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Fisking Kristof on Arab Capacity for Democracy

I have watched Nicholas Kristof go from brave denouncer of Darfurian genocide and defender of women the globe over, into a politically correct useful idiot. It’s hard to find a better poster boy for the bizarre way in which intelligent, courageous people can end up spouting drivel as a result of LCE-itis (not). But today’s column is more than I can bear, so here’s a fisking of today’s most valuable idiot of the day (heavy competition).

Unfit for Democracy?
NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
February 26, 2011
CAIRO

Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people — Arabs, Chinese and Africans — are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that “people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.

That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?

This issue is politically incorrect, but – surprise! – the answer will be hopelessly politically correct. So before we go into Kristof’s breathless (and superficial) analysis, let’s briefly review the basic elements necessary for a successful democratic experiment. Imnsho, there are at least four critical issues that are necessary cultural changes that must precede a democratic experiment in order for it to work:

1) the principle of equality before the law: unless there is a strong and independent judiciary, based on a widespread cultural commitment to the idea that everyone is “equal before the law” (i.e., everyone should be subject to the same laws and penalties and have the same protection from abuse of the law).

2) the capacity for self-criticism: it’s one thing to demand freedom of speech for yourself, it’s quite another to grant that freedom to people who say things you don’t like. The ability to allow others freedom of speech, to be willing to admit public criticism, to even admit mistakes and wrongdoing publicly, is a critical dimension of any kind of “transparency” in the exercise of power.

3) the ability to allow women freedom: honor-killings, clitoridectomies, banishing of women from public space, insistence on the veil/burka/niqab, all of these reflect a male-chavinist control mania that is both symptom and factor in the inability to sustain a society committed to freedom.

4) positive-sum instincts: these include such things as an ability to trust others as well as to be trustworthy, to avoid conspiracy theories unless the evidence is very strong, to view another’s success as a good thing, rather than as a loss for oneself.

This concern is the subtext for much anxiety today, from Washington to Riyadh. And there’s no question that there are perils: the overthrow of the shah in Iran, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of Tito in Yugoslavia, all led to new oppression and bloodshed.

Congolese celebrated the eviction of their longtime dictator in 1997, but the civil war since has been the most lethal conflict since World War II. If Libya becomes another Congo, if Bahrain becomes an Iranian satellite, if Egypt becomes controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood — well, in those circumstances ordinary citizens might end up pining for former oppressors.

And, of course, all that I’ve outlined above apply to each of these places. But ask Kristof and I’ll bet he thinks the odds are long that these unpleasant outcomes will occur, when my guess is, the odds are highest that they will.

“Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of former slaves,” Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, declared after the toppling of the Qing dynasty. Is that the future of the Middle East?

After this brief and superficial acknowledgment of a possible “problem” with thinking that revolution leads directly to democracy, Kristof will now dive headlong into his optimism.

I don’t think so. Moreover, this line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world.

This is the classic trope of LCE political correctness: how dare “we” think badly of “them.” I’ve run into this phenomenon in working on apocalyptic prophecies, which always fail. To claim, for example, that the generation of 1000 thought it was the end of the world, is  “unjust, indeed an outrage to human dignity.” (Plaine, “Les prétendues terreurs de l’an mille,” Revue des questions historiques 13 (1873): 164).

In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?

It is hard to top this for not understanding the issues. Being prepared to die, even for what you believe is democracy, has little to do with whether democracy will result. There were lots of secular Iranians ready to die for their revolution till they found out it wasn’t theirs. And there were plenty of Hamas and Fatah suicide bombers ready to die for the destruction of a democracy.

And while I agree with Kristof that we Americans tend to take their democracy for granted and don’t realize how fragile it is, and may not have the courage to sustain our democracy, much of this derives from our failure to understand how hard it is to launch and sustain a real democracy, a failure that Kristof himself illustrates.

If you want to consult with people who a) have a democracy, b) a citizen army of young and middle aged men who give years of their life to that army, c) citizens who understand that at any time they may die for that democracy, and d) people who know the region well… you might consult the Israelis about your euphoria. Or do you prefer to cling to your absurd obsession with Israel as the source of all the Middle East’s misfortunes, like so many of the Arab oppressors you dislike.

We Americans spout bromides about freedom.

Speak for yourself and your hopelessly superficial profession, journalists and pollsters who come back from the Arab world assuring us the vast majority want democracy without having asked whether they’re ready to make the necessary sacrifices for that democracy.

Democracy campaigners in the Middle East have been enduring unimaginable tortures as the price of their struggle — at the hands of dictators who are our allies —

Allies like Qadafi, Asad, Hamas, Hizbullah? Is there any aspect of this issue that Kristof can’t find a reason to shame us with?

yet they persist. In Bahrain, former political prisoners have said that their wives were taken into the jail in front of them. And then the men were told that unless they confessed, their wives would promptly be raped. That, or more conventional tortures, usually elicited temporary confessions, yet for years or decades those activists persisted in struggling for democracy. And we ask if they’re mature enough to handle it?

I cannot imagine how Kristof reasons here. He can cite some brave men and women who are ready to risk everything to get rid of the current regime. But we have no idea what their idea of democracy consists of, nor whether they have any chance of directing the revolution towards “democracy” once it is set in motion. This is not only wild LCE, projected not only on the cases he knows, but on the entire people.

The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the frontlines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?

I have no idea, and neither do you, even if you actually talked with him. Did you ask him how he feels about stoning adulteresses, or honor-killings, or apostasy from Islam? Or were you too thrilled by his undaunted courage to spoil the moment?

Where was your brave man when Lara Logan was getting whipped and gang raped and pinched violently in the groin to cries of “JEW! JEW! JEW!” the night of celebration at democracy? And if he wasn’t cheering them on, how many anti-Semitic rapists and their admirers are there for every man of “undaunted courage.” How many more “common threads” are there to these “democracy movements” that we are unaware of, partly because people like Kristof won’t disturb their brave illusions – or ours - with such troubling information.

In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed toward security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?

This is no longer even an argument. It’s just rhetoric, and fairly empty at that. (Rhetoric is, after all, supposed to persuade. And repetition, as I tell my students, is a sure sign that you don’t have a lot to say).

Look, there’ll be bumps ahead. It took Americans six years after the Revolutionary War to elect a president, and we almost came apart at the seams again in the 1860s.

Let’s not forget the French, who went from “democracy” to Terror to imperialism back to monarchy, and took over a century to finally reach an enduring republic. Or the Russians, Chinese, Cubans, Cambodians, Iranians, Gazans, and so many others who never got out of the terrors.

When Eastern Europe became democratic after the 1989 revolutions, Poland and the Czech Republic adjusted well, but Romania and Albania endured chaos for years.

Wait a minute. Is this Kristof’s way of characterizing the mass rapes and massacres of Kosovo (and other unnamed parts of the Balkans): “chaos”? Is what happened in Romania somehow parallel to what happened in Kosovo? How would the Copts of Egypt feel if their women were systematically raped and they slaughtered on the “bumpy” way to democracy?

After the 1998 people power revolution in Indonesia, I came across mobs in eastern Java who were beheading people and carrying their heads on pikes.

The record is that after some missteps, countries usually pull through.

Some read the record exactly the other way: most revolutions lead to tyranny, often worse tyranny. And of course, in the Arab world, the record is quite consistent: revolution leads to such wonderful regimes as the Asad family in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – both products of the radical “leftist” Ba’ath party.

Education, wealth, international connections and civil society institutions help. And, on balance, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain are better positioned today for democracy than Mongolia or Indonesia seemed in the 1990s — and Mongolia and Indonesia today are successes.

I think Kristof is far to eager to hand out badges of success. He himself admits that it was decades (at least) before American democracy was secure. But two decades of a very bumpy ride hardly places Mongolia securely in the democratic column. After all, 90 years of “democracy” has not insulated Turkey (which Kristof probably considers a “success” too).

As for Indonesia, by the standards that consider Israel an apartheid state, it’s kind of hard to find even harsher words to describe Indonesian attitudes towards Chinese, Papuans, and non-Muslims. But hey, with a major dollop of affirmative action, their deeds are an improvement over the norm, so why not give them democratic brownie points?

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain visited the Middle East a few days ago (arms dealers in tow), and he forthrightly acknowledged that for too long Britain had backed authoritarian regimes to achieve stability. He acknowledged that his country had bought into the bigoted notion “that Arabs or Muslims can’t do democracy.” And he added: “For me, that’s a prejudice that borders on racism. It’s offensive and wrong, and it’s simply not true.”

So Cameron is part of the politically correct crowd. Does that indicate anything but how high the problem goes? Is this how Kristof proposes to “tackle a politically incorrect issue”?

It’s still a view peddled by Arab dictatorships, particularly Saudi Arabia — and, of course, by China’s leaders and just about any African despot. It’s unfortunate when Westerners are bigoted in this way, but it’s even sadder when leaders in the developing world voice such prejudices about their own people.

Well it’s obvious why they would do so. Does Kristof somehow think that he can shame these leaders into being more “trusting” of their peoples’ capacities for democracy by deploring how “sad” it is?

In the 21st century, there’s no realistic alternative to siding with people power.

Another piece of cognitive egocentrism: the idea that the 21st century is somehow remorselessly on the way to democracy constitutes perhaps one of the most astonishing follies of the “intellectuals” of our age. Not only are the fledgling democracies in danger, so are the older ones… partly because of the kind of thinking Kristof engages in here.

Prof. William Easterly of New York University proposes a standard of reciprocity: “I don’t support autocracy in your society if I don’t want it in my society.”

There are lots of reciprocities needed here: Am “I” (and here by “I” mean a member of an Arab Muslim society) willing to grant to others – to women! – the same freedoms I myself want? Am I willing to grant to non-Muslims what I demand non-Muslims in democracies grant to my fellow Muslims? Am I willing to grant Jews the right to their own sovereignty as I want to exercise sovereignty?

Or is that just too much to ask? So better we think of more “reciprocities” for ourselves and not trouble our admirably courageous, fledgling democrats.

That should be our new starting point. I’m awed by the courage I see, and it’s condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren’t ready for it.

I think it’s condescending to fantasize that these cultures are ready for democracy, and not submit them to the kind of scrutiny that Kristof would readily apply to his own country, or, say, Israel. Is reverse prejudice – not applying basic standards to “minorities” and other subalterns because they couldn’t live up to them – a form of racism?

As for the folly of it all… n’en parlons pas. If we don’t want autocracy in our own societies, we’d better start confronting the radical asymmetries of our relationship to the Muslim world. I don’t think Kristof is quite ready for so serious an endeavor.

UPDATE: Elder has his own (similar) take: Kristof doesn’t get it.

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