I'm grateful to my friends - though at this point, they might dispute it - for pushing me to think harder about my arguments. The lengthy debates I've had since bringing up Versailles have brought me, oddly, back to realizing that one of my main interests in writing about politics and current events stems from both an interest in revolutionary theories and examining stable and unstable societies. And I've had to dig deeper and think harder, in thinking about the French Revolution, about how and why societies break down.
That's one reason, I think, why I've been finding the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt both heartening and scary, all at once. And I think it's well worth considering - especially for the "Versailles" labelers of the left - just what level of class division is needed before a society starts to break down... and why, maybe, one might want to see society change in other, smaller ways before resorting to revolution.
I'm one who finds modern day Egypt especially depressing, which has a lot to do with the fact that when I was growing up in the seventies, Egypt under Anwar Sadat had seemed like a real breakthrough in how Middle Eastern countries might become really productive democracies, makingprogress on some of the hardest issues. I'm one who thinks the Camp David Accords of Jimmy Carter were a real watershed moment in integrating Israel as a nation into some kind of reasonable coexistence with its neighbors.
But Sadat was assassinated and suddenly what had seemed like progress turned out to be extremely vulnerable and fragile. Hosni Mubarak, who took control after Sadat... has maintained that control ever since. And it's clear he has no interest in an orderly transition to a more open government not in his control.And that's largely worked for him... until Tunisians - who have a society that's more secular and less controlled by fundamentalist Islam, stood up to their own dictator and his cronies. Across the Middle East, there's new concern that if the Tunisians finally had enough, others will as well.
I think many Americans, still, tend to take for granted so much of what, in fact, our society makes possible that others simply don't. Our freedoms to say what we want, do what we want, disagree openly and loudly and passionately... these are not things that necessarily exist elsewhere. And the most frustrating aspect, in many ways, is that for all we know and believe about freedom, we tend to sit by as a nation while dictators rule nations like Tunisia and Egypt - the US has not made much effort in either country to change their status quo. A controlling dictator who gets money from the US... will often do the things we want done.
Yet, there was President Obama on Tuesday night praising the Tunisian protestors, and today, urging Egypt not to stifle dissent. From a distance... that may be all we can do. But it amounts to precious little. And watching protests descend into violence, seeing masses of people trying to make themselves heard by an out of touch elite... that, really, is how I remember my French history. And it doesn't, usually, end well.
One of the weird facets of modern American politics is how class identification has become so strangely muddled. We have wealthy, educated, liberal elites who see themselves, still, as more closely tied to the working class than to their own elite qualities. And we have conservative, working class whites who feverishly reject labels like "socialism" and "communism" when the ideas of Marx and Engels, and theories that would more evenly spread national wealth more fairly, would most likely be to their eonomic benefit.
I think those kind of confused dynamics - the educated Marxist revolutionaries, the less well off defenders of a crony capitalsim that hurts their interests - go a long way to explaining our messy, mixed up politics these days. The people angry enough to start a revolution can't seem to figure out who to revolt against, or how to articulate their demands. And the people who understand where violent revolution leads - into chaos and social disarray - are loath to see what are actually fairly privileged, comfortable lives thrown into that chaos and disarray, or more pointedly, into violence and possible death.
The Tunisians, it seems, don't struggle with those concerns. The Egyptians, it seems, are pretty sure that more violence wouldn't be as bad as continuing to live under a stifling dictatorship.
The news of our world tends to go where the action is - where the violence happens, where the protests are, where the unrest is; we seek to show, and to understand, what makes people take to the streets, take to the battlefield. All of that, so we can be where the action isn't, so that our comfortable, generally secure, generally stable lives, won't be up-ended by violence and chaos and unrest. Our choices may not be so binary - what we have, or violent revolution... but I think, as an American society, we've generally made a choice to live with some our problems, rather than turn them into a case for revoltuion. We take actions that stabilize, defuse, redirect. We stay, by choice, where the revolution isn't.
Or... you can go where the action is. That is, always, an option.