Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Beichman’s Law

Arnold’s November 4, 2004 column in the WashingtonTimes

A few weeks ago in a San Francisco taxicab, I began chatting with the driver, a middle-aged man with a foreign accent. Like an ambitious Henry Higgins, I spotted his accent as Middle Eastern, probably Iranian, judging from his visible identification card atop the windshield.

He was impressed with my guess, and so we chatted on. He told me that in Iran before the overthrow of the shah he had been the equivalent of a major in the Iranian Air Force. He and his family lived well in a Tehran area surrounded by other family members. But he became involved in revolutionary activity against the shah and his tyrannical secret police -- the SAVAK, as it was known.

He was arrested by SAVAK agents, beaten up and given a choice, a so-called trial and an inevitable jail sentence or he could go into exile with his immediate family leaving behind parents and grandparents. He left Iran, came to the U.S. and then found a job hacking in San Francisco.

As he talked, his voice began to tremble as he asked the question all disillusioned revolutionaries inevitably ask: Were we better off before the Iranian revolution? Could it be that the shah and his secret police were better for the Iranian people than the Ayatollah Khomeini and his mullah successors? The mullahs ruled Iran with an iron fist, he said, far worse than the shah and SAVAK. Why far worse?

Because the clerics had turned opposition to the government into treason to Shia Islam, and therefore punishable by religious courts. Theocracy meant a mullah's interpretation of the Koran decided all judicial verdicts, whether beatings, stoning, execution or rarely, exoneration. The verdict came from God's prophet and was therefore unamendable.

The cabdriver was the victim not only of his immediate circumstances but also of an old political problem formulated by Edmund Burke: "Too often the political choice is between the disagreeable and the intolerable." The shah's regime was more than disagreeable, yet as one who knew something about Iran in the days of the shah before 1979, I can say Iran was a far more open society than it is today. It was not a theocracy, and if you minded your own business the chances were you would be left alone. Half the population had civil rights they've lost since the theocrats took over. I refer to Iranian women in the days of the shah. They were free to an extent undreamed of in neighboring Arab countries.

"Oh, if I had only known," the cabdriver exclaimed.

What he and his onetime fellow-revolutionaries didn't know is that since the first real revolution of 1789, the post-revolutionary years have, judging by history, been worse than the status quo ante. However awful czarist Russia might have been before 1917, it was paradise compared to what happened when Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin took over. However awful Chiang Kai-shek might have been before 1949, it was paradise compared to what happened when Mao Tse-tung took over. Were the people of Vietnam better off under Ho Chi Minh's dictatorship than under French colonialism? When Kwame Nkrumah took over Ghana, he threw his opposition into jail; he shot and killed striking longshoremen, which British colonialism wouldn't have dared do. Are Cubans better off under Fidel Castro than in the days of his dictatorial predecessor, Fulgencio Batista? A 1970 editorial in a Lagos, Nigeria, newspaper dared suggest Nigerians were better off under British colonialism than with independence granted in 1960, which turned into a civil war over Biafra a decade later that took a million lives.

I will end by enunciating Beichman's Law:

With the single exception of the American Revolution, the aftermath of all revolutions from 1789 on only worsened the human condition.


  1. Interesting analysis and a very tragic story. It omits a greater tragedy though: the overthrow of Massdegh in 1953. The democratic regime was overthrown by foreign influence and the SAVAK were created to suppress opposition and the potential for the return of democracy.

    Likewise it is hard to dismiss every revolution since 1789, especially since so many did improve life by many objective measures, as well as increase freedom, democracy and liberty. Especially in East Asia and the overthrown of Latin American dictatorships.

  2. What do you think was different about the American Revolution? Why was it different? I have heard people say it was because it was a middle class revolution, a mercantile revolution with limited goals. I think it is an interesting question and an important one, but I don't know the answer to it.
    (who used to live across the hall from bad Rachel, a long time ago.)