Revolution: politics as aromatherapy

I've always been fascinated by how products and ideas come to be named in order to appeal to the media and to global audiences.

I've always been fascinated by how products and ideas come to be named in order to appeal to the media and to global audiences.

Take automobiles, for instance. To connote strength, speed, and agility, cars were named after strong, swift, and ferocious animals. Think of cars like the Mustang, Cougar, Viper, or Jaguar. Then came names that were evocative of the times, such as the post-WWII period where the design aesthetic was futuristic and aerospace-oriented. Cars had names like the Galaxy, the Skyliner, the Jetfire, and the Futura. They appealed to their audiences' forward-looking and optimistic aspirations. A lot of cars get sold when they're in synch with the zeitgeist.

So do political movements and revolutions. Gone are the days when revolutions were described in terms of the city-states in which they occurred, i.e., the American, French, and Russian Revolutions. Then people started getting creative. Czechoslovakia had its Velvet Revolution, which has a nice feel to it. Slobodan Milosevic got buried in the Bulldozer Revolution in the Yugoslav Republic. You get the point.

Well, revolution is in the air these days – literally. Interestingly, the names of recent revolutions have been infused with decidedly olfactory-themed references.

In post-Soviet Georgia, it was called the Rose Revolution. In Ukraine, the Orange Revolution. In Lebanon, Kyrgyzstan, and recently in Tunisia, we experienced the Cedar, Tulip, and Jasmine Revolutions, respectively. The mass protests in Egypt that prompted the ouster of Hosni Mubarak is now being referred to as the Lotus Revolution, thanks to the megaphones in Tahrir Square and the global loudspeaker of Facebook and its many social media cousins.

The current catchphrase descriptions of political and social upheaval are useful for journalists and distracted global audiences getting their news from their smartphones 140 characters at a time.

But make no mistake: political revolutions – no matter what they're named and no matter how peaceful and civil they are portrayed – are messy, and often bloody and lethal things. And the seminal events that bring them about, in most cases, get papered over or obliterated. History gets rewritten and massaged, over and over again, at Internet speed.

Some images of revolution and revolt are forever burnished in our collective minds. Remember the lone student in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square? But, just as easily, they can be airbrushed – err, Photoshop-ed – to fit a nice, neat little package along with its thematic narrative. Politics as aromatherapy. Things are not always what they seem.

For 400 years, audiences have witnessed betrayal, revenge, bloodshed, and struggle in that ageless drama about revolution and regime-change, Hamlet. It is the minor character, Marcellus, who characterizes the whole situation in one insightful sniff: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Maybe they're onto something, after all. A revolution by any other name smells just as sweet.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at: tappan@tappan.org.

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