Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Post-revolution Uncertainty

| May 30, 2011

Like America after the Revolutionary War, the Arab world faces turmoil

TODAY WE remember those who died in wars to protect America's freedoms. Today also marks the shift from the death of winter and the slow blossoming of spring to the burst of life of summer.

This spring belonged to the Arabs in Tunisia and Egypt. It is now officially over. The inspiring events in those nations, and the continuing pursuit of freedom within the region, is more complicated now. Egypt, the darling of dramatic change, is economically and politically unstable; we have all but forgotten Tunisia; and moderate reforms in other countries throughout the region may be illusory. Nations such as Libya and Syria are still in a violent winter of discontent.

What this new season brings is unknown, uncertain, and not often inspiring. In her new book "Liberty's Exiles," Harvard Professor Maya Jasanoff reminds us, through the stories of loyalists who fled America after the Revolutionary War, that these concerns should be familiar.

Most political discourse mythologizes our own Revolution; it barely mentions the post-revolutionary period. Indeed, President Obama tied the Arab struggles with our own in his speech on the Mideast: "(T)he scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar. Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire.'

Linking change abroad to our own revolutionary victory is a time-honored tradition by US presidents. Americans simply love the prospect of our own revolution taking root somewhere else, so much so that President Bush was able to herald our founding idealism to justify the invasion in Iraq.

To be fair, our founding fathers wanted it that way. They were the masters of an ideological narrative that made America's birth seem inevitable. The British could not compete with our forefathers' brilliant capacity to make an unexpected outcome seem all but destined. Thomas Jefferson described equality, that "all men are created equal," not as an aspiration (for a nation founded on slavery), but as a self-evident truth.

This inherited rhetoric — Obama also used Jefferson’s self-evident line in his Middle East speech — has masked, however, the reality of our post-colonial period: It was confusing and chaotic for the new citizens of an unformed nation.

Putting the very structure of our government aside, and the failed experiment of the Articles of Confederation, Jasanoff describes how American society itself was dramatically unsettled. We too often forget the complicated stories that animated the winners and losers and the society they sought to build. When America won the war, about 20 percent of its population (about half a million people) had supported the other side. The enormity of that statistic is numbing; one in every five men, women, or children had hoped for a different outcome.

Most of the loyalists were essentially pro-democracy, but could not abandon Britain. Some held positions with the royal government, others were recent immigrants to America and could not betray their birth country. For escaped slaves, anywhere but here was a suitable destination. At war’s end, these loyalists clustered in New York, Charleston, and Savannah. Most of them would stay in a nation they opposed, but Jasanoff describes through individual narratives the experience of Americans who fled, fearing retribution and violence. Sixty thousand new Americans, for they were all new then, emigrated to places as far-ranging as Nova Scotia, Jamaica, and Africa (where they founded Freetown, Sierra Leone, the black British colony). Two of Benedict Arnold's sons ended up in India.

The saga of the loyalist diaspora is not one of those stories that we relearn after so easily forgetting in history courses. We didn't forget it. As Jasonoff remarked to me, "Most of us never learned it."

Like most analogies, this one can be pushed too far. But "Liberty's Exiles" is a reminder that revolutions are not pre-ordained, and that post-revolutionary periods are not calm. The Arab Summer may not be as uplifting as the Arab Spring, but it may be more typical of revolutionary periods than what Americans have been taught of our own.

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For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Post-revolution Uncertainty.” The Boston Globe, May 30, 2011.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem