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June 6, 2011
Will the Arab Spring Turn into Winter?
Will the Arab Spring Turn into Winter?
Commentary on the revolts across the Arab Middle East range from fear of further radicalization to a hopeful rise of tolerant democracies. Observing and analyzing these changes may help us understand our own democracy and what is required for them to succeed.
Over our history we have come to understand that a democracy has certain environmental requirements. Foremost is a morally based population.
We take for granted in this country how much we trust each other. From common courtesies on the roadways to commercial transactions, we more often than not trust our fellow citizen. This trust transcends ethnic and religious affiliations. We have police, laws and courts but given the endless interactions and transactions law enforcement is directly involved in an insignificant number .
This moral basis has religious and cultural roots brought from Europe, but an American moral code developed further as the settlers developed a creed of self reliance. This included the idea of self defense, self education , and local republican government. Even the American tendency to create and join groups and organizations, noted by Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, was driven by individuals from the bottom up and not rulers from the top down.
One could argue that the ethnic cleansing of the native Americans and racism of slavery was also a part of this founding, but there was a morality and a struggle for our soul that also ended these acts and we are able to discuss it openly centuries later.
America's revolution was much less an act of hatred than an act of independence. There were economic factors, but the revolution was not started because of poverty, starvation, or unemployment.
And in spite of the conflict the Americans retained little hatred for the British and diplomatic ties were eventually restored. The United States did not become a theocracy because the founding fathers did not want to revisit the religious persecution that had plagued Europe. Noted revolutionary author Thomas Paine was an avowed atheist.
This self reliance and respect for individual rights that was a basis for American morality required a value for education. In the HBO series Deadwood, script researchers discovered that the poorest settlers in the Dakota territories had a copy of the King James bible and the complete works of William Shakespeare. The touring theatrical troupe reached out to the roughest and most remote locations.
The need for an educated populace drove the American public school system as a democratic necessity. While we may justly criticize much about our public education system , it serves to educate much more broadly than a theocratic system. Because of our open society our colleges and universities are the envy of the world. Our free press and well stocked bookstores, as well as endless freely available online resources complements a largely literate society.
The American experiment with democracy worked because it was an expression of values that served a democracy. We do not see these values in the Arab uprisings.
The rioters in Egypt were not seeking democracy, they were seeking jobs and food. They are not seeking a free press, freedom of religion, or social tolerance. They are motivated by a hatred, not just for the Israeli state but for their own rulers, competing Muslim factions, and the west.
We should be concerned for those seeking material benefits rather than freedom and individual rights. There are adverse consequences if they do not care how those benefits are delivered. There must be respectable values they are seeking and not just adversity they are escaping. Those who seek deliverance rather than democracy are more likely to fall for a French style reign of terror.
The American quest to export democracy cannot ignore the environment democracy requires. Democracy is much more than merely overthrowing an autocratic ruler. Until the crowd can coalesce a set of morally sustainable values they seek, until the revolutions seek more than a fulfillment of shortages of opportunities and essential goods, they run the risk of just replacing one despot for another.
History has shown that the second despot is rarely an improvement.
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