Friday, July 19, 2013

Ya Say Ya Want a Revolution?

Today's post (the first one as Ex-Prof!) is all about revolutions and how they're usually democratic, except when they aren't.  But first, let's define our terms: a revolution in this sense is an overthrow of the existing political power structure in favor of a different power structure.  This means that I don't mean "revolution" in the same sense as "Industrial Revolution" or that giant of professional sports, the New England Revolution soccer team (sorry if I offend both of their fans). The reason I'm interested in revolutions today is because I was listening to a couple of talking-heads on NPR Radio (NPR: No People-listening-to-this Radio-show), complaining about the ongoing revolution in Egypt.  Specifically, there was much hand-wringing over the fact that the Egyptian military and 97.33% of the Egyptian people were sick of the Muslim Brotherhood D-baggers they had elected (just after they had thrown out their last dictator), so sick of them that the Egyptian people had told the army to arrest the president, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and some guy named Hakim who was just hanging around Tahrir Square trying to sell t-shirts that said, "Come See the New Egypt: No More Pharaohs Around Here!"
"Don't worry, Hakim -Egypt has democracy now!"
You see, Talking Head #1 was sad that a democratically elected government had been overthrown by the army; and Talking Head #2 was angry that anybody was feeling sorry for the Muslim Brotherhood, who were a bunch Taliband-wannabees that wanted to impose strict Islamic Sharia law on an otherwise secular society, so good riddance to bad rubbish.  That got me to thinking: just what is a revolution in the first place? --are revolutions compatible with democracy? --are all revolutions, to some degree or other, democratic?  But most importantly: what designer-wear looks are today's hottest revolutionaries sporting this year?
I am so totally for whichever rebels she's with

In the beginning (shortly after Pangea broke apart), rebels and rebellions didn't usually fare too well.  They were generally ordinary farmers who were sick and tired of putting up with whatever brand of authoritarian rule was being dished-out, armed with a few tricked-out farm tools, and going up against some ancient king's armed and trained soldiers.  And the results were predictable: defeated, enslaved peoples, flayed human skins, piles of skulls --the whole horrible scene.

The first successful revolt recorded by history was in about 2380 BCE (Before Calcium Emulsified) when the Sumerians of Lagash got rid of King Lugalanda and installed King Urukagina in his place.  Turns out that the big U was quite the reformer.  However, the Lagashians were still stuck with a king at the end of the day (democracy, communism and buggerocracy hadn't been invented yet), so how much of a revolution was it?

However, it's important that the people of Lagash --and not a rival city-state --were at the heart of the regime change, thus making the first successful revolution a popular one, if not a democratic one.  Between 2380 and 508 BCE (Because Cats are Excellent!), there were a few coups and military takeovers, but not a whole lot of popular involvement until the people of Athens, Greece took up arms against tyranny --and won!

I am so effing-smart --and aristocratic.
It seems that a real tyrant, Peisistratus, started out ruling Athens in the name of the people, but let the power go his head and turned into a colossal dick-weed.  There was nothing left for it but take it to the streets and hunt down Peisistratus and his supporters.  After the bloodletting and pottery-smashing stopped, the Athenians all took a collective deep breath, had a slug of wine and a few olives, and turned the whole problem of what to do after a successful revolution over to the smartest man they could find, an aristocrat named Cleisthenes.

What Mr. C. managed was a complete restructuring of Athenian society.  You see, before Cleisthenes there was another reformer named Solon (reputably smarter than Cleisthenes) who prevented a revolution by organizing society around the lines of a military unit.  At the top were the chiefs.  Anybody could be a chief, as long as their annual income was worth 500 bushels of wheat or more (Athenians liked wheat so much that they often used it as a currency.  Poly want a cracker?)  Next came the equestrian class, anyone whose annual income was 250-499 bushels of wheat.  This was supposedly enough bread --err, cash to keep a cavalry horse and rider in the field.  Next came the thetes, which is Greek for everybody else.  When not at war, this society actually got together and voted on civil questions, such as how much should we pay the Athenian dung-haulers (this was way before septic systems) or what to do with the colonies of feral cats infesting the local temples (the Ancient Greeks were not acquainted with Chinese cuisine).  Great system, right?
What's wrong with rule by Mafia?
It works for me...

The problem was that the people voted in tribes --that is, they all voted in political units dominated by a powerful extended family and its allies.  This meant that the most powerful families --there were 6 of them --could control the government of Athens and ride roughshod over everyone else.  Think of living in a state controlled by 6 Mafia families and you'll get the picture.

Enter Cleisthenes.  The thetes of Athens were on a total rampage, destroying shops, homes and killing aristocrats.  If he couldn't stop the civil unrest, Athens would become a wrecked slaughterhouse.  What he did was simple on the one hand, yet brilliant on the other: he changed the system of voting from tribes to locations (Acropolis, Agora, Harbor, Plains, Outskirts, etc.)  This broke the power of the ruling families and allowed Solon's reforms to function as a true direct democracy.  Add to it a popular assembly of all citizens (adult, male, non-slave, bisexual) and a jury of 501 citizens, and you've got the world's very first democracy.  Hooray for Athens!

Vive l'Revolution! uhmm, coup d'etat!
Whatever, vive me!
But now we must deal with with the fine distinction of just what makes a democratic, or at least popular revolution and what is just a mere coup d'etat, which is French for "Affair of State" (leave it to the French to be having affairs during political uprisings, those horny little frogs!)  With a coup d'etat, you're really just changing one ruling faction for another.  For example, when Napoleon Bonaparte got rid of France's government of the Directory and installed himself as First Consul for Life, he was merely showing the Directors the door and snagging himself some nice new office space --as well as assuming the rule of the entire country of France.  A revolution must be more: more people, more change, more time spent doing it, and more suffering for everybody involved.  This is what makes revolutions popular, and that is why so many of at least the modern ones have been democratic.

With me so far? Good; now let's turn our attention to a revolution we all know and love, the American Revolution.  My favorite Bay Stater from history, John Adams, was quoted as saying that "[the] American Revolution was accomplished long before the first drop of blood was spilled at Lexington and Concord --and that was the revolution in the hearts and minds of the American people."  By this, Adams meant that before any shooting started, the King's subjects in the part of British North America that wouldn't later go on to dominate the sport of ice hockey had gotten it into their heads that they were somehow different from your average run-of-the-mill Englishman from England.  They were, in fact, thinking of themselves as American Englishmen (to distinguish themselves from native Americans [called Indians then], African Americans [called slaves or Negros then], or Franco Americans [called miserable dirty rotten French bastards then]).

There's no friggin' way we can lose this one!
-oops, we did.  My bad.
However, Adams wrote this a few years after the successful conclusion of the American Revolution when he and everybody else in short pants, knee socks and a whig was feeling overly optimistic.  During the revolution, he wrote that the people of America could be roughly divided into thirds: one-third that was for independence, one-third that was loyal to the British Empire, and one-third that was working so friggin' hard to put a beer and a burger on the dinner table every day that they couldn't care less who ran the country --just as long as it wasn't anybody who was Catholic.  And this is where most people totally miss the whole point of the American Revolution: it was not ever, in any sense of the term, a sure-thing.  In fact, it's the best proof I can think of that God does exist and does care about what goes on around here, because by all rights, we should have lost our war for independence on at least 5 occasions: Bunker Hill, the Evacuation of New York City, the Occupation of Philadelphia, Valley Forge and the Treason of Benedict Arnold.  Each of these five pivotal points will be the subject of a subsequent blog post (good news for you Revolutionary War junkies out there!)  But it's a curious event at the end of the war, when the Continental Army was in winter quarters around Newburgh, New York, that I want to examine, because if things had gone the other way, we might have found ourselves facing the same situation the Egyptians are facing today.

"And we're all just going to stand at attention in the snow until whomever
threw that flaming bag of poop at Congress steps forward!"
The scene: Newburgh, New York (for the second time).  Previously, the Continental Army and their tre's fort French allies had beaten the snot out of Lord Cornwallis, basically ending the war, but for the fact that there were still tons of British soldiers in America and there was as of yet no formal peace treaty.  George Washington's officers had had it up to here with Congress because they had never fully provided for the army during the course of the war, making it necessary for soldiers to march without shoes, make camp without tents, and, yes, even go into battle without a musket.  In their frustration, the officers offered to make George Washington king of America.  After considering their offer for a whole three seconds, Washington politely declined, reminding everybody that they just fought a war against a king, so if it was ok with them, he'd just become the first President.

Just for a moment, let's imagine what might have happened if ol' George took his officers' offer up and became king of America.  No doubt Congress would have had something to say about that, not to mention all the pissed-off current and former soldiers who fought to rid America of kings.  So, what probably would have happened next is the American Civil War, four score and seven years earlier than it really happened.  This would have put America at a severe disadvantage vis a vis the rest of the world, prompting Britain to grab Maine, France to grab everything east of the Mississippi and west of the Appalachians, and Spain to grab Georgia.  As bad as that might be, it could have happened; only the strong character of George Washington prevented it.

Revolutions are not tidy things --those are coup d'etats --so don't give up on Egypt's revolution just yet.  They just might end up with a better, more democratic government than they used to have.  Heck, we managed it somehow.   After all, the pyramids weren't built over the weekend; nor will democracy appear over night.  And out of protests and arrests and general unrest could result in a genuine democracy for Egypt.  But whatever we in the United States must do, we must NOT interfere.  After all, the Egyptians left us to work out our differences in 1776.  They deserve the same respect.

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