The sectarian violence in Iraq, together with the electoral advances of Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have soured most talking heads on democracy. Arguments are regularly put forth to demonstrate that democracy is incompatible with Islam, or Arab culture, or tribalism; and that, in any case, it can’t be imposed by foreigners using force. The President’s freedom policy, on this account, is a naive pipe dream.
These arguments are fair, but partial. Facts can be mustered to support either side of the question. To its credit, the WaPo in this editorial dissents from the general gloom. I say “to its credit” not because the WaPo’s line is obviously correct (though I happen to agree with it), but because dissent from the received wisdom of the moment is almost unheard of among MSM dinosaurs. In fact, I can’t recall the last time the WaPo and the NYT disagreed about anything of substance.
Still, the entire debate about democracy, pro or con, has been framed on very superficial terms. Will the Palestinians elect a government that accepts Israel? Will Sunnis tolerate their minority status in Iraq? These are tactical maneuvers in a far larger struggle, which long preceded this administration and will long survive it.
Since the industrial revolution, market-driven technology has blasted away at the bonds that hold together traditional society. It’s not just a question of worldviews refuted by science. A factory worker has a more tenuous relation to established authority and tradition than a peasant on the land; a software engineer or an online broker, a more tenuous relation still.
The defining trait of traditional societies is that one must be either a master or a servant. All relations are some version of this theme: husband and wife, for example, or employer and employee. The habits of command and of obedience go deep, and can be altered only by some powerful force, at the cost of disorder, disorientation, and a terrible sense of loss.
All societies began this way. That includes our paternal culture in Europe. Further, all societies, including our own today, must impose some degree of ancestor worship and clear moral authority, to retain their cohesiveness, the sense of community. The great disruption powered by technology and the marketplace started here, with us, and we have felt first the discomfort and the loss.
Religion has become a bounded domain. People are free to emigrate, geographically and spiritually. Mass communications holds before us sensual images that stimulate without ever giving satisfaction. Events from the world over pour on us like rain, though we have no control and little understanding. Even in the best of cases, with the best of wills, my life will little resemble my parents’, and my children’s lives will little resemble mine.
This storm of disruption has swept over the Arab world. As here, it seduces and it horrifies. But the unease it inspires is magnified by the sheer foreignness of the cultural assumptions of technology. Unlike here, a way of life is being lost to an infection from abroad. A vast incomprehension is added to the usual discomfort and resentment.
Those who wish to conquer modernity, like the city fathers of Dubai, build hollow and bizarre versions of it, crowded with designer skyscrapers and man-made islands in the shape of palm trees. Those who wish to oppose it, like Osama bin Laden, dream hollow and bizarre versions of history, complete with a wardrobe as representative of the Arab past as the Dubai skyline is of its future. Everywhere the question of master and servant — husband and wife, father and children, employer and employee, ruler and ruled — festers, rankles, and erupts into violence.
A violent response to the pain of modernity isn’t a peculiarly Arab trait. The great disruption inflamed Europe like a fever during the twentieth century. Visionaries sought to harness technology or to transcend it by force of will, but the ideologies they preached consumed millions of human lives. Violence was tried: it failed. That is the lesson.
Short of a descent into dark ages like those following the fall of Rome, the disruption of technology will persist and intensify. Despotism and violence cannot restore what is lost. Despotism and violence, in fact, become far more effective destroyers of tradition, of whole peoples, than the purely relational changes brought about by new technologies.
Many of the nations of Europe became democratic only as a last resort. More heroic systems had failed. In democracy, they discovered what we Americans have always known: a means to moderate disruption. The seductiveness of technology lies in its obvious benefits: greater wealth, better health, longer lives, cheaper travel, faster communications.
Technology liberates the individual — who, once free of his master’s grip, can turn his back on the past, on tradition, on community, on morality. Democracy reintegrates the individual into a larger decision-making process. The pace of change becomes a matter of political choice. One citizen can be for growth, another for green. There’s no end of history, no thousand-year Reich: only endless compromises, the sum of which the community considers to be a tolerable rate of disruption.
None of this is an inevitable consequence of democracy. It too can fail, as it did in twentieth-century Europe. Yet unlike the alternatives, it has a chance of success. Democracy can reconcile freedom with tradition. Democracy can convert disruption into evolutionary change. Talking-head arguments about Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, about Islam and Arab culture and tribalism, are quite correct, so far as they go. But inevitably the great disruption will shake these ideologies and structures like so many houses of straw.
The question is not whether — in the President’s words — freedom is God’s gift to all men, but whether an alternative exists to democratic give-and-take to protect, as much as possible, loved and honorable traditions from the deepest social transformation since the advent of agriculture.