Saturday, February 19, 2011

evolution and revolution, part 3

"We may remember comments from our own history, comments we heard repeatedly in the late 1960s and early 70s about our own attempts at change: evolution, not revolution. It’s not necessarily a bad suggestion, a gentle but irreversible change versus a sudden violent alteration in the environment. Its speakers had the best intentions in mind while saying it—let no one be hurt—but to mean it required forgetting that evolution works on a scale of time in which the slightest, most important changes occur at a pace at which they are unfelt and invisible to the subjects. This did not happen in Egypt. It happened over a course of fewer than three weeks. It did not happen in Tunisia, the other African nation credited with lighting the match to what has come to be called the Jasmine Revolution. The Tunisian uprising, reportedly sparked by the December self-immolation of would-be vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, led to the mid-January ouster of that nation’s president Zine El Abadine Ben Ali after twenty-three uncontested years in power.

"The Jasmine Revolution is a name, by the way, given the Tunisian protests by journalists outside Tunisia interested in developing a 'color narrative' of sometimes successful spontaneous popular uprisings in reaction to contested elections; in addition to Jasmine there are the 2003 Rose Revolution of Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in the Ukraine, the 2005 Tulip Revolution of Kyrgyzstan, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon that same year, the Kuwaiti Blue Revolution also of 2005, and the notoriously unsuccessful 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. There was also the Bush Administration’s labeling of the Iraqi elections of 2005 as the Purple Revolution, a label that was never picked up by the Iraqis, Americans, or the press. The so-called Jasmine Revolution is credited with sparking similar recent uprisings in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan.

"We cannot forget that the use of “evolution” to describe these events is not meant to somehow suggest they are bloodless or smooth. The word 'evolution' can often mask the uncountable lives lost and pain experienced by real generations of animals to develop a single useful change. Neither must we forget Human Rights Watch has confirmed at least 120 dead in Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria. I don’t know if that number includes the reported sixty-five prisoners shot in their cells at al-Qatta prison outside Cairo in the first days of unrest. Those numbers may grow. [They are now at nearly 300.] The United Nations has reported at least nearly one hundred fifty people killed and over five hundred injured during the protests in Tunisia. Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper has published the identities of over a thousand people killed or jailed during Iran’s 2009 uprising and immediately after, the most famous of which is Neda Agha-Soltan, the 26-year old music student whose cell-phone and videotaped shooting death has been called by Time 'probably the most widely witnessed death in human history.'

"We are spoiled I think by the bloodlessness of our political shifts, even one as charged as the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, into thinking that other such events in other places are equally mundane. Despite the rhetoric used by Obama detractors about the tree of liberty being watered by the blood of tyrants and the multiple deaths of innocents at the weapons of various hard-right figures, including our own deaths at Knoxville’s Tennessee Valley UU Church, the United States has been blessed in recent decades with relatively painless revolutions, almost to the point where the word means nothing anymore: the sexual revolution, the educational revolution, the digital revolution, the cultural revolutions and cultural wars. We toss those sobriquets out too quickly, as if all it takes to be a revolutionary is to disagree with someone in authority, forgetful that, in a real revolution, as in real evolution, people are hurt and people die.

"But the species goes on. Despite revolutions, societies also go on. Tunisia is still a chaotic place but Tunisia continues to exist as a real entity where people eat and fall in love and sell produce and sing and are born and die. There is no telling how events will settle in Egypt and sometime soon we may look back on these days after the uprising with a wistfulness and embarrassment that we could ever be so dewy-eyed and na├»ve. But Egypt too remains a real place where people are dancing and singing and setting off fireworks and honking truck horns and hoping and expecting. Just as with the American Revolution, history doesn’t stop after the immediate goal is accomplished. Like with evolution, life has a tendency to continue and just because a creature develops an arched foot doesn’t mean the effects end or the problems the change was meant to remedy stop. Work continues, responsibility continues. Reflection will be good for the Egyptians and the Tunisians and for us, looking back at our own euphoria after Barack Obama’s election, to decide whether we have been guilty not of having been somehow taken in but of having too quickly excused ourselves from our responsibilities."

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