Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Independence

The Fourth of July celebration -- in origin quite earnest, and a time for historico-political speechmaking and some semi-military display -- has gradually softened and loosened, like an old sweater, into a fairly agenda-free holiday for kids:  Family, fireworks, fun, and french fries -- the four Fs of sweet July.  Well I recall, how we as kids  lined up along Ridgewood Avenue, excitedly half-comprehendingly, to watch the parade flow by.

As you grow older, some of it does get old.  Brief bursts of bright blotches against the night sky  no longer move me -- not, at any rate, so much as the least glimpse of God’s own handiwork, like the more permanent pattern-and-colorburst on the leaves of a coleus, or a lady cardinal in the bush.

But in another way, the meaning of this day grows ever deeper, even sombre.  For the success and permanency of the American Revolution was by no means a foregone conclusion -- we were truly in uncharted territory back then.   The more you learn about history, and the more history itself keeps happening, you are forced to conclude:  Most revolutions  go awry.

To begin with our own.   Contrary to the impression we got in school (back in the fifties, when we all sat dutifully at our desks), at the time of the Declaration of Independence, a bare one third of the American population was in favor of rebelling against Britain; a third against; a third undecided.   The perfect setting for an immediate post-revolution civil war.  Yet it did not happen (the Civil War a century later fell along quite different lines).  The only threat came again externally, in 1812 (“the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”), when the wrath of the British Empire was again turned against us, and the nation’s capital was set in flames.   The pinwheels and cherry bombs of latter days  commemorate an actual peril.

Nor were the political logistics of the Revolution so simple as that of one entity rebelling against one other:  at the time, we were not yet quite even America, let alone the UnitedStates;  but an assemblage of upwards of a dozen colonies, founded at different times by various creeds and ethnicities (Catholics in Rhode Island, Puritans in Massachusetts, Quakers and various German sects in Pennsylvania, and so forth) many of which had been at odds with one another back in the mother country, which is why some of them came here in the first place.  Yet they fought side by side;  and when victory was won, did not then fall to quarreling over the spoils, nor into strife as to which should be cock of the walk;  but together founded  a unified nation.
By contrast, India was one country at time of independence from Britain -- yet immediately fractured, savagely, along sectional lines.  What had been contemned as the British “yoke”  turns out to have been a garde-fou (et les fous se sont empar├ęs de l’asile).

Remarkably as well, we managed, over the years and (by now) centuries, to maintain (most of us) extremely cordial, even intimate relations with the Mother Country -- an unusual trans-hemispheric affinity, unmatched by the relations of the Latin American countries to Spain and Portugal (let alone Haiti or Algeria to France).

Consider next the French revolution -- “next”, because in fact it was subsequent to our own, having broken out in 1789;  though the way Europeans run on about it, you’d think it was the first revolution in the history of the world.  Anyhow, it remains a proud occasion;  the French version of Independence Day is Bastille Day, celebrated on July 14, with great fanfare.  (For our friendly nod to our old ally, click here:  Merci la France.)

Yet their revolution was -- franchise oblige -- a gorawful bloody cock-up.  Not content with overturning centuries of monarchy, the revolutionaries proceeded to la Terreur, and to a sort of overreaching ideological Gleichschaltung that foreshadowed the Bolshevik excess, and of successive waves of revolutionaries being eaten by their chilren, in a way that prefigured the Stalin-era trials. And to crown it all, it didn’t even stick:  within a couple of decades, the kings were back.
France did not ultimately found a Republic that stuck, after the imperial and revived-monarchical interludes, until 1871, with the Third Republic (which segued into the Fourth and Fifth, not without strife, but without a relapse into pre-Republican polity).   Nor did this event stem in any direct way from the events of 1789.  As William Shirer tells it, in The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969, chapter “A Freakish Birth): 

It came into being by a fluke.  The National Assembly, elected in 1871 … had not wanted a Republic.  Nearly two thirds of its members were Monarchists.  But they could not agree on a king …

So the lawmakers … sort of backed into the harness of a republic … by a majority of one vote … 353 to 352 -- though there would have been a tie  had one deputy, who was against it, not been late in arriving for the balloting.  Even then it was not clear to many members that they were actually choosing a republic.  The day before, they had rejected it, or thought they had.
By contrast, the Constitution that came out of our revolutionary days  has lasted and guided us down to the present, with comparatively modest and incremental additions.

~

Since the end of the Second World War, world history has been spotted by rebellions and revolts, mostly anti-colonial, in quest of independence.   And for the most part, the results have not been pretty.
MyanmarZimbabwe.   Algeria. Somalia.  Cambodia.  South AfricaCongo.  The fragment that is Pakistan, and the mini-fragment of Bangladesh.  And now most recently, South Sudan and Azawad.  Names like tombstones along the  the corpse-strewn path of History’s forced-march.
And thus the American declaration of independence, which shone at the time, shines yet more brightly now, against the contrasting dark.  It is as though the metal of which men then were made, deemed sturdy bronze at the time, were revealed, in the fullness of time, with the reckonings in and the dust dispersed, to have been, in actual and astonishing fact, of purest gold.

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