For every Paine there seems to be an Edmund Burke*; anti-revolutionary, distrusting radical enthusiasms, advocating slow, incremental change. They are becoming more visible as a result of the UN intervention in Libya, though they had always been there, expressing reservations about the revolutions themselves, often making their governments hesitant. They don't ostensibly support the existing regimes, but would prioritise stability over rapid change.
A few Burkes are drawn into denial if not outright apologism. For example, Richard Falk can actually write,
The main pretext given for the intervention was the vulnerability of Libyan civilians to the wrath of the Gaddafi regime. But there was little evidence of such wrath beyond the regime's expected defence of the established order, although admittedly being here undertaken in a brutal manner, which itself is not unusual in such a situation.But mostly they produce this sort of stuff from Abdelkader Benali - it could be seen as a Western plot, it looks like a tribal war between rival regions, better to have a broader coalition, more Arab involvement is needed, etc., etc. Sometimes the sceptics give credence to regime propaganda, raising the spectre of Al Qaeda or the risk that something could go terribly wrong in the aftermath. Thankfully in Libya, the Paines seized the day at the last minute, though the Burkes still rumble on about not exceeding the UN resolution or not backing regime change, rather than accepting that whilst Gaddafi remains so does the threat to civilian lives. This caution produces talk about a cease fire or even partition, both of which would cement Gaddafi's position in the west and allow him to regroup and rearm. Neither policies have a great pedigree, though both are wonderful excuses for inaction.
And so the debate over Libya is much the same as the one Burke and Paine had over France in the 1790s; the radical, democratic activist against the cautious, conservative reformist. One of the odd things is how conservatism seems to have infected the left, whilst some on the right have become revolutionary sympathisers.
I am temperamentally disposed to be a Paine, so I dislike this cautious conservatism. In Libya it played for time when there was none left, hoping for a fait accompli, meaning that western governments could wring their hands over the coming repression without having to actually do anything about it. And what really strikes me is that the whole critique is based on a pessimistic assessment of what might be, not what actually is. They are fearful, when reality often tells a different story.
There are strengths to a Burkean analysis. Revolutions can go very wrong indeed, especially when informed by impossibilist ideologies. Yet this is not what is happening in the Middle East. What is being demanded is something humdrum, the dignity of an ordinary life lived in the sort of polities that people have seen on satellite TV, on YouTube, or experienced as students in the west. A type of regime where 250,000 people can march against a government policy and even indulge in some minor rioting, without deaths, shooting, arbitrary arrests and torture. They want something that we live with and take for granted, usually grumbling about the harshness of our lot all the while.
This maybe our everyday reality, but we tend to forget that it too needed to be fought for. Here in Manchester we remember our own massacre, nearly two hundred years ago, of peaceful demonstrators demanding the vote. Far more recently we have experienced fascism, war and genocide. We know that there is much that can go wrong, that victory comes with imperfections. We can be certain that once new regimes are in place that there will be a longer struggle for women's emancipation, something that always lags behind when male public freedom often means continuing female public and private oppression. Women's liberation needs its own activism and mobilisation. Even so, today, when we see people struggling and dying to bring down the nasty police states that they were born into and to claim their own imperfect freedom, their own slice of normality, the least we can do is offer some practical solidarity, abandon faux neutrality and search for the Tom Paine inside us.
*Sometimes this should be confused with a berk. For those that don't know, the word 'berk' comes from Cockney rhyming slang - Berkeley Hunt ...