The Problem with Revolutions

Revolutions are an appealing idea. On their face, they present the opportunity to start fresh. To wipe away the old order and replace it with one that is clearly better in all aspects. Whether at the level of countries and politics, or your life and your habits, they are massively appealing when first encountered.

But any deep inquiry into the nature and course of revolutions should quickly lay bare some very critical roadblocks. First and foremost, any revolution must inherently govern the same territory that was managed by the old regime. People think they can start fresh on New Year’s Day, forgetting that they’ll still have the same basic thought patterns, tendencies, and mental habits they had before. The brain is malleable, but like with soft soil your habitual paths will have made a noticeable groove; it takes hard work to wear away old trails. It will not be easy-going the first time you endeavor to cut across all the old ruts.

At the world-level, it’s easy to miss the fact that any revolution that cuts off the metaphorical head of the snake will still exist within the environment the snake inhabited. In more traditional language: allies, interest-groups, and citizens will still have the same basic interests in a new world order that they had in the old one. Businesses will still want a stable and friendly regime, the military will still want its power and toys, etc. The reason the military is currently prevailing in Egypt is that the military previously prevailed in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak may have been the head of the snake, but the tree upon which he rested remained in place available for anyone who it likes to climb.

The language of revolutionaries is easy. It is nice, and clear-cut, and simple. Those things are bad and these things are good. Because of this, it’s a terrible way to actually see the world, but a great way to misunderstand it. The soft revolution that Barack Obama promised in the 2008 election never materialized because one cannot make a new world by words alone. The only way to truly forge a new order is to systematically disassemble all the interest groups that made up the old order. To do this quickly (that is: in a revolutionary way) almost always requires either killing people or making them scared for their life and safety.

And that’s a thing I absolutely abhor. All sane freedom-loving people similarly abhor it. But those revolutions that succeed require a strong force of violence–either physical or psychological–to carry them through. And this is certainly no guarantee of long-term success. China was a brutal and suppressive state for much of the mid-twentieth century, making it one of the most durable and ideologically pure communist revolutions carried out. While it still exists in name, anyone who thinks that the Chinese Communist Party today rules over a country that the party’s founders would have appreciated is a fool.

The “revolutions” that succeed, and are looked upon fondly even after the newness have worn off, are barely revolutionary. The only notable revolution I can think of that one could meaningful call a success in the fullness of time is the American. But it’s worth making clear that the American Revolution was only revolutionary insofar it it was a revolt against a very small feature of the existing power structure. The Americans were largely satisfied with the basic political landscape in which they existed, they just didn’t like the nature of the head of the snake. Nothing about the day-to-day life of Americans changed much after the revolution, save for the location from which taxes were applied and protections offered.

Other revolutions, the Eastern European “revolutions” of 1989 come to mind, which eschew violence and succeed are held against feeble regimes. I’d even argue that it makes less sense to think of 1989 as a revolutionary moment, than as when it finally became clear that the Bolshevik revolution could not last. The militaristic psychological control exercised by Communist bureaucrats to keep themselves in power–the only thing that made it appear to last–had run out of believers to enforce it.

In the fewest words possible, the anti-revolutionary case is this: revolutions do not work. They are enticing, they are exciting, and they have no ability to forge lasting change. Neither in personal nor political life will any sensible person ever ask for a revolution. Because sensible people know that the world is complacent, lazy, and uncomfortable with change. Sensible people know the world is too complicated for revolutionary language, revolutionary ideas, or revolutionary soldiers to achieve a lasting and praiseworthy impact.

politics, world

The Protester’s Imperative

prakharA picture of pro-Tibet protesters in Paris

Be heard, provoke consideration, but never–never–be perceived as impetuous. The second the public at large sees you are a bigger problem than the problem you’re protesting about, you’ve lost.

These thoughts of mine were provoked in no small part because of the amount of coverage that recent protests along the path of the Olympic torch relay have provoked. Thus far, I’d say that protesters have done an admirable job of making their concerns heard without becoming the story, but they’re treading perilously close to that line.

Obviously, it can be hard to judge when you’ll become seen as a pest and not earnest citizens with a legitimate grievance. There are some people who see even the most minor protest as too big a bother and will, consequently, do their best to handicap the cause for which the protesters demonstrate.

It’s hard to judge exactly what’s accepted by the majority of people and what’s not. Surely, to the average American, “terrorism” is not a legitimate form of protest. If there’s one lesson from the late sixties and the early seventies, it’s that violent protest doesn’t work. Fights scare off the luke-warm and the merely curious, armed clashes and explosive used against Americans will mean you’ve completely lost the public argument.

Surely in some cases and in some circles, by some people, terrorism is considered acceptable. Al Quaeda is not completely without supporters who see their action as a justified means of protest and self-defense. Surely the violence of the IRA was accepted in at least some of the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. So to was the terrorism of John Brown accepted, even fĂȘted in some parts of America before the civil war.

Without a doubt, audience matters. Protesters who violate the sensibilities of their intended audience do a great disservice to their cause by acting dishonorably. Almost without question, black empowerment became less popular in America when the protests organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. gave way the militancy and violence of Black Panthers and other groups. By showing that their hand included guns and a openness to “any means necessary,” they scared off many luke-warm supporters. The militancy of those and other 1970s protesters is widely recognized as the cause for the conservative resurgence of the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China has a history of intransigence on the crisis in Darfur. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that China still refuses to acknowledge the role of the Dalai Lama as the representative of the Tibetan people. Surely it’s no minor tragedy that the Chinese have been one of the most crucial supporters of the military junta controlling Burma.

But it’s not out of the question that outrage about beligerent protesters could overwhelm people’s outrage about such tragedies. And if the continued irritation of extinguishers of the Olympic flame becomes the story rather than the tragedies for which they seek attention, I think that would be the biggest tragedy of all.

american society, USA, world

“There is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves”

Source: cursedthingBill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton was on Charlie Rose last Friday. He said a lot of interesting things, and though they also did a fair bit of rehashing tired arguments about the presidential campaign, it is a pretty good interview to watch.

Without question, the line that most caught my attention was this one: Mr. Clinton said, making what felt like a rather precarious jump, that the American people now know as they never have before that “there is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves.” That America’s citizenry recognizes that the problems we face as a country: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, health, and immigration, are all outside of the control of any single government, even the most powerful.

Though Clinton wouldn’t have been a good politician if he regularly denigrated the intelligence of the American people–as I sometimes think is appropriate–I do think he’s overstated the case. One doesn’t have to look very hard in this country to find people as convinced as ever that America has the right to impose its will upon the world. That its policy can and should be to unilaterally do whatever it wants, whenever it judges itself justified.

I have no doubt that those who easily forget that the United States is merely one country in a much larger world is shrinking and continues to shrink. But I find it incredibly hard to accept the argument that the whole populous has come to this revelation.

To be fair, Mr. Clinton is doubly right. More Americans than ever realize that their government doesn’t run the world, and every day a few more do. Further, he’s right in that the world is indeed a less “Amerocentric” place than at any other time since the Second World War.

Certainly, the attacks on September 11, 2001 shook a number of people out of the delusion that they lived in an impenetrable fortress from which they can run roughshod over the whole world and never face any consequences. Unfortunately, from there they went on to allow Mr. Bush to convince them that the wisest course to restore their illusory security was to depose Saddam Hussein–a hideous man no doubt, but hardly a grave threat to American security.

It is in Mr. Bush’s nearly-unilateral, (now known to be) misguided, and poorly executed invasion of Iraq that many Americans realized that they cannot persist as a hegemon. So too has Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Bush’s intransigence on climate change, and the many failed attempts to reform America’s broken immigration laws.

All of this has made clear that Americans do not have sole control over their own destiny. Though I hate the over-simplistic term, “the emergence of China” has clearly changed the world. For one, America’s recent economics hardships have been far more localized than many expected.

There was a time when a devaluation of the American dollar was an absolutely terrifying scenario for world economics, but it hasn’t had the expected debilitating impact. As the world slowly decouples from the formerly-all-important American economy (and thus its government), this country, like Britain before it, will have to recognize that it is not the king of the world.

Love or hate the former President, he is right about that.


Fossil Fuels are Dangerous

I thought of writing this piece a number of times, but always decided against it. It always did, and still does, seem like an interesting idea that would never get much traction. But, I rather like sharing outlandish ideas (see last Thursday), so I’ve decided to give this one a go.


I think the claim can be made that fossil fuels are killing people. And no, this isn’t about global warming. This is about the lives of coal miners. This summer, few Americans missed the nine deaths that came at a Utah coal mine. The first collapse trapped and killed six Utah coal miners. The second collapse killed three more in a fatal rescue attempt.

And even if those nine are the only casualties of American coal mines this year, that’s a pretty dangerous line of work. Certainly more dangerous than most of the things better-paid Americans do daily.

We should also notice that America’s coal mines, which sadly seem to always claim at least a few workers a year, are a great deal safer than others around the globe. The most visible example of this is China, where mining deaths are regularly above 4000 annually. This is a testament to both the fact that China has more coal mines, and that they worry less about workplace safety.

Coal Miner

In 2004, a particularly bad year for China, there were 6,027 deaths in their coal mines. The United States only lost 28 miners. And though this country could spend time rejoicing at that disparity, we can’t overlook the tragedy of 28 Americans dying so that the rest of us could watch television, use our iPods, and read late into the night.

Surely these deaths aren’t a great problem for the coal companies. They continue to operate questionably safe underground mines, hoping that they’ll continue to be profitable in what they hope is a growing market for coal. Indeed, in both America and the world, demand for the cheap and plentiful energy provided by coal seems not to have subsided.

And surely there are safer ways to get coal. Open pit mines, where the earth is removed from the top of the coal seams, are safer for workers. That does, however, ignore the significant eyesore that such mines can become.

It should also be noted that coal is the most dangerous of fossil fuels. Many fewer die harvesting oil or natural gas than coal. But we also can’t overlook the fact, in light of these figures, that even nuclear–the ugly stepchild of the energy sector–is a rather safe technology.

As The Economist recently pointed out, “the UN figure of around 4,000 eventual deaths as a result of the Chernobyl accident is lower than the official annual death-rate in Chinese coal mines.” A grim comparison no doubt, but one that can’t easily be ignored.

Is concern for the safety of coal miners going to drive the world away from using the sometimes-dangerous fossil fuel? History points toward no. But, there is a real possibility that safety concerns can serve as another argument in favor of renewable energies or even nuclear power.

The public at large seems turned off by constant appeals about global warming. The conversions are becoming fewer and fewer as the willing have joined up and the doubtful have become more obstinate.

Safety of American citizens will not push hundreds or even the needed millions to ask for more renewable or lower-carbon energy sources. But there is a possibility that it can make people think a little harder about how they’re using energy and where that energy is coming from.

fiction, politics, world

‘China executes ex-food and drug chief’

Zheng Xiaoyu was killed today for accepting bribes to certify fraudulent and dangerous drugs while head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration. The Chinese government hopes that this execution will showcase their commitment to food safety.

A fuller version of this story can be found here. But I found this story so interesting, and odd, that I gave it some thought. It struck me that there are two rather disparate possible realities on this issue, neither of which is likely the exact truth. Neither of these versions are completely factual, but both are possible ways to read the reported facts.

These two different versions of the story follow, retold in short form with help of the original article (which has since changed a bit). My fictional addition to the article are italicized, I didn’t track what I cut out of it.

Zheng Xiaoyu responsible for at least a dozen death’s, state takes necessary action

BEIJING – China executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog on Tuesday for approving untested medicine in exchange for cash. During Zheng Xiaoyu’s tenure from 1998 to 2005, the State Food and Drug Administration approved six medicines that turned out to be fake. One such antibiotic, approved by Zheng, caused the deaths of at least 10 people.

“The few corrupt officials of the SFDA are the shame of the whole system and their scandals have revealed some very serious problem at the head of the old SFDA,” agency spokeswoman Yan Jiangying said at a news conference held to highlight efforts to improve China’s fight against its few corrupt officials.

Yan was asked to comment on Zheng’s sentence and that of his subordinate, Cao Wenzhuang, a former director of SFDA’s drug registration department who was last week sentenced to death for accepting bribes and dereliction of duty.

Yan told reporters that the men had failed to do their civic duties as SFDA heads, and hence have deserved the punishments to which they had been sentenced.

Zheng, 63, was convicted of taking cash and gifts worth $832,000 when he was in charge of the State Food and Drug Administration.

Last year, dozens of people died in Panama after taking medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol imported from China. It was passed off as harmless glycerin, showing Zheng’s failing as SFDA head.

Scandals over contaminated Chinese food exports have underscored isolated problems with adulterated ingredients and fake products in the domestic supply, raising questions of how well China could have guaranteed the purity of food for the Olympics without this execution.

The other story is behind the break. Continue reading