Since January this year, the world has been watching the Middle East with anticipation and hope. A cascading series of uprisings in the Arab world began in Tunisia with the overthrow of President Ben Ali. In one country after another, populist insurgents were pitted against autocratic dictators. Some – like Mubarak of Egypt, Gaddafi of Libya, and Assad of Syria – were military officers whose power originated in coup d’état by the armed forces. Others, like Saleh of Yemen, came to power by electoral means, and then used a corrupted political system to establish a de facto dictatorship.
In Eastern Europe, the revolutions of 1989 began in Poland and spread like wildfire from the Baltic to the Balkans. The anti-Communist revolts then spread further to the east, culminating two decades ago in the overthrow of the Soviet Union itself.
In Western Europe and in North America, the aforesaid revolutions generated intense media attention and avid public interest. The fascination stemmed not just from the entertainment value – in the sense that H.L. Menken once described revolution as “the sex of politics.”
In addition to political exhilaration and excitement, the hyper-attentiveness of people in the West derived in part from dissatisfaction with their own declining societies. As Western democracy suffocated under political oligarchy, corporate plutocracy, and impious public policy; the revolutions abroad touched a chord with European and American peoples. We felt a natural or even subconscious satisfaction in experiencing, albeit vicariously, the victories of the rebels.
Another populist instinct is the desire for progress. In varying degrees, it exists everywhere. But in the so called advanced nations, or “first world,” genuine progress encounters opposing forces and foes which are difficult to identify. The bewildering complexity of bureaucratized society, as well as the separation of powers, make it challenging for the people to discern the nature of their bonds. It is as if we and our fellow citizens are confined by a wireless fence – the high tech transceivers well hidden, and our dog collars painless and benign as long as we keep within our boundary.
[L]ust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience (Aldous Huxley to George Orwell, June 21, 1949).
In cases of more overt repression, the oppressors are easier to identify. The enemy is apparent when the regime arrests citizens for carrying banners, or when dictators use machine guns and tanks to fire on crowds of resistors. But in the complex and abstruse politics of the West, the progressive instinct gets finessed by urbane politicians. Sophisticated spin doctoring portrays any deep-cutting reform proposals as extremist.
Lately too the people of the West are fed a twisted version of progress, resulting in the clamour for distorted “rights” like abortion; and in culturally demeaning changes like the demand to redefine marriage. To the extent that immoral paradigms have been subsumed into the ideal of progress, they have demoralized the populace generally and barbarized many.
During the early 21st century, for example, Americans backslid toward approving the torture of helpless captives. By 2009 public opinion had become evenly divided on this barbarous practice. (Reed College Symposium, 2010: U.S. Public Opinion on Torture, 2001-2009).
Moreover, the rule of law is breaking down. To advance allegedly progressive agendas – too often rooted more in hedonism than real liberty – oligarchs have reduced the U.S. Constitution to wrapping paper. It is no longer a republic of laws not men, but of black robed commissars interpreting a “living, breathing Constitution.”
And in the early 1990s when a populist term-limits movement challenged the much corrupted regime, the Federal Judiciary quashed the insurgency (U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, 1995). No wonder, then, at the extensive sympathy, if not envy, as we watched insurgents overseas assail their tyrants.
(This article is excerpted from the introduction to Struble’s latest book, Rekindling the Spirit of 1776: To Liberate America from the Postmodern Pall. He is seeking a publisher.)