Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Key To Democracy: Diversity?

Today, in yet another effort to distance himself from his record on Iraq, Thomas Friedman explains what you really need for democracy to take root:
The very essence of democracy is peaceful rotations of power, no matter whose party or tribe is in or out. But that ethic does not apply in most of the Arab-Muslim world today, where the political ethos remains “Rule or Die.” Either my group is in power or I’m dead, in prison, in exile or lying very low. But democracy is not about majority rule; it is about minority rights. If there is no culture of not simply tolerating minorities, but actually treating them with equal rights, real democracy can’t take root.

But respect for diversity is something that has to emerge from within a culture. We can hold a free and fair election in Iraq, but we can’t inject a culture of diversity. America and Europe had to go through the most awful civil wars to give birth to their cultures of diversity. The Arab-Muslim world will have to go through the same internal war of ideas.
Perhaps Mr. Friedman could use a refresher course on U.S. history. Early "diversity" effectively vested the vote with white, land-owning men, and the early republic embraced manifest destiny (which was anything but "tolerant" of the continent's indigenous population). It took almost a century and a civil war before African American men were trusted with the vote. It took another fifty years before women were enfranchised. South Africa's democracy during the Apartheid era was about as intolerant as democracy can be.

It seems to me that for democracy to take root, you need a transition of power with the nation's new rulers being unafraid of losing power at the ballot box. That may be because they are idealists who believe the country will benefit from a periodic change of leadership (or at least that possibility). It may be because the society (or the subset which is permitted to vote) is sufficienty homogeneous that there is little to fear in the change the voters may demand. Perhaps both. But I am hard pressed to think of an example of a democracy which, from the outset, risked dramatic shifts in the ruling class. One well-known democracy, for example, created an unelected Senate as a check on the democratically elected House of Representatives, and a system of Electors as a safeguard in case the electorate picked the wrong person for President.

This is not to argue that the U.S. Founding Fathers did not value or protect diversity. The Constitution and Bill of Rights do a lot to protect diversity, including diversity of opinion and diversity of religion. But the diversity that was protected was not perceived as a threat to democracy - it was in no small part deemed necessary to successful democracy. Despite this, it was a mere decade before the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Friedman's argument seems to simultaneously argue two things: Arabs are all the same (and they're all intolerant), and Arabs are different and they need to be tolerant of their differences. Or maybe he means to argue that Arabs need to accept oustiders, as opposed to each other. Although he speaks of the Arab world's "internal war of ideas", he also seems to believe it would somehow be transformative if Saudi Arabia permitted the Pope to visit Mecca. (If having holy sites which are off-limits to non-believers is a litmus test for tolerance, most major religions would fail. Which makes sense, because each religion views its own teachings as correct, with the contrary teachings of other religions being at best errors, and at worst blasphemies and heresies.) His larger point, that Saudi Arabia is intolerant of other religions, is valid. But it is safe to say that Saudi Arabia is not concerned that, if given the vote, Christians, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists would gain any appreciable power.

Friedman quotes with approval a "senior French official" who argues that instead of trying to advance democracy, the West "should be focusing on promoting diversity, which has historical roots in the area." He seems to have heard only the word "diversity". If we were to bring about a domestic tolerance in Iraq where the ethnic groups recognized their commonalities, accepted that a central government would respect those commonalities, and that their differences (while real) were not going to result in the imposition of unjust, oppressive, or otherwise unnaceptable governance, it should be much easier to convince the people of Iraq to trust the ballot box. A necessary prerequisit to that, in my opinion, would be providing basic security to the people of Iraq. Friedman makes no mention of that, perhaps because he believes that tolerance can develop within an orgy of violence. Or perhaps, once he heard the word "diversity", he thought he had all the answers.

This is interesting:
I just returned from India, which just celebrated 60 years of democracy. Pakistan, right next door, is melting down. Yet, they are basically the same people — they look alike, they eat the same food, they dress alike. But there is one overriding difference: India has a culture of diversity. India is now celebrating 60 years of democracy precisely because it is also celebrating millennia of diversity, including centuries of Muslim rule.
Sixty years of democracy... Sixty years ago was 1947... As I recall, that was not the best year for tolerance in India. A question for Mr. Friedman - how is it that India can claim to be "celebrating millennia of diversity, including centuries of Muslim rule" and Pakistan cannot?

Mr. Friedman is effusive about the tolerance of "The Muslim Emperor Akbar, who ruled India in the 16th century at the pinnacle of the Mughal Empire, had Christians, Hindus, Jain and Zoroastrians in his court.
Akbar wasn’t just tolerant. He was embracing of other faiths and ideas, which is why his empire was probably the most powerful in Indian history. Pakistan, which has as much human talent as India, could use an Akbar. Ditto the Arab world.
Yeah. Because Pakistan never had an Akbar. Dare I also point out that it was not Akbar's legacy which led to democracy in India? It was the curse of British colonialism that created the civil institutions which provided a foundation for India's successful democracy - something the British did not do out of a sense that diversity was valuable, or that Indians were their equals.

This leads to Friedman's missing a fact about democracy in the Arab world that is right under his nose. Israel chose to lift military rule over its Arab citizens in 1966. During subsequent decades, despite a record of tolerance that is rather spotty, Israels Arab citizens have demonstrated allegiance both to democracy and to their state. As with democracy in India versus Pakistan, it wasn't the preceding millennia which dictated which group of Palestinians would follow democracy and which would not. It was a question of which group was subject to a government which had stable institutions of democratic governance, and which was not. Although almost as patronizing (and factually careless) as Friedman in respect to the Arab world, Amitai Etzioni's argument that "basic security comes first" is far more compelling than Friedman's argument for tolerance.

Is anybody else tired of the idiotic prattle that, if only some (inferior) group had some (superior) leader, everything would be coming up roses? Pakistan had Akbar. Here's another example of tolerance:
Despite his fierce struggle against the Christian incursion, Saladin achieved a great reputation in Europe as a chivalrous knight, so much so that there existed by the fourteenth century an epic poem about his exploits, and Dante included him among the virtuous pagan souls in Limbo. Saladin appears in a sympathetic light in Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman (1825). Despite the Crusaders' slaughter when they originally conquered Jerusalem in 1099, Saladin granted amnesty and free passage to all common Catholics and even to the defeated Christian army, as long as they were able to pay the aforementioned ransom (the Greek Orthodox Christians were treated even better, because they often opposed the western Crusaders).

Notwithstanding the differences in beliefs, the Muslim Saladin was respected by Christian lords, Richard especially. Richard once praised Saladin as a great prince, saying that he was without doubt the greatest and most powerful leader in the Islamic world. Saladin in turn stated that there was not a more honorable Christian lord than Richard. After the treaty, Saladin and Richard sent each other many gifts as tokens of respect, but never met face to face.
Perhaps Friedman's next column can lament, "If only the Arab world had a Saladin."

The "if only some (inferior) group had some (superior) leader" position is hardly new to Friedman's analysis of the Arab world. He has long used the same form of argument - "If only the Palestinians had a Gandhi". I find it fascinating how people like Tom "Suck On This" Friedman can patronize somebody else for not being pacifistic,
We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big state right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it....

That Charlie was what this war was about. We could've hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.
It's beyond absurd. And as you might expect it's entirely situational. He did not write after 9/11, "The U.S. could use a Gandhi right now." He did not complain to Israel when it invaded Lebanon, "Where's the Israeli Gandhi"? He supported those actions, safe from his armchair. He has not embraced Gandhi's pre-WWII advice to the British that they employ passivity in response to a possible German invasion, or Gandhi's post-war comment that although the Holocaust was "the greatest crime of our time", Jews should nonetheless have passively resisted. He would no doubt find both suggestions absurd. For those who adopt this line of argument, passive resistance and compliance are something to be demanded from others, not something those others can expect from you.

If you're a powerful nations acting against the comparatively powerless, hitting them "because we can" to send a message of "suck on this"? He's got your back. If you're on the receiving end of that force, though, you had better take it lying down. (You don't have to like it but, at least if you like democracy, you have to tolerate it.)

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