How Do Americans Understand Revolution?

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian recently appeared on Bill Maher’s show to discuss U.S. foreign policy and our current situation in the Middle East. I don’t watch Bill Maher, but I found this discussion fascinating for several different reasons. For one, Greenwald takes exception to Maher’s generalizations about Islam, specifically that it is a uniquely violent and destructive religion. Greenwald contends that Maher’s premise is mistaken, and attempts to explain why. You can watch the video below and make your own conclusions about it.

Beyond the Middle East discussion, I was really intrigued by Charles Cooke’s suggestion that Americans have a problem thinking about revolution as bloody, violent, and chaotic. He believes the American Revolution was “great” and that the American Revolution was an exceptional revolution in the sense that the postwar years were relatively stable compared to other revolutions. Joy Reid responds by saying that the American Revolution was not exceptional and that it was not “great,” especially if you were slave (and, I would add, a slave that pledged allegiance to the British after they promised freedom to slaves who agreed to fight for the loyalists). Oh, and that nasty Civil War in the 1860s was a result of the flaws of the Constitution, wasn’t it?

The revolution discussion starts with a bit of context setting by Maher around 5:27.

I’m not sure I agree with Cooke when he suggests that American and British people have a problem understanding the violent nature of revolution, and I think his argument highlights the tensions surrounding the ongoing debate regarding whether or not America is an exceptional nation. But wasn’t the American Revolution a “massive step forward”? If so, does the American government have an obligation to support revolution abroad, so that other countries are able to have their “massive step forward” too?

Just some food for thought. Happy Mothers Day!

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2 responses

  1. I also don’t agree that Islam is a necessarily violent religion, but the Middle East is a historically violent region. For the vast majority of its history, issues have been settled through violence.
    How do Americans view revolution? When it lacks social change. There is a fantastic book I read for school called “Ideology in US Foreign Policy” by William Blum. He argues that ever since the French Revolution turned violent and destructive, Americans have been turned off by any revolution that upends the social order.

    While I agree with you that the failures of Constitution were some of the primary reasons for the Civil War it is very difficult for Americans to link these two events when they are sixty years apart.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks for the excellent comment and the book recommendation, Nathan! Yes, the Middle East has had its fair share of violence, but I think your point suggests that the Middle East isn’t a wholly Islamic region, which is very true, but easy to forget sometimes when we throw around the word “Middle East.”

      I will have to look into Blum’s book a bit more. Andre Fleche’s book “The Revolution of 1861” has persuasively argued that the American government actually supported numerous revolutions abroad prior to the Civil War. For instance, the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was supported by the United States government and revolutionaries like Louis Kossuth gained extraordinary fame in the United States. Fleche suggests that supporters of the Confederacy actually cited the U.S. government’s support of revolutions abroad for justifying their own attempts at leaving the country, and that the Lincoln administration had to formulate arguments and rhetoric around the preservation of “Law and Order” to justify their attempts to thwart secession. I highly recommend this study.

      And yes, I agree 100% that Americans sometimes struggle to connect the outbreak of the Civil War with the flaws of the Constitution. Thanks again for commenting!

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