In July 1789, the people of Paris rose up and stormed the Bastille, Paris’ notorious prison and symbol of autocratic rule and oppression. They grabbed the warden, beat the crap out of him until he was dead and then cut off his head, stuck it on a pole and marched it around the city. It was probably a bit over the top considering that he was merely a bureaucratic functionary doing his job but the people corrected themselves later by going after the monarch and aristocrats.
Things really started rolling then, especially heads.
Unfortunately, the revolutionary government became even more oppressive than the monarchy it replaced. It ruled by tyranny in the name of democracy and used terror as a political instrument. Eventually, the people who had started and led the revolution, turned on each other and themselves became victims of the same blood-thirsty tyranny imposed by the Revolutionary Council.
Robespierre and St. Juste used corruption charges to remove Camille Desmoulins and Geroges-Jacques Danton (two of the revolution’s founders), among others, from their positions and had them executed. Shortly thereafter, it was time for St. Juste and Robespierre to feel the sharp edge of the revolution on the back of their necks.
It was tyranny dressed up as a democratic republic but as so often happens, it was all dressed up but had nowhere to go. It became known as the Reign of Terror and it was intentional and chaotic. Eventually order was restored and Napoleon crowned himself emperor, embarked France on European wars that eventually led to his downfall and that, my friends, led to the restoration of the monarchy. Events had come full circle and a lot of people had lost their heads to achieve pretty much nothing up to that point.
France did eventually become a democratic republic which continues to thrive to this day but it was a violent and circuitous route to get here.
So what has that got to do with today?
Perhaps nothing but The French Revolution was started by a disenfranchised populace similar to how many feel today. The people of France had reached a stage where they had nothing left to lose and much to gain by overthrowing violently, what they could not change peacefully. Almost three hundred years later, we have seen the same thing in places like Libya, Iran, Egypt and perhaps a tad less violently but just as traumatically, the former Soviet Union and East Germany.
Like them, we are experiencing a growing discontent with our political system, our governments and the lack of opportunity for too many to share the wealth and opportunities of our nations.
Some will point out that for the most part, the countries I named were all totalitarian states but consider this. The closer a democracy moves to being governed rather than being served by its elected representatives and a privileged few, the closer it moves to its own form of totalitarianism.
We live in democratic nations these days where the principles upon which many of those same nations were founded have been eroded by cynical politics and special interest on both the left and the right. There isn’t much difference between the attitudes of the French aristocracy before the blade started falling and many who sit in their ivory towers on Wall Street or who rally the troops for more largesse over at Union Headquarters. Caught in the middle are politicians who pay lip service to their oath of office to serve the people while stuffing political support, privilege and cash into their pockets.
It ain’t pretty and people are angry, frustrated and increasingly feeling more disenfranchised. Many believe that their vote no longer counts for anything on election day and too many feel that their political and government institutions have not only been taken from them but have become the enemy.
That was precisely how the French Revolution started. More and more people spoke out expressing their discontent in pamphlets and flyers. Today we use social media but the end result is the same; we are divided by opinion but share a common, if not always focused, anger and frustration. At some point if nothing changes, the frustration will overtake ideology and we will be united by the fact that we have nothing left to lose and the possibility of much to gain by taking more violent action.
So far, in our democratic nations, almost all of the violence has been restricted to extremists and those with seriously faulty wiring but our political leadership would do well to remember the lessons of history. Any people who feel they cannot bring about change peacefully will eventually rise up to impose change by any means at their disposal. This isn’t a call for or a justification for revolution. It is a warning that revolutions happen when the people no longer feel they have any other choice left to them.
We’re standing in the shadow of the blade now and it is up to all of us to decide whether it starts falling on necks or we unite to demand integrity, vision and respect from those we elect and who represent us. It’s up to us to decide if we can channel our anger into something positive that is closer to the noble ideals set out in our constitutions and bills of rights or whether we will continue to slide into a revolution of anger and violence we will never control.
Learning to respect each other again despite our different opinions and ideologies would be a good place to start. Learning to treat listen to those who hold different opinions to our own rather than shouting them down would be an even better place.
Otherwise, we might as well just sharpen the blade and let the chips (and heads) fall where they may.
© 2012 Maggie’s Bear
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