One hundred years ago Elihu Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He ended his plea, “Towards Making Peace Permanent,” with the following words:
“The hero-worshipper is gradually changing from the savage to the civilized conception of his divinities. Taken all in all, the clear and persistent tendencies of a slowly developing civilization justify cheerful hope.
“We may well turn from Tripoli and Mexico and the Balkans with the apocryphal exclamation of Galilei, ‘And still the world moves.’”
Mexico. Tripoli. The Balkans.
In the 1990s the Balkans were still being fought over – but a peace both incongruently tenuous and tenacious has persisted. Root, an American, must have been appreciated that Tripoli was the site of the fledgling nation’s first foreign war. And so a century later Tripoli has fallen from Qaddafi to rise up into liberal democracy. Mexico, on the other hand, is thwarted by a monstrous war, fuelled by drug lords. Around 40,000 have died in six years of ever-increasing violence.
From darkness and despair I return to these prizes, these individuals, to nourish and strengthen my resolve and purpose. Of the entries on this blog the one which I am most proud was from 2007, regarding September 11th. I focused initially on all the wonderful things, and then recognized all the horrid things that happened that day. The day is the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but also of the inauguration of the World Parliament of Religion, a peaceful movement designed to further inter-religious dialogue.
There are those who speak of revolution. Yet they do not know of what they speak.
The word, ‘revolution’, the very meaning, connotes a cycle. Revolutions are sexy. Revolutions are inspiring. The American Revolution brought forth democracy upon a continent. But we must always recall that the following French Revolution brought forth subjugation, terror and a continental war. Revolution exists to ensure that someone new ends up on top. Even disregarding the many failed revolutions of history, the successes are not always so heartening. Lenin, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Mao all rose to the top.
Last year’s most intriguing Nobel laureate was Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni Arabic woman. Her speech ended with the following words:
The Arab Spring has been lauded for its potential to bring human rights to the region. The most notable of these rights, to many minds including my own, is the treatment of women. Saudi Arabia allowed women in the Olympics for the first time this summer. Three countries have held elections – Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya – but Yemen is yet to be amongst them. Fighting in the Syrian civil war is a part of daily news.
It is our historical privilege to consider revolutions to be sexy. We have seen many succeed since WWII that bore out positive consequences. We do not concern ourselves, with enough frequency, with those that did not. We choose to look at Mandela, rather than the nearly fifty year still-ongoing Colombian Armed Conflict; the rise of Polish Solidarity instead of the coup that ousted Ghana’s great leader Nkrumah. How lucky we have been since Root’s day to see the number of democracies with full suffrage (then only three by a generous count) extend to the majority of the world’s countries. Yet the peace and rights that are commiserate with democratic principles are still being fought for, as Karman’s lecture reminds us.
Should revolution again reach our American shores we may not be so lucky as to get Adams, Washington, and Jefferson. This is why we must, all of us, commit to democratic principles at all costs. It is easy to look at the Arab Spring and be inspired by the march of rights. I understand and acknowledge the frustrations we have regarding the broken system. Washington is broken. Corporations have too much power. Thus it was in the 1890s, and then, too, was a spell of anarchistic violence and assassination. But from this wretchedness we emerged, the stronger, with Theodore Roosevelt and a new age of American prominence. The robber barons were stopped, the trusts busted, law and order restored. After the lawlessness of the Prohibition gangsters, economic misery of the Great Depression, and strain of two wars we emerged as a new superpower. Our trials make us stronger. It is easy to criticize the imperfections and moral failings, the internment camps and suspension of habeas corpus, the continued wiretapping and continued operation of Guantanamo Bay. But to simply criticize is to lose sight that after each of our great times of trial we have emerged stronger, if only for one reason: a commitment to democratic freedoms. It is not always exercised properly. And we must point out, as free citizens, when it lays abused and run-down. Yet the answer to these losses is not to forsake democratic ideals for revolution. The Civil War was a last resort, when all else had failed. From that, too, we emerged stronger, again owing to tenacity for democratic ideals. Still, over 600,000 of our own lay dead. We should not, then, lightly engage with such grave issues as revolution in America.
True, there may come a time when all other means of change are exhausted. “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies” Obama said in his Nobel lecture. “Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.” Indeed it is. While I concur that ‘revolution’ implies a cycle, I hope, if it does come, I will be remembered as one of those who fought for as long as possible against it happening here. Root hit upon the idea a century ago: revolutionaries are only heroes when the winners share our high-minded ideals – otherwise they are monsters.
To wind down consider the ever-prescient exchange, from ‘A Man for All Seasons’:
William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law! Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? William Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!
That is why trials following rule of law, not bombs, will always be the answer. Why, if I had a chance to pull the trigger on a war criminal in their home I’d be no better than James Earl Ray (who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.) or Leon Czolgosz (who assassinated President McKinley). Do not let your passions lead you astray. When darkness and despair come, when cynicism blinds us to all but the most seemingly stark and brutal choices to make, consider the work of those who strive always for the ideal, and consider whether you wish to walk in their footsteps, or march, voices raised high, with the mob.