It was the end of the 18th century and soon would come the beginning of the 19th. A new age that it was believed would usher in a world of transformation. The old tyrannical monarchies would fall and the success of the American revolution would be replicated across Europe.
First in line was France. The French revolution was heralded by America's revolutionary Francophiles such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. Support for the French revolution was identified with support for a broader revolution for mankind against tyranny and oppression. Much as the liberals of the 20th century would inflexibly commit themselves to supporting the great evil that was Communism, in the name of human progress- American liberals of the 18th would do for the French revolution.
Democracy was the goal. Freedom for all men. A new age.
At first the prospects seemed good. The American Revolution's chief propagandist, Thomas Paine, joined the National Assembly (even though he barely spoke a word of French.) George Washington wrote letters of advice to the hero of two revolutions, Lafayette, his surrogate son.
If the attitude is reminiscent of anything, it can be reminiscent of American troops entering Baghdad, coming to rebuild Iraq and idealistically bringing democracy to an oppressed people. Or liberals rejoicing in the Russian people overthrowing the Czar and creating a government of the workers. And then as now, idealism gave way to baffled horror, as the killing began.
The tide of blood began. Talk of liberty and freedom went on and so did the blades of the gullioutine. The revolution had begun to devour its own children. Many Americans looked away horrified, incapable of comprehending what had happened. After all the American experiment had encountered its share of troubles yes, the Whiskey Rebellion, Aaron Burr and the Federalist debates were notable early highlights, but nothing like this.
What Americans then and what Americans now had failed to understand that democracy is a tool. A means not an end. Used correctly democracy can create a republic of free men invested with rights and responsibilities. Used incorrectly democracy can lead to political bloodbaths, anarchy or a genocidal madman.
As in the 18th century, Americans continue to view democracy as a messianic ideal that will transform humanity. It may. In time. The reality though is democracy is simply a method of achieving political consensus. It is the fairest method we know and the least likely to be abused. But every method of government is also inherently unfair and abusive. It is the nature of the citizenry and the political class that determines whether its outcome is good or evil.
The fundamental error then and now in messianically embracing democracy as an ultimate good, is that we contrast it with tyranny as the ultimate evil. We falsely assume that tyranny is evil because it is undemocratic. While that is one aspect of tyranny's evil, the overall evils of tyranny come from abuses, atrocities and oppression. Democracy is not a perfect cure for those things. To the extent that its leadership is corrupt or void of empathy or committed to political philosophies that harm some in their society, the democracy they run reflects that.
Democracy and freedom are not the same thing. Just ask a Southern slave. Democracy and equality are not the same thing, just ask a white college student applying to college.
Democracy as we apply it is an outgrowth of ideals and ideas within Western culture and European history. Transplanted into another society, the effects are unpredictable. But beyond all the idealistic rhetoric, boiled down simply, democracy says that you don't have to kill in order to be treated fairly. You don't have to kill to survive, if your beliefs are different from the people running things. You don't have to kill to have your rights protected. You don't have to kill to have a voice in the way government is run. You can vote. You can lobby. You can protest without being shot down in the street.
This is not always the case even in democracies. That has not and is not always the case in America. But it is the case overall and that has been enough to keep things going. It combined with hefty doses of government welfare and a growing respect for human life has been enough to keep things going. It and the general exhaustion in the West for any more wars and killing has been enough to keep things going.
That is the reality. The myth of democracy as a near-religious icon has been what has blinded Americans time and time again when democracy was offered to other nations and peoples and those peoples shrugged and said "Who needs it" and went on killing anyway.
Democracy only works in a culture where different sides can agree to vote it out, instead of fight it out. Democracy only works in a culture that values human life enough to pull back from the brink and settle things by slandering each other in the press. Democracy only works in a culture where each other side believes the other side is wrong, but not so wrong they have to be wiped out and kept from any role in the country's future.
Where those conditions do not obtain, THERE WILL BE NO DEMOCRACY. It does not matter how many troops you send in. Not unless you are prepared to use those troops to slaughter every faction that is not prepared to lay down arms and accept the results of the voting booth, not caring what devastation we produce in the process. We are not prepared to do that and until we are discussing bringing democracy to Iraq or any Muslim country is a dead end.
Democracy will not produce Muslim countries that will respect human rights. Democracy is a truce. In a Muslim country it's an armed truce while both sides prepare to kill each other. Don't believe me? Look at Democracy in Lebanon or Gaza? That's what democracy looks like in a country where both sides care more about winning than about their own people.
Want a best case scenario of what democracy looks like in an unstable society? Take a look at Latin America. Want a worst case one, look at Russia.
Russia abandoned its brief flirtation with democracy in favor of a new dictatorship. Russia is never going to be a democratic country, simply because Russia has always been run by powerful cliques inserted into a rotten bureaucracy. Russia's democracy was simply more of the same. So was Communism. So were the Czars. So is Putin.
It's the same government with a different name, because it's the same society and culture. Governments don't define a society and a culture. A society and a culture define the government.
Colonial America had many of the same characteristics as Post-Colonial America. The Revolution simply gave Americans legal independence, a national government and the ability to set our cultural norms into law.
European democracy set the cultural norms of Europe into law. Namely a massive state bureaucracy, a static culture and tolerance of most things so long as they don't interfere with business as usual.
Iraqi democracy set Arabs norms into practice. Be loyal to your tribe and faction. Kill your enemies before they kill you. Attack anyone who shows weakness. Lie about all of the above until you believe it yourself.
Iraq or any Arab country will change when enough of its citizens desire it. Not until then, unless we're prepared to engage in the kind of force it takes to break their society down and rebuild it in our own image. It's possible but we won't do it, because we are who we are and they are who they are.
Our democracy is a great and wonderful thing. But it is not the cure for the world. It is who we are. It is a part and parcel of our Americaness. We cannot give it to another people unless they want it and are willing to accept it. And most will not, until they learn for themselves there is a better way.
Too often in our history we have chosen to believe that democracy is the innate condition of mankind when tyranny is removed. We believed that removing Louis or Saddam or Nikolai, would usher in democracy, freedom and human rights. But tyranny is the innate condition of mankind. Thousands of years of history indisputably back it up. Democracy is an ideal to be reached up for. Not something that emerges when the ground is cleared of tyranny.
Societal virtues cannot be given as a gift. They must be acquired by dedicated striving. When a people is ready to reach for self-improvement, they may have what we have. But until that day if we are to hold on to what we have, we must be prepared to defend ourselves against them and put our trust in destroying their threat potential through arms, not in rebuilding them into a virtuous society.