So, continuing with my reading of Alistair Horne’s history of Paris, I read last night through the advent of the tyrannical Second Empire. I know that we are only a couple of decades and two score pages from the Communards and their terror. Last night, closing the book, I thought about my post earlier in the day complaining about the pettiness and seeming pointlessness of contemporary American politics — and, reflecting on how tumultuous and bloody France’s postrevolutionary governments were, said a little prayer of thanksgiving for the problem of boring, staid government.
I know, I know, it’s an obvious point, but not obvious enough, if you focus on reading the daily papers, and ignore the view from 30,000 feet (that is, history). A few weeks ago, I blogged about how a friend of mine who works in human rights law said that talking with his clients, most of whom escaped regimes and countries in which they were terribly oppressed, renews his faith in our governmental system, despite its all-too-clear mediocrity.
Another lesson I’m being reminded of reading the Horne book: it can be hard to separate the good from the bad in strong leaders. Napoleon Bonaparte was in many respects a monster: a dictator and a warlord who brought ruin onto many nations (ultimately his own) in the pursuit of personal glory. But Napoleon also did a great deal for France to bring order, reliable government, and material improvement to a nation reeling from the tumult of the Revolution. We see Napoleon’s very great faults, of course, but if any of us would have been an ordinary person in Paris who lived through the Revolution, I can easily imagine that Napoleon would have seemed very much worth supporting.
Similarly, Putin. I think he’s pretty much a gangster, but if I had lived through the fall of communism and the Yeltsin years, I may well support Putin, despite everything. In our country, we have lived with stable government for so very long we find it hard to imagine what it’s like not to have it.