ORIGINALITY OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

A short response to the article "A Tale Of Two Revolutions" of the previous issue

by: Fereydoun Hoveida

With many thanks to Mr. Hoveida 


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On the surface all revolutions present common features: demonstrations, riots , fighting, wars, overthrow of authorities in place, new governments and so forth.   Actually in our information age, these visible aspects make the news and flood television screens.  Yet there are no two identical or even parallel revolutions. Thus, in the past twenty years Iranian Ayatollahs and Afghan Talibans seized the power and established Islamic regimes. It is true that both look backward instead of turning toward the future, but nevertheless they profoundly differ from one another. The Talibans used their army in order to impose their brand of Islam in Afghanistan.  Mao‚s Red Army in 1949 transformed China into a communist nation.  Because of this resemblance in the means of „conquestš, can we compare the Chinese and the Afghan revolutions?  Reporters and commentators like to offer hasty explanations which seldom go beyond the appearances.  For instance, in the case of Iran, they insisted on the poverty of the peasants and the cities‚ „under-classesš, when in the 1970s, for the first time in many centuries there were no famine and all Iranians either in the country side or in urban surroundings were eating to their fill and enjoyed higher standards of living. Many experts enumerated similarities with the Iranian , the French and even the Russian upheavals -Revolutions ,they told us , „eat their own childrenš. They discerned „Thermidorianš and „Jacobineš periods in Khomeini‚s doings. It is true that the Russian and the Iranian revolutions were both „ideologicalš: Marxism for the former and Islam for the latter . Moreover, both imposed strict authoritarian rules; but, if after almost one century we know a lot about Lenin and Stalin, we remain at sea about the Iranians‚ motives: they overthrew one dictatorship to bow immediately to a harsher one! 

I , for one, discard comparisons between historical events . One can only compare what is comparable.  I read with utmost interest Mr. Petersen‚s piece about the American and the French revolutions.  In my opinion , they cannot be compared because of the basic differences in their contexts. The American one involved colonies of the British crown while the French one concerned a national state. The French were fighting against absolutism and in favor of citizen‚s rights. The Americans already enjoyed some of the rights embodied in documents such as the Magna Carta ( 1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1628). Their goal was independence from the colonial power while the French aimed at overthrowing the absolute monarchy and proclaim the individuals‚ rights and civil liberties. It seems to me futile to try to establish the „superiorityš of one in regard of the other. In „spiritš, so to say , they both were part of a larger movement of thought which developed in Europe since the Renaissance. 

Be this as it may, Mr. Petersen‚s analysis reminded me of my teen years when I was a student in a French Lycee just prior to and during World War II.  What our history professors told us about the last years of the French monarchy and the taking of the Bastille infamous prison on July 14,1789, transformed me and my class mates into staunch admirers of the French revolution.  The Declaration of the rights of man and citizens struck me particularly.  This was quite normal as we all dreamt of the day when third world ős people, including Iranians ,would enjoy similar rights and freedoms(Alas this has not happened up to now). In high school we also learned about the American revolution, but our model remained the French uprise. My early encounter with the ideas of human rights and civil liberties left a deep imprint in my mind. It was as if a hidden voice was guiding me in that direction.  Indeed after I joined the Iranian Foreign ministry in 1945, one of my first and most significant jobs was my participation in the finalization of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the UN in the autumn of 1948. I was assigned as a young diplomat to the Third Committee which was in charge of the draft Declaration. Our senior delegate had to quit and for reasons which would be too long to state here, was not replaced . As a result I found myself in the seat of Iran, rising of all a sudden from simple secretary to the status of plain delegate!  In that UN Committee, one of my law professors, the late René Cassin, represented France. He enrolled me in a private group he had formed with the late Eleanor Roosevelt in order to sort out the numerous amendments and sub-amendments. I would feel remiss if I do not underline here that without the untiring efforts of Mrs. Roosevelt and professor Cassin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights would have never been adopted. Since 1948, Human Rights, in one form or another, remained linked to my career both as a national and international civil servant. Thus, when, in 1952, I joined the secretariat of Unesco, I was assigned to a division called:  „Free Flow of Information".  For more than a decade I was involved in freedom of information programs in developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.  I returned to the service of Iran in 1965 and found myself almost immediately immersed in the negotiations concerning the two Covenants on Human Rights that were adopted by the United Nations in 1966.   In1968, I was responsible for the organization of the International Conference which was held in Tehran under the aegis of the United Nations in order to mark the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration.  In 1993, I represented some non-governmental organizations at the Vienna Conference on the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the Universal Declaration ∑. I shall never forget my 1948 involvement in the adoption of the Universal Declaration.  I signed the document on behalf of our foreign minister and I am probably the only survivor among the signatories who all were much older than me ( I was only 24 at that time! ).  But more than that, what amazes me to day is a discussion with our head of delegation and other senior representatives at the Third session of the UN General Assembly in Paris.  I just had obtained my doctorate in law from the Sorbonne and studied seriously the text of the draft Declaration.  In the first staff meeting of our delegation,  I stated that each article of the Declaration was in contradiction with Iranian laws and practices.  The foreign minister shrugged his shoulders: „Never mind!  The Americans want it and we need Washington‚s help.  So vote like Mrs. Roosevelt!š.  Then the old diplomat added:  „ In any case this is a General Assembly resolution.  It is not binding.  It is just a piece of paper.  It won‚t have practical consequences.  In a year or so people would forget about it".   He died a few years later and did not see the ever expanding world-wide influence  „this piece of paper".  If the then foreign minister had lived long enough, he would have seen, for example, in 1978, the Iranian intellectuals and journalists brandishing it against a bewildered and shaky Shah.   For years the Iranian monarch had brushed aside the protests of human rights non-governmental organizations. When he finally woke up to the uproar, it was too late! Now,  repeating the mistakes of their predecessor, Tehran‚s mullahs hide under their turbans and mantles, rejecting the protests against their gross violations of the rights.  At any rate, in 1993, in the Vienna Conference marking the 45th anniversary of the Universal Declaration,  there were more than 1000 human rights non-governmental organizations represented.  Amnesty International, since its inception, is campaigning everywhere against abuses and has become a thorn in the flesh of all authoritarian governments∑ Over the years,  since I am now living in the United States, I pondered on the American Constitution, its Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.  All these documents bear resemblance to similar documents of other democracies.  But, I found in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence  an „additional " idea which attracted me.  Indeed, among human inalienable rights, the Declaration mentions the „pursuit of happinessš.  United States is far from being an ideal society.  It has many shortcomings. In some domains, Europeans seem more advanced. Nevertheless, I submit that the original notion of „pursuit of happinessš, puts the American revolution ahead of all other progressive revolutions. Indeed, in a way, this idea encompasses all other rights and freedoms. It tells that governments are established to secure individuals‚ basic rights, that governments derive their powers from the people, and many other things too. It means that humans are born equal and free. It constitutes a bulwark against tyranny and exploitation∑ A decade or so back, I listened in Manhattan to a very interesting talk given by V.S. Naipaul about what he dubbed: the „universal civilizationš. He concluded his remarks with an apology of the idea of  „pursuit of happinessš. I had noted some of his comments which I offer here as a conclusion to this short paper.  „(This idea),he said, fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don‚t imagine my father‚s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it:  the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away". 

To me, it also reflects the profound meaning of our legend of Simorgh.  At the end of their parlous trek the thirty birds find out that they are themselves Simorgh. Instead of looking for an elusive "parental " archetype, they should rather engage in the pursuit of happiness!

 Fereydoun hoveyda , september 2001

 

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