Sunday, January 13, 2013

Explosive Situations

Americans have a difficult time understanding how revolutions work. This isn't meant to be an ironic assertion.  Although this country was founded on a political break with another country, the break wasn't all that revolutionary.  While Americans adopted a republican form of government, they didn't overthrow a local elite, radically transform institutions, or adopt violence or terror as a political tool of administration.  The term, "revolution," is notoriously slippery, but America's decision to implement local control can't really be equated with the French, Russian, or Chinese models of ideological or social transformation.  When Russia overthrew the tsar, it adopted new political practices, but also new forms of organization, political rhetoric, artistic expression, metaphysical thinking, and economic organization.  And even if there are many points of comparison between the American's War of Independence and the French Revolution, modern Americans, now view this revolt against a now friendly country from the distance of more than 200 years.  We are, as a people, hopelessly if luckily out of touch with the very idea of radical change.

How can Americans imagine what it's like to live in a situation where men and women are willing to resort to violence to solve political problems?  How can modern American understand what a revolutionary crisis looks like?  One way to look at the question is to try to identify situations in which people feel so emotionally charged that they begin to look at political questions irrationally.  Take the recent outbreak of violence in a Connecticut classroom a few weeks ago.  The violence was disturbing.  But how did Americans react to their feels of shock?  The answer was clear to almost anybody with a Facebook account.  People were angry, confused, and saddened.  But I would argue that the most important emotion in this revolutionary cocktail of emotions was fear.  People feared for their children's lives, feared for their own safety and that of their families.  If six year old children could be singled out for execution in the security of a good school in an affluent town, who was safe?

On one level, the shooting wasn't perhaps statistically significant:  people are shot almost every day in almost every major city of this great nation.  On the other hand, people made the understandable, if ultimately irrational, logical leap to thinking that we were all suddenly vulnerable to terrible, unexpected violence.  This fear naturally got translated into words, and not just a few words, but endless electronic, verbal, and print conversations.  This is one of the most important aspects of a truly revolutionary situations.  People need to become deeply afraid of something, and this fear must be translated into a torrent of words.  This is what we recently saw on Facebook and a hundred other platforms for modern discourse.  People lamented, commiserated, prescribed, condemned, and, sadly, relentlessly condemned one another.  The country talked about guns, schools, violent video games, mentally ill people, and godlessness.

What was redolent of a truly revolutionary situation was that people went out of their way to affix blame for the catastrophe.  This is a natural phenomenon. My own political instincts made me particularly sympathetic to those who called for much stricter gun control laws.  However, the calls for justice weren't limited to gun control.  And I was quite stunned to see my friends on Facebook espousing radically anti-secular views in response to the shootings.  One relative, endorsed by approximately 40 other people who immediately "liked" the comment, said that atheists were to blame for the deaths, and that if you were atheist, you could expect to raise another "psychotic" mass murderer.  I also recall the news interview with the alleged killer's barber of many years.  He said that had he known what the killer would one day do, he would have "cut his throat."

Thinking about this sort of totalizing or specifically violent discourse, one can at least imagine a truly revolutionary situation.  Of course, in a truly revolutionary situation, people are perhaps much less constrained than modern Americans.  Russians in 1917, for instance, may have believed that they had nothing to lose by proposing radical solutions to the country's problems.  But the essential element of revolution is this:  people have to believe on some level that if they don't revolt and perhaps kill their opponents, they themselves will be killed. Reading Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary make this issue much clearer.  During the Russian Civil war, still a revolutionary situation by most measures, the Bolsheviks applied unparalleled levels of violence against their political opponents precisely because they believed that losing the Civil War would result in their own physical destruction.  We jail or kill the Right Social Revolutionaries, anarchists, greens, or Whites, or we ourselves will get hanged in the very near future.  The threat doesn't necessarily have to be objectively legitimate:  it's enough that people are deeply afraid of their perceived enemies.

Yesterday, a saw the film, the Iran Job.  This films touches somewhat tangentially on a revolutionary moment of modern Iran.  I suppose this film might indicate that revolutionary energy bursts onto the street only when people have a sense that they have a chance to win.  Why did people take to the streets and risk death in Tehran several years ago?  If we judge by this film's ordinary female protagonists, we might argue that many women in Iran believed that their physical well being was truly imperiled by the religious zealots who dominate the country on the national as well as local level.  If you can't drive safely in the company of male friends, perhaps you're scared on some primal level.  But the movie, The Iran Job, also seems to suggest that a revolution breaks out when a large group of people--in this case Iran's educated youth--almost forget that a regime has any backers.

Of course, the Iranian Revolution failed--let's hope temporarily.  But here again we learn something about revolution.  A revolution is most successful when a government lacks a coherent ideology or a group of determined backers.  Presumably,the old Egyptian and Tunisian governments lacked a systematic ideology, and consequently lacked determined supporters.  This doesn't seem to be the case in Iran.  If even 20 percent of a country is determinedly supportive of a government, whether as a result of ethnicity or ideology, the government may yet summon the will to shoot down opponents and survive.

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