The Coming Political Crisis in the USA

I think the USA today is facing a crisis matched only by those that took place at the time of the Civil War and the period of the Great Depression and WWII. Those events led to big changes in the nature of the Republic, and I see that happening again. Radical change is coming. But what form will it take?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the French Revolution. I suppose I was “triggered” by the rhetoric coming from the Left in the US, and especially old friends who seemed to think that if the coming election did not go the way they hoped, they would support (they are in general too old to participate in) a violent change of the government. I made two main points: 1) that revolutions are often bloody beyond belief, and 2) the ones who come out on top are usually not the ones with the most liberal ideas, but those that are the most ruthless and brutal in the use of force.

During the French Revolution, heads rolled like Bocce balls (or the French equivalent thereof). Today the  guillotine is the subject of humorous cartoons, but its heyday wasn’t called “The Terror” for nothing. And the Russian Revolution of 1917 ushered in a vicious civil war (and foreign intervention) resulting in 7-10 million casualties, most of whom were civilians. Neither revolution produced a liberal regime: the French got a dictatorship imposed by Napoleon, benevolent as it may have been, and the Russians got one of the most murderous regimes in recent history.

There are also radical changes of the form of government that are usually not called “revolutions,” but which have revolutionary consequences. I’m thinking of the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, and the collapse of the Soviet Union that culminated in 1991. Neither of these events was bloody in comparison to the revolutions of 1789 and 1917, although of course the consequences of Hitler’s rise were disastrous. Again, few such changes usher in liberal regimes.

A radical change, whether revolutionary or not, usually has precursors like military defeats; economic crises; weak, corrupt, or incompetent governments; inability to effect an orderly change; or all of the above. They are often associated with foreign interventions, overt or covert.

What else can we say about such changes? One is that the successful claimant of power does not need a majority of the population, but it does need an organized, disciplined faction. And what comes out of the process may be very surprising to its supporters. When the Shah of Iran, cancer-ridden and almost unable to function, was overthrown by a broad coalition including liberals, leftists, and of course Islamists, the leader of the Islamists, Ruhollah Khomeini, “presented himself as a moderate able to bring together all the different factions leading the revolution.” That isn’t how it turned out, to say the least.

I believe that today the USA is a candidate for a radical change away from the republic that was created when its constitution became effective in 1789, and which gradually evolved into what it is today.

Consider the conditions that hold today:

  • The present government is weak, incompetent, and corrupt.
  • There is very low confidence in the integrity of the electoral system.
  • There is very low confidence in the media, the police, the health-care system, the educational system, and other institutions.
  • Both presidential candidates are suffering from diminished mental capacity due to age-related deterioration, and are unlikely to be capable of functioning effectively in the future.
  • An uncontrolled epidemic will get worse before it gets better, and the effects on the economy will become far worse. The lower and middle classes will be hurt the most.
  • Political polarization is as bad or worse than it’s ever been, and media compartmentalization (“bubbles”) ensure that it will only become deeper. Irrational conspiracy theories are popular.
  • A large segment of society believes that the nation is irremediably unjust, and the only remedy is to destroy it and rebuild it from the ground up. This includes rejection of the traditional values of free expression, meritocracy, and equality of opportunity, and their replacement by racial identity politics.
  • Foreign elements have been waging psychological warfare against the US for some time, but social media has multiplied its effectiveness many times over. The intent is to intensify internal divisions and to create strife by encouraging extremism on both sides.
  • The US has still not come to terms with the attack perpetrated against it on 9/11, and its military – which is too powerful to be defeated in traditional terms – has been unable to achieve its objectives since then.

The circumstances above will continue to destroy trust in the national project; the well-known words of President Kennedy (“Ask not…”)  are less descriptive of the national mood today than at any time since he spoke them in 1961.

Radical change in the US is more likely to resemble the collapse of the Soviet Union than the French or Russian revolutions. I expect that the instability that will be brought to the boiling point by the election will take the form of localities, possibly even whole states, which declare themselves not subject to the authority of the central government, whose president they find unacceptable. We have already seen a small-scale and very childish attempt at local autonomy by the Left in Seattle, but it’s easy to envision more serious secessions. Some will provoke state or federal intervention, but in most cases authorities will choose negotiation and compromise over intervention in order to prevent bloodshed.

If Mr. Biden nominally wins the election (I view this outcome as somewhat more probable), he is unlikely to be more than a figurehead. Although Biden himself is considered a moderate, power in the new administration will be in the hands of the more radical former Obama Administration officials – the “Obamists” – who have been waiting in the wings since 2016, and who will be advisors to and appointees of the new “president.” His vice president will be particularly important, and the choice will be an early indication of the direction that his administration will take. I expect that it will be someone close to the former president.

An Obamist administration will try to cement its control by continuing the process of tuning the educational system to inculcate “progressive” values from the earliest age; it will encourage immigration and naturalization of Muslims and others that will be likely to become reliable supporters; it will ally itself with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it will adopt “progressive” policies on issues like abortion, transgender rights, diversity, and other issues that will alienate the socially conservative segment of the population. It will lean toward identity politics.

If President Trump is re-elected, he will likely continue to try to hold the reins himself, although he will be strongly influenced by his advisors. There is the possibility of opportunists taking advantage of their closeness to the President to push personal agendas. I expect Trump himself to become less capable of holding onto control as time goes by. I also expect that the Obamists will take off the gloves and foment widespread unrest in an attempt to weaken him. Trump will find himself under fire from day one, and be forced to resort to more and more aggressive policies to keep order, which of course will be used by his enemies to paint him as a dangerous totalitarian. Popular right-wing opposition to a Biden Administration would be strong, but I think the Obamists are  better organized and very well-funded.

Neither administration will be able to bring the sides together, especially since the factors contributing to the present instability are unlikely to disappear. In either case, ideological fragmentation will lead to physical fragmentation of the nation – which will be aggressively encouraged by the foreign bots and social media farms.

The roots of the present situation are firmly planted in the 1960s. Democrats and Republicans are both to blame, but it is the apolitical Corona that is going to push the nation off the cliff.

Posted in American politics, American society, The Future | 2 Comments

Who on Earth is Dana Ron, and the Beirut Explosion

The longer I live here, the more I understand how different Israel is from my former home, the USA.

There are elements of Middle East culture, unsurprising since about half of all Jewish Israelis are descended from immigrants from the Jewish communities of the Mideast and North Africa. The more recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia are beginning to have an influence. Social intercourse between Jews and Arabs is strong in some places and weak in others, but one out of every five Israeli citizens is an Arab (I suspect the Arabs are more influenced by the Jews, but that’s another story). And there are more than a few remnants of the Eastern and Central European origins of the founders of the state.

The founders were primarily socialists (and they worked very hard to keep non-socialists from gaining influence in the new state). They left us with the somewhat contrary traditions of a strong central government that tends to behave coercively – Israel still has media censorship (which is often bypassed by social media), people accused of crimes have far fewer rights than in the US, and there is no jury trial. Another tradition is excessive and self-serving bureaucracy, both in government and private businesses.

Over the years an economy dominated by government-owned enterprises has been replaced by one that is mostly private; this has greatly improved the economic performance of the country (but also has created a small class of super-rich Israelis with excessive economic and political clout).

Americans care very much – or at least they used to care – about freedom of speech. There’s less emphasis on that here. What we have as a gift from our founders, who continued to believe very strongly in the right of the proletariat to strike and demonstrate even after they became the bosses, is an obsession with the right to protest. Sometimes it seems that Israelis believe that democracy means the right to block traffic. Haredim, disabled people, Ethiopians, and others have taken to the streets and junctions in recent months to press their demands. Workers in government-subsidized or regulated industries who have a dispute with the Treasury often express their frustrations by torturing ordinary citizens who have absolutely no influence on the government.

In a way, this is understandable, because despite what seems like an excess of democracy (an election every few months), the behavior of our politicians and their bureaucracy is very little influenced by the wishes of the people. Hence demonstrations.

For at least a month there have been nightly demonstrations in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem; recently they started demonstrating in front of his home in Caesarea as well. Before his indictment on corruption charges, there were daily demonstrations in front of the home of the Attorney General, demanding his indictment. Recently there have been violent clashes between pro- and anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, and between demonstrators and the police.

There are several different groups involved. With the advent of Corona and the limitations that the government has placed on some industries, independent business owners and tradespeople, who are not eligible for unemployment compensation, took a big hit (my son is one of them). There are also artists and performers, also independent, whose venues have been shut down. There is the ridiculously exaggerated wedding and events industry – that’s worth another blog post – which employs many, also shut down by the limitations on the number of people who can gather in one place. There is everything to do with tourism. Their frustrations are real, and they are demanding that the government remove restrictions or compensate them in some way.

But the “independents” were joined by the radically anti-Bibi crowd, who – despite the fact that he is legally allowed to remain in his position until he is convicted of a serious crime – insist that he must step down immediately. And there are some anarchists and hard-left people for whom chaos is their bread and butter, as well as those who are non-political but enjoy the excitement and danger of borderline violence (and the possibility that a woman might take off her shirt). It’s ironic that the complaint of those who want to depose the PM by force of demonstrations is that he is “destroying democracy.”

As usual, the overheated atmosphere is fed by social media. Recently, the PM complained to the police about a Facebook post from an account named “Dana Ron” which called for his removal by a “bullet to the head.” In a country which has the murder of a Prime Minister in its recent memory, this is pouring gasoline on the flames that are already too high. Facebook responded that the profile was “fake” and removed it; the police cybercrimes unit determined that the account belonged to an Israeli woman living abroad. The anti-Netanyahu people claim that the threats were actually posted by Netanyahu’s media advisors. Interestingly, other fake profiles that posted pro-Netanyahu content were found that were connected with this one.

Would Bibi be dumb enough to fake a threat on Facebook? Certainly not. Would he hire someone dumb enough to do that? Very possible. Tune in tomorrow.

***

On Tuesday there was a massive explosion in the port of Beirut, Lebanon. It seems – and there will probably be more information available by the time this article is posted tomorrow – that a warehouse containing some 2750 tons of a nitrate compound exploded. Before the main blast, there were smaller explosions that may have been fireworks or small arms ammunition. There was speculation that the explosive material was some form of rocket fuel, but now it seems that the material was ammonium nitrate that had been left there by a Georgian ship that broke down in 2013 on its way to Mozambique. What set it off is still not clear. More details about this event are here.

Naturally, the usual suspects are blaming Israel. Israeli officials said that we had no connection to it. It would be very surprising if we did, because Israel bends over backwards to avoid hurting civilians (sometimes excessively, in my opinion). Really, the only thing that might tempt Israel to do that kind of damage would be the presence of a nuclear weapon – and even then, I believe the IDF would have found some other way to destroy it.

This comes after several incidents in which Hezbollah has attempted to get even for Israel’s killing one of their operatives in Syria.

Lebanon is in the worst financial condition in its history, and a good part of the reason is Hezbollah. First the Corona, and now this explosion (which, incidentally, wrecked the structure in which 80% of Lebanon’s grain was stored) may push the country completely over the edge. I don’t know what is likely to happen now, but the best option – for Lebanon, for Israel, and for world peace – would be for Hezbollah to be pushed out. It is absolutely criminal that the resources of the country are squandered on being the point of the spear for the Iranian war on Israel. But how do you get out from under the thumb of a terrorist organization that has more military capability than your official army?

If the story about the ammonium nitrate is correct, then the government officials who allowed it to sit for years in a dilapidated warehouse near a highly populated area are guilty of criminal negligence. What brought Lebanon to the state it was in before the explosion was the less dramatic, but equally criminal, failure of those in whom the inhabitants of the country placed their trust.

Now let us come back to Israel, where there hasn’t been a cataclysmic explosion, but where a bloated, selfish, childish, and venal political establishment is failing to carry out its responsibilities to the public. Can we get our house in order before we find ourselves in a place similar to that of our northern neighbor?

Posted in Israeli Politics, Israeli Society | 1 Comment

Who Owns the Land?

It never stops: Europeans complain about Israel building things, or rather, about Israelis planning to build things. Such activities, they claim are illegal, because according to them nothing east of the 1949 armistice line belongs to Israel.

But to whom does it really belong? A starting point is the question that the blogger who calls himself Elder of Ziyon asked in a tweet the other day: “what country was legitimately sovereign in Judea and Samaria on the day prior to the start of the 1967 war?”

Jordan illegally occupied the territory in 1948, when it was one of five Arab countries that invaded the area of the former British Mandate in order to try to prevent the Jews from creating a sovereign state there (and indeed, to try to kill and drive out the Jews from the land). In 1950 it (again illegally) annexed the area and named it the “West Bank.”

This aggression clearly violated the UN charter, and in the 19 years that Jordan held it, only two nations (Britain and Pakistan) recognized its purported ownership. Incidentally, the Jordanians committed numerous war crimes during their conquest and occupation, starting with the violent ethnic cleansing of its Jewish inhabitants, and including the deliberate destruction of synagogues and the refusal to allow Jews and Christians to visit their holy sites in Jerusalem – something Jordan had agreed to in the cease-fire agreements.

For several reasons, Israel’s claim in 1967 was stronger than that of Jordan’s. One is that the beneficiary of the Mandate is the Jewish people; it refers to the creation of a “Jewish Home” and not an Arab one. It is also reasonable to understand the “home” as being a state, although probably the British envisioned it as more like a protectorate within their empire. And an Arab state (Jordan) had already been created in part of it.

Another argument is the doctrine of uti possidetis juris, which holds that new sovereign states resulting from decolonization get the same boundaries as the former colonial entities (an article explaining the application to Israel is here). The doctrine is intended to prevent the creation of “no-man’s lands” which could become the source of conflict – as indeed this area has!

I haven’t mentioned the 1947 UN partition resolution for an important reason: it is irrelevant to international law. As a General Assembly resolution, it was only a recommendation; and since the Arabs immediately rejected it, it was never implemented. It did express the will of the majority of UN members at the time that a Jewish (and Arab) state could be created in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, but it had no binding force.

Finally, there is the argument for the rights of the oldest extant indigenous people – the aboriginal inhabitants.

The Ottomans controlled the land for 400 years. Before that there was a succession of foreign rulers all the way back to the last Jewish commonwealth in Judea, the Hasmonean Dynasty which lasted for about 80 years around 100 BCE. Prior to that there were periods of Greek and Babylonian rule after the destruction of the biblical kingdoms of Judea and Israel. Note that the only indigenous regimes in the land of Israel from then until the modern day were Jewish. All the rest were imposed by conquest, including an Arab conquest in the 7th century which brought Islam to the region.

Although some Jews remained in their homeland, many were scattered around the world, particularly after the Romans crushed the Jewish rebellion of Bar Kochba in 135 CE. In the diaspora, these Jews retained their connection to their homeland, which was an essential part of Judaism.

This history was recognized by the international community in 1920 in the San Remo Resolution, which established the Palestine Mandate, in which Britain agreed to hold the land in trust for “a national home for the Jewish people.” The obligation to honor the Mandate as adopted by the League of Nations was transferred to the UN by Article 80 of its charter.

What about the Palestinians? There is not and never has been an Arab country called “Palestine.” Prior to 1967, few Palestinian Arabs even considered themselves part of a “Palestinian people” but as belonging to their particular clan, or for Arab nationalists, part of the “Arab Nation,” and for others, members of the Muslim ummah. However, since then they have claimed that they are a distinct people, and the aboriginal inhabitants of the land; and on the basis of that, they make a claim to sovereignty.

Since this claim is in opposition to that of the Jewish people, it is popular among other Muslims and Europeans, all of whom would prefer that the Jewish Luftmenschen turn into Luft, in the memorable words of André Schwarz-Bart. But the fact is that most of the families that call themselves “Palestinian” have a short history in the land. A very few of them may be descended from Jews and others that lived here in Biblical times, and some may have roots that go back to the Arab conquest. Almost all the rest date from no earlier than 1830, the time of the Muhammad Ali conquest of the region. A very large number came after the Zionist influx and the British presence began to create economic opportunities better than those to be found where they lived in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and other places. Evidence of this is found in the many Palestinian names that refer to places of origin, like al-Haurani (Syria) and al-Masri (Egypt).

A unique people that has been together for hundreds or thousands of years, like the Jewish people, develops a unique language, religion, and culture. The Palestinians are a new people, who have very little specifically Palestinian – as opposed to Arab – culture, except perhaps for their violent opposition to Jewish sovereignty and hatred of Jews, which has been nurtured by their leaders since Amin al-Husseini in the 1930s.

There is no archaeological or historical evidence of ancient cultures that can be connected to today’s Palestinians. The Jews, on the other hand, can point to a wealth of such evidence, probably more than any other extant culture today. If anyone can claim to be the aboriginal people of the Land of Israel, it is the Jews.

The arguments that settlement activity is illegal usually are drawn from the Geneva Conventions about belligerent occupation, which occurs when in the course of war or aggression, one country takes physical control of part of another one. But since the territory in question does not belong to another country, the presence of Israeli forces or settlers cannot be belligerent occupation. Even if it were, the original intent of the section of the Fourth Geneva Convention that forbids a nation from resettling its population in occupied territory was to prevent mass expulsions and exiles, such as the Nazi deportation of German Jews to occupied Poland, which is nothing like the voluntary migration of Israelis to Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley.

But doesn’t Israel herself consider that it’s a belligerent occupation? Not exactly. In 1971, Meir Shamgar, Israel’s Attorney General, ruled that although the territories were not strictly occupied, Israel would follow the Hague and Geneva Conventions for the protection of civilians in occupied territories, so as to smooth the way for the ultimate return to Arab control of some of the territories in return for peace treaties, and to forestall international criticism. In other words, we would behave as if the territories were occupied.

In 2004, in a decision concerning the security barrier, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak, wrote that “the point of departure for all parties” is that the territories are held in belligerent occupation. But this was merely a working definition and an expression of his opinion; the Court never actually ruled on the question of occupation.

To answer the question posed by Elder of Ziyon, the land belonged to the State of Israel in 1967, and indeed in 1948. It belongs to us today. We are the aboriginal inhabitants of the land, we have never lost our connection to it, we have the imprimatur of international law, and we have (so far) successfully defended it. One of our greatest mistakes in the struggle for world opinion is not stressing this strongly or frequently enough.

Posted in Europe and Israel, Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Israeli or Jewish History | 5 Comments

Incident at Har Dov

On Monday there was a “security incident” on our northern border. I am not going to try to explain it, because I have no idea of what actually happened. First reports were that Hezbollah fighters had crossed the border in the Shebaa Farms area at the foot of Har Dov, and fired an antitank missile at a Merkava tank. The missile was said to have missed, and IDF soldiers returned fire, killing four of the enemy. Lebanese sources, on the other hand, said that that several Israelis were killed.

Then it was reported that none of the Hezbollah fighters had been hit, and that no missile was fired. The story was that they had infiltrated into Israel (apparently the border fence is not continuous in the area), were detected, and driven back by IDF fire. Artillery fire and Israeli aircraft, as well as explosions, were seen in the area.

There were credible reports that the IDF deliberately did not aim directly at the Hezbollah fighters, in order to drive them back without killing them.

Hezbollah claimed that they had not crossed the border and had not fired any missile.

The background is that a couple of weeks ago a Hezbollah operative was killed when Israel bombed an ammunition dump some 15 km. south of Damascus. Several Iranian and Syrian personnel were killed as well. Israel sent a message to Hassan Nasrallah saying that the Hezbollah operative’s killing was unintentional. But Nasrallah has promised that every Hezbollah casualty, wherever it occurs, will be avenged. So the IDF has been expecting and preparing for Hezbollah to retaliate.

Monday’s incident was supposed to be that retaliation. But Nasrallah has said no, the debt is still unpaid (though the mother of the man killed in Syria gave out sweets in honor of the operation).

Another similar incident happened on the border last August. Again Hezbollah owed the IDF a debt of violence after its personnel had been killed by an Israeli strike in Syria. Several antitank missiles were fired at an IDF APC, and troops were seen evacuating apparently wounded soldiers from it. But it turned out that the vehicle had been empty. Apparently the idea was to convince Hezbollah that they had succeeded in getting their revenge.

All this makes me uneasy. It seems as though we are trying to prevent escalation by exhibiting weakness, rather than strength. Think about the statement that the death of the Hezbollah fighter in Syria was “unintentional.” That ammunition dump was most likely bombed because it contained equipment being sent from Iran to Lebanon to enable Hezbollah to convert its tens of thousands of rockets to precision-guided munitions, able to strike within a few meters of a selected target. Everyone understands that such weapons are game-changers. The goal of Hezbollah’s buildup, financed and supplied from Iran, is to kill Jews and destroy our state. Does it make sense that we should in effect apologize for killing someone involved in that project?

The same strategy seems to be applied in Gaza. Hamas is allowed to fire barrages of hundreds of rockets at towns and cities in Israel; we try to knock them away (so far, pretty successfully) with our anti-missile systems. Then we punish Hamas by carefully targeting empty Hamas facilities in the Strip. If we killed anyone, then they would need to retaliate, and this way we prevent escalation while at the same time make them pay a price.

There is a problem on several levels here, which should be evident to anyone:

On the level of deterrence, the message we are sending is, “go ahead, try to hurt us, nothing much will happen if you fail.” And the natural result of this is that they are encouraged to keep trying.

On the psychological level, we are telling them – and ourselves – that we are targets. Shooting at Jews is acceptable. We have come to believe this ourselves. If we didn’t, we would respond more strongly.

Finally, on the level of honor, our failure to respond harshly to attempted murder is a sign that we are too weak to defend our own lives and property. In a Mideastern culture in which personal, family, clan, and national honor are almost tangible, someone who can’t defend what he has doesn’t deserve to keep it.

The appropriate response to maximize deterrence, self-respect, and honor is to always respond to attempts to hurt you with greater, even disproportionately greater, force. This is an elementary schoolyard lesson for dealing with bullies that kids of my generation learned quickly.

The youthful Ariel Sharon understood this when he commanded Unit 101. Today, our leaders seem to have forgotten.

The strategy our leaders have chosen is to avoid escalation at all costs, even when it damages deterrence. They continue to kick the can down the road, perhaps in the hopes that war can be avoided until Iran self-destructs and Hezbollah withers away. In any case, they hope that whatever bad things might happen, it will be after their term as PM or Chief of Staff is finished.

Unfortunately, the long term application of this strategy has left us in a situation in which we are deterred by Hezbollah, rather than the opposite. They have the initiative, and can turn the pressure on and off at will. We are demoralized, despite the fact that we are objectively stronger than our enemies. And as a nation without national honor, we are held in contempt by allies and enemies alike.

This is not an easy thing to turn around. Our enemies have been conditioned to expect certain behavior. We need to teach them otherwise, which won’t happen overnight. But we have to try. Miscalculations on either side might lead us into war; but continued weakness will almost certainly do so.

Posted in War | 2 Comments

You Say You Want a Revolution

You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead
But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao
You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow – The Beatles

About two weeks and 231 years ago, on 14 July 1789, Parisians fearing a military coup that would disrupt progress toward the democratization of the regime being made in the new National Assembly, forced their way into the Bastille in search of gunpowder. Violence rapidly escalated (the commander of the garrison ended up with his head on a pike), and what we know as the French Revolution began that day.

The National Assembly was a more-or-less representative body – the “Third Estate” of the French middle class was no longer denied influence as in the old États Généraux – and the regime, dominated by the noble class, was beginning to worry that the constitution the Assembly had vowed to produce would limit their power.

France was in absolutely terrible shape. There were shortages of food, caused by the combination of the incompetent regime led by the decadent, lazy, and stupid Louis XVI, and various natural disasters (drought and cattle disease), the country was almost bankrupt, and the royal court and other nobles guzzled what was left. Marie Antoinette didn’t actually say that protesters screaming for bread should eat cake, but the attitude expressed in that famous misquotation accurately characterized the attitude of those on top.

There is no doubt that the regime – the whole class system – had to go.

What happened next was the violent dispossession of the rural nobility and those who supported the feudal order, tax collectors, sheriffs, and others. Most of the nobles fled and the Assembly abolished feudalism. This was certainly a painful process, but probably necessary. As the Left is fond of pointing out, those who hold power and property don’t willingly give it up.

In August, the Assembly promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment political liberalism. If you haven’t read it, you should. No more beautiful expression of the ideals of a secular (but tolerant) civilization has ever been written. That was the high point. From here on, it was downhill all the way.

In September 1791, the Assembly finished writing a constitution. It called for a constitutional monarchy in which the King retained some power. Although it didn’t live up to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it was a step in the right direction.  In England, the process of moving from a feudal absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional one worked itself out gradually over several hundred years. France was already on this path and could have continued on it.

But the inexorable dynamics of revolution asserted themselves. The King did his best to sabotage the idea of a true constitutional monarchy, and conspired against the revolution with foreign powers and expatriate nobles. In June 1791 he tried to flee the country, and was caught and returned. Worried that foreign powers were plotting mischief and wanting to export its revolution, the Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia in April 1792. In August, when the Prussian commander threatened to burn Paris if the King were harmed, Parisian radicals (the Commune of Paris) decided to act. They stormed the Palace of the Tuileries where Louis was confined, and arrested him (he would be executed in January 1793). In September 1792, the constitutional monarchy was replaced by the more democratic First Republic, and the National Assembly replaced by a new popularly-elected parliament called the National Convention.

In early June 1793, an extreme left-wing faction of the Jacobin Society led by the lawyer Maximillian Robespierre – the extremists came from the middle classes, as usual – seized control of the Convention with the help of the Paris Commune. On 17 September, the Convention passed the “Law of Suspects,” which provided for the speedy arrest and trial of anyone suspected of opposing the revolution. This marked the start of the Reign of Terror.

Marie Antoinette and some 21 Deputies of the Convention who belonged to a (slightly) more moderate faction than Robespierre’s were guillotined in October. One after another, political figures like feminist Olympe De Gouge and astronomer and former Paris mayor Jean Sylvain Bailly also lost their heads. Until Robespierre himself was decapitated in August 1794, more than 16,000 death sentences were carried out against anyone opposed to Robespierre, nobles, clerics, anti-draft protesters, scientists, philosophers and mathematicians, bankers, alleged spies or enemy sympathizers, and many, many others. Approximately 10,000 more died in prison without being tried. From 11 June 1794 to 26 July, 1376 people were sentenced to death, with no acquittals. In Nantes, some 10,000 more prisoners were drowned when they were placed on barges that were deliberately sunk. The husband of Joséphine de Beauharnais, who would later marry Napoleon, was executed.

The extremists did many things in addition to guillotining. They engaged in a campaign of “dechristianization” in which the Cathedral of Notre Dame was re-dedicated as a Temple of Reason. All places of worship in Paris were closed by the Paris Commune; but Robespierre declared a new religion based on belief in a “supreme being.” Meanwhile, war was ongoing at various times against Britain, Austria, Spain, Italy, and Prussia.

In 1795 yet another constitution came into force. France was now ruled by a five-member Directory along with the Convention. Napoleon continued his conquests in Europe and the Mideast. Finally, in 1799, he returned to France, and on 9 November executed a coup d’état making him in effect an absolute dictator.

So much for the Rights of Man.

Of course history never repeats itself exactly. The revolution that brought the Bolsheviks into power in 1917 was different, although in the long run the results were much bloodier. What is common to both of these revolutions is this:

A bad – repressive, incompetent, larcenous – regime behaves in a way that is intolerable. Ideological leaders obtain popular support in the name of justice and human rights. A multisided conflict, even a civil war, develops between parties and factions, marked by extreme hatred and violence. One faction comes out on top: the one that is prepared to act in the most ruthless and brutal way, often led by a psychopath like Robespierre or Stalin. In the former case, the chaos he nurtured ultimately caught up with him. In the latter, he built an empire that was one of the worst actors in modern history if measured by the amount of misery and premature death it fostered. Either way, the goals of justice and human rights of the initial visionaries were not achieved.

Remember the popular uprisings of the Arab spring? In Egypt, a repressive military dictatorship was overthrown, leading to a short-lived Muslim Brotherhood regime, which was replaced by another repressive military dictatorship. The initial pro-democracy activists that triggered it were swallowed up without a sound.

Successful social change is almost always gradual, like the development of democracy in the UK or the progress – yes, there is some, actually quite a lot – in race relations in the US since its inception. The American Revolution is an interesting case, but it was actually more like an anticolonial war than a true revolution.

There are many in both the USA and Israel who think that their existing governments are intolerable. There are persuasive arguments that in both cases the regimes are incompetent to deal with the challenges their nations face (although they do not fall to the level of Louis XVI or Czar Nicholas II). And some believe that the best strategy to fix that is a revolutionary one – destroy the system and rebuild it from scratch. Unfortunately, most of those revolutionaries do not even have a clear idea of what they would like to build, not to mention how to build it once the existing government is destroyed.

Even if they do, how do they know that they will be the ones left standing at the end – and not the Stalins or the Maos?

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment