Thursday, March 03, 2005
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!"
wrote William Wordsworth about the enthusiasm that gripped so many throughout Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In the end, the Revolution failed to live up to its expectations, having first devoured most of its children (not to mention its many enemies, and an even greater number of innocents) and then leading into the fifteen-year nightmare of the Napoleonic Wars. Other, less sexy revolutions (the American one and Britain's earlier "Glorious Revolution") have proved to be a lot more durable, not to mention more positive in their overall impact.
Yet, despite its original association, I can't think of a better quote when contemplating of the democratic revolution that swept the Eastern Europe fifteen years ago and led to the dissolution of the Evil Empire. And I can't think of a better quote when contemplating today's second wave of the democratic revolution seemingly sweeping the Middle East, Central Asia and those parts of the former communist empire which didn't quite catch the wave the first time.
Granted, we're watching raw history unfold and we cannot be sure where it will all end. Much can still go wrong and the spring can turn out to be a false one. It is an uncertain and confusing time - for us the sympathetic observers and supporters, for the people themselves caught in the maelstrom of history, and not the least for those caught on the wrong side of the debate, as this unintentionally hilarious exchange between Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and a former Clinton aide Nancy Soderberg so well illustrates.
Democracy is not a panacea for all the societal problems. As Churchill once remarked, it's "the worst system of governance except all those other systems which have been tried from time to time." In the Middle East, in particular, it might not always, and certainly not at first, produce the open, liberal, pro-Western societies we all hope for. But overall, in the long run, and despite all the problems, who can think of a better alternative to the current predicament of the region? Who can argue that the countries of the Eastern Europe and the rest of the world are now worse off for their new-found democracy? You can quite easily have governments that are both democratic and anti-American - for example in France - but who could possibly think that any alternative (a dictatorship?) in Paris would be a better option for the French, Europe, and for the United States?
It is ironic to contemplate that the Bush Sr. Administration has been at best very ambivalent about the first democratic revolution, instinctively opting for "stability" and persisting in an effort to put the Soviet Humpty Dumpty together long after it was no longer a tenable policy. It is a kind of a strange closure that George H. W.'s son is now presiding over another revolution, one he is actually keen to perpetuate and see through till the end.
Yes, it is bliss, indeed, to be alive today. The next time you see a sour face, ask: I am on the side of democracy. Which side are you on? We might not always get it right, but we are right. And that's a pretty good place to be.
(thanks to Niner Charlie for providing the initial inspiration for this rant.)