In the Congolese revolution in 1960, it’s my understanding there were six native Congolese college graduates.
Fourth, we fought with a huge home field advantage. The war had to come to us, and in 1776 it was no easy matter. When our government faltered after the revolution, we changed from the Articles of Confederation to a Constitution. We separated church and state, probably the single most important leap of government since the invention of voting.
Look at other revolutions and compare how they fared. The French followed us in 1789. They were desperately poor: according to Lady Antonio Frasier, the biographer of Marie Antoinette, forty-seven percent of GDP went for maintenance of the monarchy and debt service. The average person had to work a week for a large loaf of bread. In other words, they needed a revolution. But what did they get? They got mass murder of the royal and semi-royal classes, followed by a strongman named Napoleon Bonaparte. He swiftly crowned himself Emperor, rained down war all over Europe until he screwed up and invaded Russia in the winter. What a MO-RON.
Look at the Russian Revolution. The peasants rose up because of grinding poverty, killed the Czar and his family, even down to the family dog, a King Charles Spaniel named Jemmy. Kerensky tried to hold things together, but Lenin snatched the reins and did not let go. It took almost a century to have communism collapse in on itself. Lenin and Stalin killed millions who opposed them.
After World War I, Germany was in shambles and saddled with reparations that were stupidly excessive. They were vulnerable to a bad, vegetarian artist who promised Germany her pride back. He became the Fuhrer who killed probably seven million Jews, communists, homosexuals, mentally handicapped, gypsies, priests and whoever else he pleased. As a thief, he was peerless, he looted an enormous amount of items of value, down to and including the gold in the teeth of the people he murdered.
So, as you look at the events of the Arab Spring, remember that the first face you see after the deposition of a strongman, may or may not be there very long. Also, while everyone hopes that democracy will flourish, it’s doubtful that it will. “A man’s reach exceeds his grasp, or what’s a Heaven for?” Or so said the Scottish poet Robert Browning. The gains in various countries may fall short. Today’s strongman may have his picture in the paper — but in three days may be just so much fish-wrapping.
As you look at the Middle East, remember the odds are against stable governments following revolutions. We must deal with duly elected leaders and encourage them to put the needs of their people ahead of their own desires. We must encourage them to do nation-building: educating girls and boys rigorously, not just in the Qu’ran, but also in math, and science. They have to do the nation-building. If we send aid, please let’s follow up to make sure it doesn’t end up in someone’s Swiss bank account. The last thing this country can afford is to support another dictator — as he steals from the people under his thumb.