Revolution and zealotry, a dialogue

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

The other day Weiss did a post criticizing a piece about the Arab Spring by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley published by the New York Review of Books and titled, “This Is Not a Revolution.” David Bromwich had a response to it. A dialogue ensued.


We disagree about the Agha-Malley article on the Arab Spring. Their first
few paragraphs (it’s true) are written in an impressionistic, excited manner,
piecing together unorganized images–a style they haven’t properly mastered.
Plainly it’s intended to show how little the events interpret themselves; but
the result conveys a bristling uncertainty and fear, perhaps at odds with what
was intended.

Still the message seems to me simple. This is something new in the world,
they are saying. We don’t know yet what it is. Let’s not either denounce or
celebrate prematurely. It will be hard to enough to look closely; hard enough
to think before we act.

You and I differed on the NATO bombing and drone attacks that gave Libya to
the rebels against Gaddafi. A very mixed force, as we now realize (we still
don’t know a lot about them). Enormous uncertainty–“guarded optimism” shaded
by real anxiety–was the tenor of a description I recently heard from an Arab
friend visiting from another of the revolutionized countries. This person was
brought up Muslim and has become secular. Was it phobic of him to express his
doubts? and to caution a young religious friend who sat with us (a Christian),
“Religion is a drug!” However you judge such wariness, evangelical Islamism is
a strong element in all these revolutions. When Texas rebelled against Mexico,
the rebels were also revolutionists. So, too, are the settlers who have been
taking one outpost after another from the Palestinians on the West Bank. Is it
Judeophobic of you to express reservations about the Jewish evangelists?

Revolutions are a strange thing. They can be great and good, or great and
terrible; sometimes both. What then dictates the imperative to “root for” them
simply because one of the strains we hear at a distance speaks of liberation in
a language we find familiar? The familiarity may be an illusion.

Other differences lie under this, of course. But (allowing for the misfire of
those opening paragraphs) why not grant to Agha-Malley that their published
doubts may carry a certain benefit? Among other things, they mean to cool the
sort of unearned enthusiasm that might induce us to support killing in a cause
we’ve haven’t yet understood.

Burke wrote in the opening paragraphs of his book on the French Revolution,
in 1790:

“When I see the spirit of liberty in action, I see a strong principle at work; and this, for a while, is all I can possibly know of it. The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose: but we ought to suspend our judgment until the first effervescence is a little subsided, till the liquor is cleared, and until we see something deeper than the agitation of a troubled and frothy surface. I must be tolerably sure, before I venture publicly to congratulate men on a blessing, that they have really received one. Flattery corrupts both the receiver and the giver; and adulation is not of more service to the people than to kings. I should therefore suspend my congratulations on the new liberty of France, until I was informed how it had been combined with government; with
public force; with the discipline and obedience of armies; with the collection of an effective and well-distributed revenue; with morality and religion; with the solidity of property; with peace and order; with civil and social manners. All these (in their way) are good things too; and, without them, liberty is not a benefit while it lasts, and is not likely to continue long. The effect of liberty to individuals is, that they may do what they please. We ought to see what it will please them to do, before we risque congratulations, which may soon be turned into complaints. Prudence would dictate this in the case of separate insulated private men; but liberty, when men act in bodies, is power. Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions, they have little or no experience, and in situations where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers.”

Do you disagree with the prudence Burke recommends as a general stance? Or,
are there particular facts about the Arab Spring that you believe give grounds
for supporting those who attack the existing governments?–notwithstanding the
disorganization of the rebel parties. (If so, what are those facts?) On the
whole, I think Burke’s prudential warning stands up well. Zhou Enlai, whose
politics were remote from Burke’s, was asked late in life whether he thought
the French Revolution had been a success. He replied “It’s too soon to tell.”

Are Agha and Malley suggesting anything more uncharitable than the posture of
watching and waiting? What do we we know, thus far, about Tunisia, Egypt, Libya,
Syria, or any other country of that region which would suggest that we already
know enough, that it’s not too soon to tell, and that we should assist any of
the revolutions accordingly?


We differ. I was for the Libyan intervention, I’m still for it. Leaders have to decide, and I think Obama’s decisions vis-a-vis Libya and Egypt were the right ones. (In Egypt he might have saved that country from Syria’s fate.) There is absolutely no question that Salafis are empowered by all this, but I am progressive in my outlook: This needs to work its way out, but it will be a step forward. This is my temperamental prejudice.

As to your question, Yes, I disagree with Burke’s recommendation of prudence; inasmuch as, these moments represent stark choices, and when the fat is already in the fire, as it was in Egypt and Libya (and Syria too), I will choose revolution. I tend to favor these releases of human liberty, I recognize the tremendous dislocation they bring about, but I’m on the side of the dislocation. I think the French revolution was in the end a good and vital thing, and that even the Iranian revolution had some positive results, though it is impossible to view that revolution outside the context of an imperial relation, which we have the power to modify.

And by the way, it’s in view of the tremendous suffering that these revolutions have caused that I am for boycott. There are revolutionary materials being stacked in Israel and Palestine. Someone will light them on fire. The real prudence here is to attempt to forestall a stark choice between tyranny and chaos by pressuring the leaders…
As to your analogy of the Salafists to the settlers, I accept the analogy; and this is why I am for a democracy of all the governed, in which extremists might be marginalized by a broad center, something that Israeli society on its own and Palestinian society on its own are incapable of achieving, without political combination. I think that there is something about this in the Federalist papers: that the way to deal with revolutionary energy, which is inevitable, is thru democratic processes. C.f., The Tea Party, now largely dissipated.
I know nothing about Islam, as I concede, and I’m leery of Islamism; but the other day a Muslim said to me, There is an Islamic principle, which almost all Muslims have obeyed, that decades of tyranny are better than one day of chaos. That is a truly conservative principle; and you can see that it does not work any more…
It was unsustainable before I put my two cents in, or Obama did. Because of a modern idea, of self-determination, which we cannot contain. (And when I told my friend I wanted to use the statement, he adds: “The prophet has said ‘the most meritorious jihad is saying truth to a tyrant.’ So you can see from both quotes that like any complex system of thought, there is always authority for conflicting ideas and notions, and they came about in various contexts, and they get emphasized depending on context.”)
John Brown was a religious madman. He was a Salafist in his way. His only reading was the Bible; and he happily sacrificed his sons to his cause. It is inevitable that people who are absent material interests play an outsize role in this type of history. I imagine that the zealots of France and Russia were no easier to get your arms around, to judge from what I’ve read of Burke and Dostoyevsky’s Devils. (I don’t know about American history; so I shouldn’t have mentioned our revolution).
But I don’t see how these types can be excluded when people take up arms against tyrants, though it is my aim in Israel/Palestine not to empower them.

Your response makes the issue plain. You are a liberationist of a sort. In me, the anti-war principle outranks almost every other; support no war except in self-defense–and it has to be really myself and really defense. We agree in wanting to discourage and work to stop oppression.

Update: Thanks to commenter Gamal for correcting Zhou Enlai reference, which we had as Ho Chi Minh earlier.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Frankly, I’ve never seen how it is possible to react to someone who “supports” wars they have no intention of fighting, nor even the possibility of being endangered by, (let alone any conception of paying for) with anything but the most complete contempt.
Wow, somebody brave enough to bear the images of a far-away war in the media, what a frickin’ hero.

You guys can agree or disagree on non-intervention all day, but this is a separate discussion from the one about the flavor of Malley & Agha’s article. Bromwich says something similar, but ascribes to M&A simple “watching and waiting.” Wrong. This dynamic duo would alter US foreign policy to punish Islamists wherever they are to be found, no matter whether democratically-elected. Using Burke to justify skepticism of any new democratically-elected government would also call Israel’s… Read more »

RE: “I was for the Libyan intervention, I’m still for it. Leaders have to decide, and I think Obama’s decisions vis-a-vis Libya and Egypt were the right ones.” ~ Weiss MY COMMENT: I initially supported it as well, but very soon afterwards I began to very much regret it after seeing the way the U.S. and its allies flagrantly, grotesquely, and shamelessly abused the UN Security Council resolution on Libya (authorizing member states to establish… Read more »

And I thought “speaking truth to power” was a Quaker aphorism. Perhaps it is, even as the idea seems to have arisen independently with Muhammad: Our title, Speak Truth to Power, taken from a charge given to Eighteenth Century Friends, suggests the effort that is made to speak from the deepest insight of the Quaker faith, as this faith is understood by those who prepared this study. We speak to power in three senses: To… Read more »

If Burke’s prudence had been applied by the US (and the world community) to Israel in 1948, we wouldn’t have the untenable situation we have now. We could have taught the revolutionaries from Bialystock what it means to create a nation; in fact, insisted upon it instead of allowing them to slide like mercury over other people’s lives and land, with no borders, no constitution, then claim the gall to call it a democracy because… Read more »