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COLUMN: Revolution without resolution

By Briana Bowen
On February 24, 2014

One of the most rigorous classes I took during my freshman year was taught by a wonderful professor who genuinely loved his subject — we were also frequently reminded of his genuine love for hockey, but you can’t really hold that against Canadians. He subscribed to a strict open door policy: If you didn’t like your grade on an exam, you were welcome to take it back to him for a full re-evaluation. The caveat, however, was that as he reviewed your exam the second time around, he reserved the right to raise your grade if he had somehow missed your scintillating brilliance the first time … or lower your grade, if he had rather overestimated your brilliance.

In essence, this professor gave his students a means of voicing their grievances, but he attached the real-world implication: Protesting doesn’t always yield the positive outcome you were aiming for.

That lesson is one that applies not only to the reevaluation of disappointing exam scores but to greater social grievances. We tend to associate popular protests and even revolution –– especially mass uprisings against unjust authoritarian governments –– as positive movements destined for positive outcomes. We want to believe that once the demos, the common people, shake off the chains of oppression imposed by their corrupt governments, it is but a matter of time before a stable, peaceful and prosperous democracy is established.

The reality is somewhat more complicated. Yes, popular uprisings sometimes do lead to positive systemic revolutions –– like our favorite in-house example, the American Revolution. But sometimes, the fruit of revolution has turned out to have a rancid core. In the past, some popular uprisings have overthrown bad governments only to install an even worse brand of tyranny. The French Revolution removed a corrupt aristocracy from power, yet laid the way for the rise of Napoleon. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution obliterated the old Russian tsarist regime, but replaced it with the early foundations of Soviet communism.

Sometimes the negative outgrowth of revolution is not immediately apparent. The Arab Spring uprising in Egypt in 2011 that ousted President Hosni Mubarak seemed to hold promise as a turning point: a golden window of opportunity to establish a true democracy in Egypt. Yet three years after the revolution, Egypt seems to be on track to slip back into the clutches of a military dictatorship, aesthetically disguised in the fashionable robes of democracy.

Does this mean all popular uprisings are predestined for disaster? Clearly not. Among other examples, the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia lasted for six weeks — amazingly, all nonviolent protests — and led to a full transition of power from a Communist regime to a free republic.

Rather than categorically labeling uprisings as good or bad, my point is to show popular revolution is a mixed bag: A positive outcome is not impossible, even in challenging circumstances, but it is certainly not guaranteed. Indeed, sometimes movements hoping to bring about democracy in authoritarian countries have the disappointingly ironic result of further restricting freedom. In countries where positive change actually is brought about by revolution, establishing a mature democracy is inevitably a long and slow process.

We would do well to exercise cautious optimism as we witness the courage of the men and women in Ukraine and other countries who have taken to the streets to affect positive change –– optimism, because history has shown that remarkable things are possible when the will of the people rises in one unified voice; caution, because history has shown that the best intentions sometimes spawn the ugliest monsters.

Briana is a political science major in her last semester at USU. She is an avid road cyclist and a 2013 Truman Scholar. Proudest accomplishment: True Aggie. Reach Briana at b.bowen@aggiemail.usu.edu.

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