July 04, 2002
Do the Revolution, Baby!

It's funny to think about, but the United States actually represents the first, most successful revolt of a colony against its imperialist overseer. Listening to both the world's media and our own left wing here at home you'd hardly realize it, but we are in fact the very first to throw off the "yoke of imperialist oppression".

The thing that isn't really emphasized much in history books is how lucky the United States was. Historically, revolts and revolutions pretty much always seem to fail in one way or another. Most are doomed from the start. The Jewish revolt, from 66-74 AD, was probably one of the most tragicomic examples.

In a classic case of "dog-catches-car-now-what", a group of malcontent priests and upper-class party boys decided that if Rome wasn't going to protect them (because Nero was busy boinking yet another senator's wife... usually in front of the senator), they would bloody well protect themselves and by the way we also think we'll be keeping this big pile of gold instead of giving it to you as tribute. They told the "king" (a Roman lackey) to sod off and tossed him out when he wouldn't, and completely destroyed the small Roman garrison in Jerusalem itself.

Now, Palestine itself was actually part of the province of Syria, which is where the legion (more than 5000 crack troops) assigned to protect the province was stationed. The problem was Cestius Gallus, the governor assigned to Syria and therefore the commander of that legion, actually was more of a pencil pusher than a sword swinger. What followed was an abject lesson in why politicians and bureaucrats should never lead an army. The legion was destroyed and poor Gallus himself, who wanted nothing more than to skim the provincial tax horde and spank the occasional virgin, ended up dead.

The "common" people, who like the "common" Palestinians two millennia later on a certain September afternoon (their time), were just as dumb as a box of rocks and rejoiced thinking they were about to conquer Rome. The upper classes were numb from shock. The initial plan was almost certainly to cause a bunch of trouble, oust the lap-dog king, and wring some concessions from the governor before going back to business as usual. But now anyone with any sense knew Rome was going to crush them all like a walnut under a steamroller.

And that's exactly what happened. Rome considered itself amazingly tolerant of this incredibly stubborn, pig-headed, disagreeable people since they'd taken over the place about 120 years earlier. Pave their streets, clean their water, feed and protect them for this1? Not only did Rome re-conquer the province, they crucified men, women, and children by the thousands, razed Jerusalem to the ground, tossed out whoever was left, renamed the place and moved a different group in2.

And that's pretty much what happened to revolutions and revolts for the next seventeen hundred years. A government oppressed, the people revolted, the government didn't take them seriously, a small army got defeated, the stupid people rejoiced and the smart people ran for cover, the government sent a huge army and utterly crushed the movement, put the leaders' heads on sticks, and sent everyone else home to start it all up again in a hundred or so years.

What puzzles me is why the US ended up being so successful, and, more importantly, why so many subsequent revolutions weren't.

The nascent United States had a number of things going for it that these earlier revolts didn't. First and probably most important of all, there were 3,000 miles of ocean between us and Britain. News, supplies, and reinforcements took months to arrive. If you screwed up in America, you couldn't just expect the cavalry to march up behind you. There was also France's help, but they were far more interested in kicking Britain in the nads than in supporting some upstart nation. We also had competent, if not exactly brilliant, military leadership3.

But those things just tell you why we won the war. Why did the we win the revolution?

Our revolution started at what ended up being the peak intellectual period of the pre-industrialized world. I don't think this has really been emphasized enough. Things were already beginning to change. Watt's improved steam engines were beginning to make an impact on the English countryside, and soon would power the world into the industrialized era. But the differences between 1550 and 1776 are nothing compared to the differences between 1776 and 2002. In many ways the founding fathers can be seen as medieval merchants done good.

People weren't talking about class struggle and who controlled the means of production; they were talking about liberty and the control of government. They weren't reading Marx and Engles, they were reading Hobbes and Locke. They weren't pondering the inevitability of the rise of the proletariat; they were questioning whether people were actually able to rule themselves.

The mid-to-late eighteenth century would be the last time it was possible to have a group of people really concerned about these issues. In a bit more than fifty years the world would be nearly unrecognizable, and the causes and concerns of rebellions even twenty years after our own would be profoundly different.

So for the first, and perhaps only, time in history a group of intellectuals were handed the reigns of power at nearly the very last moment that "liberty and justice for all" was considered the most important issue of the day. They had crystalline lessons of the abuse of absolute power in England's Glorious Revolution less than a hundred years before. And they had an entire continent?s worth of resources, nearly a quarter of the planet, at their disposal.

From this distance in history it looks like they did a superhuman job of coming up with a near-perfect government. It ain't so. The constitution was in essence a fatally flawed document. Its acceptance of slavery and lack of an explicit forbiddance of secession pretty much destroyed the country the founding fathers built less than a hundred years after they built it. The United States was lucky enough that when it immolated itself in civil war a benevolent tyrant had ascended to power, one who had the good graces to get himself shot just after the war's successful conclusion. The country that Lincoln and subsequent congresses built is the country we live in today.

In spite of this very significant detour, the United States has had a remarkably successful revolution, certainly the most successful of any colonial territory to date. Latin America remained a basket case, in no small part through our own meddling, until about twenty years ago. Africa, with one significant exception, is just a sad joke. The Middle East isn't much better. Asia has a five thousand year tradition of ruling with laws, and it is serving them well. But the only functioning democracies out there are ones we set up less than sixty years ago (South Korea, Japan).

There are two exceptions: South Africa and Iran. South Africans, to perhaps even their own surprise, have so far managed not to destroy themselves. They have enormous natural resources (something like 90% of all diamonds and much of the world's gold comes from there), and a century and a half of British rule to guide them4. They were also the first revolution to happen after the fall of communism, when the US started to become rational again and stopped seeing third-world tyrants as proxies to flip the USSR the bird. They got lucky and fielded an amazing statesman as their first president, which is what gave the US its great start, and their constitution seems complex enough to be relatively despot-resistant.

But South Africa is a long way from a success. There are a lot of South Africans that think what Mugabe is doing in Zimbabwe is what should be done in South Africa. They're all conveniently not noticing that his actions are starving the country. Grinding poverty and a complete lack of infrastructure hangs heavy weights on the new nation, because democracy can only survive in the midst of an educated electorate. But of all the countries on the continent, on both side of the desert, South Africa seems to have the best chance.

Iran is an almost unique case. They managed to build themselves a reasonably functional democracy in the middle of the cold war, with the US doing its level best to screw it all up. They may yet be the first people to figure out how to successfully incorporate ancient religion with modern government and industrialized technology.

But Iran's constitution contains, like our own once did, a fundamental flaw. By giving enormous power to unelected clerics, they are relying on the wisdom and benevolence of people they have no direct control over. History has shown that you can usually expect one, perhaps two, generations of autocrats to have any damned sense, but inevitably some wack comes to power that thinks rule by fiat is vastly superior to this bloody inconvenient rule of law, and that's when people start to disappear. Once that happens, civil war is sure to follow. I hope for the Iranian's sake, and really the world's sake, they find a way out of it before it's too late.

Because the world could use a few more good democracies, ones that did it all on their own and manage to keep it creaking and wheezing along through their own blood, sweat, and tears.

You don't really want us running it all, do you?

Posted by scott at July 04, 2002 02:59 PM

eMail this entry!

Makes for very interesting reading, Scott.

Posted by: Pat Johnson on July 4, 2002 05:20 PM
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