a history of violence

“Nationalism is like cheap alcohol.
First, it makes you drunk, then it makes you blind, and then it kills you.”

Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State, U.S. State Department

With a history of social chaos that spans most of human existence, it isn’t surprising that personal freedom is a fairly recent phenomena. This so-called “inalienable right” was only introduced in Holland, France, America and the fragile Ottoman Empire over the last few centuries, after years of philosophical introspection and ultimately bloody rebellion. Unlike the fall of the Roman and Greek empires — where authority was more regulatory than ascendant — these “populist” revolutions signaled not merely a new set of rules but also a radical shift in personal identity. Living for millennia as a source of feudal labour and then suddenly being infused with a sense of human value beyond simple macroeconomic utility, these rebellions transformed the lives and lifestyles of hundreds of millions of citizens around the globe. Nationalism replaced tribalism. Freedom replaced justice. “You and I” replaced “us and them”, and without any formal education to soften the blow, the masses were understandably slow to adjust.

french-revolutionIt was a recipe for disaster. Corrupt kingdoms and military regimes were less than suitable guardians of the people, but at least there was comfort in belonging — and simplicity in control. With the dawn of the “self” as an independent, functioning unit of society, the revolutionaries were presented with something entirely new: a constitutional responsibility to protect the rights of the individual. Such power, it turned out, was easier to capture than to wield.

Sweeping into command under a banner of equality, freedom and brotherhood, these educated and ambitious rebels were unprepared to deal with an illiterate, unsophisticated majority. That intellectual dichotomy — between ruler and ruled — became as dangerous for the liberators as it was for their freshly empowered citizens, and often devolved into some form of military dictatorship within the first few decades of pseudo-constitutional rule. Centuries later, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and less recently along the fringes of the fallen Soviet Empire, the same cultural and political divide seems to be unfolding yet again. Sadly, for the war-torn proletariat, they’ve come with an even shorter interlude between democracy and despair.

While noble in spirit, most modern iterations of Western “freedom” have been managed with less than adequate care. Consider, for example, the nature of daily life for the people of Ottoman Turkey. Before the ideas of French combat and philosophy spread through the literate military and civilian ranks, secular monotheism was the unifying pillar of social strength and identity. In the aftermath of Napoleon’s early Middle Eastern conquests, imported Frankish patriotism quickly changed all that, leaving the Turks with a new-found sense of authority but no idea how to wield it. Other than an immigrant merchant class and an established Islamic bureaucracy, the average Ottoman civilian was little more than an unskilled labourer, communal in values and identity, and subject to the rule of an autocratic Sultan.

The peasantry couldn’t study Rousseau or Smith — or even write their names — but with the dawn of these early populist constitutions, people across Eurasia were expected to participate, albeit theoretically, in the complex international politics of their time. A natural consequence of this inexperience was that opinions and votes were easily influenced by those in power. Revolutionary officials played directly into the cultural passions of their fellow citizens — infusing them with nationalist sentiment, but avoiding any hint of true socio-economic equality. As a result, many noble insurrectionist causes were stained with by lopsided, self-interested regimes that followed.

Though it might sound unethical and logistically impossible, the region may have been far better served had its human rights movement been served up in smaller doses over time: knowledge of freedom before freedom itself. Consider the benefits of a system where citizens are only given their new rights once they’ve been educated on how to use them, both for their own benefit and for the greater public good. Two simple corollaries arise: 1) that everyone must be offered the chance to learn about their rights, and 2) that once given, these rights can never be revoked. The distinction here is important: responsibility for education remains in the hands of the new regime. If the founding revolutionaries are as idealistic as the rest of their liberal propaganda, so the theory goes, liberal academic instruction should become an early priority.

Traditionally, the biggest problem with founding a new constitution is that any resulting principles, while conjured up in the best interest of the entire nation, only reflect the perceptions and predictions of the literate, politically active minority. Within weeks of a revolution, equality quickly devolves into a theoretical concept — stored away for future reference — while the spoils of rebellion are distributed among highest ranks of the victorious coup. To be sure, slavery was still an American failure nearly a century after its constitution was first signed, France was anything but “equal” and “free” under the rule of its most notorious General, and Russia devolved into an economic nightmare before “peace, land and bread” were ever adequately supplied.

But what if that was all avoidable? What if the demagogues could be silenced before their inflammatory rhetoric takes hold? What if a provisional bureaucracy could be established until a democratic consensus is found? What if the people were asked what they want instead of being told what they need? What if the country were to be run like a foundation or trust account, with the status quo summarized for stakeholders and a vision of the future proposed? It certainly couldn’t happen over night, but over the course of twelve months — a reasonable delay considering the gravity of the decision — the voice of the true majority could be heard. Any provisional authority (much like the trustee in a bankruptcy) could then authorize a dynamic and responsive constitution, ushering in an era of unprecedented stability and equality. This solution would obviously require educational infrastructure, concentrated intellectual capital, and some massive altruism on the part of the successful rebels. But without such a consultative process, is the creation of a lasting, post-revolutionary democracy even possible?

The scenario shares an obvious parallel in the modern Middle East, more so Iraq than Afghanistan because of the variety of cultures involved. Millions of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish Iraqis turned out to vote for a new democratic assembly in 2006. The images were priceless: burka-clad women holding up their coloured thumbs after nearly a half-century of dictatorial rule. But were they really participating in democracy? Were they really making choices based on the pursuit of freedom, equality and fraternity? Were their votes really cast to support a representative of their choosing? Were they ever taught how democracy works? Were they promised wealth and prosperity that would never be delivered? Were they asked to sacrifice liberty for a temporary peace?

Years after the invasion, and months after the “election”, few Iraqi civilians have any idea what’s really happening to their country. They may understand whatever they’ve been told, but they don’t understand why they were told it. In that regard, they’re no different from their former Ottoman cousins to the northwest, or their Tibetan cousins to the east, or their Bolivian cousins across the Atlantic, or to any other impoverished majority who have traditionally been manipulated by a powerful minority in order to serve the best interests of the few.

The trouble is, any political indoctrination is by its very nature subjective. Newly enfranchised voters can only decide based on what they’ve been taught by their new democratic leadership. Worse still, their perceptions of the world have already been shaped by the trauma of their formative years, producing a view of material existence that is often skewed by regional or tribal myth. History in Baathist Baghdad is quite different from history in rural Nebraska, which is itself quite different from history in British Hong Kong, and so on.

The thing to notice here aren’t the particular differences themselves, but that experiential differences exist at all. Defining world history is such a subjective human art. To be sure, a shopkeeper in Tikrit would be overwhelmed by the full story of his country’s place in the world if it wasn’t sufficiently editorialized. There are, however, pieces of information (and misinformation) that hard-working Tikritis might like to know before they cast the first ballot of their life. If democracy was truly a priority, it should have been the duty of any provisional Iraqi government to provide that formative education.

In the relatively democratized West, we can fill in these informational blanks for ourselves. We can expand our understanding of the world through books, instruction, and travel. But for many in the working class throughout the developing world, a more subjective historical framework is already in place, requiring years of deprogramming to alter in any meaningful way. The one real solution may rest with formative education. Consider children growing up in war-torn Gaza, or Darfur, or Port-Au-Prince and the environment they experience every day. Consider the North Koreans or the Chechens or the Kurds. These are people whose entire existence, outside of the trials of everyday life, is predicated on the hatred of “outsiders”, groups of people not much different than themselves who have been villainized by political and cultural authorities as the source of all things foul.

If the task of objective, fact-based education is too daunting or impractical, nascent 21st century regimes should at least commit to a less revisionist slant when instructing their young. Let them confess as they preach. Let them concede as they denounce. Let their textbooks reflect the wide lens of international opinion, and describe in painful detail the real dawn and noon of their freedom.

This asymmetry of information is a great place to start if we ever hope to conquer the democratic deficit in modern regime change. People have to understand that they are only one side of an endless equation, first as heroes then villains then heroes again. What fledgling democracies need now is a more objective history of the world, one free of bias and motive and myth. To accomplish this, the world’s power brokers need to accept a new and greater responsibility, to liberty and knowledge above their own self-interest, and the pursuit of a lasting framework for peace.