David Brooks really fired me up today with this zinger about how Egypt’s turmoil proves that “Islamists… lack the mental equipment to govern.” America’s moralistic self-justification for every time we have invaded a country of brown people (the last white country we invaded was Germany) is that we are bringing them the democracy that will save them. Except that it never works, at least not as we planned. Inevitably they elect “socialist radicals” or “religious fundamentalists” so the CIA has to fix the problem by finding some Contras or a Pinochet to pull off a coup, which David Brooks officially approves in his column if it removes people unfit for democracy (who are presumably comparable to our 7% approval rating Congress?). In any case, it’s all Obama’s fault just like it was all Bush’s fault, because it’s the responsibility of the US president to support the freedom fighters except when they’re terrorists unless the dictator has used chemical weapons, and whatever happens, it can be pinned on the US president because a democracy means one person is in charge and responsible for everything… Wait!
The Republicans aren’t the problem with our democracy; neither are the Democrats. They’re just the crack whores who are behaving like predictable addicts. It is the pundits, the analysts, the PR consultants, and the stephanopoloi who have poisoned our democracy with their sweet crack, so that every foreign crisis is an opportunity to score points in cynical press releases and conference calls which the outrage profiteers slurp up and vomit out into their respective echo chambers. It’s remarkable to watch how rapidly and cynically mutually exclusive ideologies are swapped out like baseball caps.
We need to be pro-democracy because if we say something like democracy doesn’t work for everybody, then we’ve cut off the legs of American exceptionalism and we have to admit that it’s always only been about oil (I’m just teasing; I don’t believe that… entirely). To claim that democracy works for everybody means that you can’t officially say that brown people are unfit for it whether they live on the sand or in the jungle.
Yet at the same time, it’s very juicy to score some hits against the political correctness that says all cultures are just different and we just need to celebrate diversity and be open to other people’s differences which can never be held up to any standard of ethics or truth. Of course, you have to be careful to use adjectives like “radical” when you’re making the case that Islam is the enemy of modern civilization, and sometimes your copy editor throws you under the bus like must have happened to David Brooks when the word “Islamists” was left naked without an adjective in saying they are too stupid to run Egypt.
Incidentally, I wonder if democracy has only worked for America because we’ve always had an enemy of civilization to channel our righteous cause against. Has the availability of a reliable scapegoat in every season of our history been the essential feature that prevented massive street protests that would have made our country ungovernable and forced a reset button? Was a critical mass of otherwise Tahrir Square patriots held in hypnosis by the bogeymen of our history (those communists, Yankee carpet-baggers, Negroes, Indians, Paddies, Guidos, wetbacks, etc)?
What we call “democracy” is really a republic (following Plato’s definition) in which we pick between two flavors of enlightened political elites to make decisions on our behalf. Our “democracy” paradoxically depends upon the absence of a truly active demos (mob) that “rules” chaotically from its Tahrir Square. A democracy runs smoothly as a republic as long as the demos plays along, which most people will do, given the right bones to gnaw on.
Maybe it was the frontier that allowed the American experiment to work for so long. Did the poor people who might have built street barricades in a few major Eastern seaboard cities to bring everything to a standstill in the harder years of the 1800’s decide to get on a covered wagon and head to Kansas instead? Did the otherwise rabble rousers take off with Billy the Kid to make the west wild and let the east stay tame? Of course when the frontier closed decisively in the dustbowl of the Great Depression, we needed new frontiers (like southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East).
In any case, with the technology of our era, we don’t really need scapegoats or frontiers to keep us in line since the whole world is just a gameshow anyway. Spectator sports and pop culture keep enough of us obese, anesthetized, and glued to our couches so the prospect of a Tahrir square that sticks in America seems inconceivable.
You know, I’m actually not unsympathetic to David Brooks. Like me, he’s a poet and not a historian. It makes his level of meaning-making a naturally easy target for critique. I don’t have any more time than he does to read thousand page books on the history of American democracy in order to develop a legitimate theory about it for a single blog post. Poets look for generalizations and textures at the metanarrative level that construct a credible meme rather than committing ourselves to an exhaustive search for “what really happened,” which we postmoderns know better than to waste our time doing.
In any case, for the sake of saying something constructive after getting the snark out, I see three basic fallacies that the commentator class make when they shoot from the hip with their writing. These fallacies are a major component of the poison that we are constantly excreting into our political discourse. So here they are:
1) Results are reproducible.
This first fallacy is derived in a legitimate premise of the scientific method. The way that you confirm a scientific hypothesis through experimentation is when multiple scientists can reproduce the same results by isolating the essential components of the experiment. But this is not transferable to analyzing the social context of human civilizations.
July 4, 1776 will never happen again. There will never be another mother country isolated by an ocean from a rebel colony that was big enough to include a Virginia for its Episcopalians, a Pennsylvania for its Quakers, and a New England for its Puritans. There is not a core set of integral elements that can be distilled from 1776 and transplanted into today to produce the same results.
We will never know if Patrick Henry would have said, “Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything” instead of “Give me liberty or give me death” were he a 21st century Muslim instead of an 18th century Deist (?), which is why it is imbecilic of David Brooks to parade the Muslim version of the “liberty or death” quote as a proof-text of the Muslim “fascination with the culture of death” and “absolutist apocalyptic mindset.”
What Brooks is subtly channeling here is the secular appraisal that dying for God is something only the barbaric brown people talk about doing. When people are in social upheaval over the nature of their government, death happens and everyone thinks God is on their side (c.f. US Civil War), except for enlightened secular commentators like David Brooks. It’s the same secular snobbery whether you use it against Islam or Christianity.
Whatever the end results are in Egypt, its context cannot be “played right” to reproduce 1776. Muslim democracy will always look different than Catholic mestizo democracy which will always look different than formerly Protestant, newly secularizing democracy. To say that a particular ideology cannot be allowed into power for democracy to exist means that democracy is ultimately always contingent upon the wisdom of an elite intelligentsia (like David Brooks) who can be entrusted with this assessment.
Maybe the US military should go down to the Capitol and White House and send everybody home to start over since they can’t get anything accomplished. Except the rule is that coups are only tolerable in wild desert and jungle countries where barbaric mobs burn buildings down and storm embassies and shut everything down. The relative domesticity of political protest in our country is not proof of our moral superiority, but the product of a very particular historical combination of factors both positive and negative that cannot ever be replicated.
2) If we can talk about it, we can fix it.
This is a very asinine fallacy that I often fall into myself. Bloggers thinking lazily will write sentences about “world problems” that start with “We should…” knowing good and well that there is no real “we” who can enact simple common sense solutions for humanity by speaking them into cyberspace.
This is what David Brooks is doing when he says about the Muslim Brotherhood: “It is necessary to investigate the core of a party’s beliefs, not just accept anybody who happens to emerge from a democratic process.” Who does the investigating and accepting? We do, of course! Who’s we? The editorial staff of the New York Times?
We cannot fix Egypt, whether the “we” we’re talking about is the world as a whole, United States voters, our government representatives, or the blogosphere. Egyptians have to solve Egypt’s problems, regardless of the bloodshed. And the imbecilic stephanopoloi who scream “Why doesn’t Obama do something?” are projecting their own unacknowledged sense of impotence onto him.
It sucks to be bombarded by information about tragic events that we are helpless to do anything about. The problem-solving ethos of frontier-seeking Americans is both commendable and arrogantly presumptuous. There are of course real levers that can be pulled or not pulled in tinkering with other countries, but I don’t blame Ron Paul for promoting a more hands-off approach. Al Qaeda exists because of the frontier adventuring that America did in Soviet Afghanistan in the 80’s. Who knows what will be the future of those we are arming today in Syria? In any case, bloggers cannot “fix” Egypt by writing a “We should…” blog about Egypt.
3) All phenomena can be quantifiably measured and compared.
Anytime we compare two historical events to decide which is “better” than the other, we are making the fallacious assumption that every event can be reduced to a number that is more or less than the number for an analogous event. Otherwise, there is no basis for saying “better” or “worse.” This again has its origin in the scientific worldview in its zeal to replace the opaque superstitious traditions of prior eras with measurements and explanations.
We don’t say overtly that we are quantifying things, but in effect we are. The “number” for the “Arab Spring” can be derived by assigning positive and negative points to the surrounding circumstances that are then compared with the point tallies for other analogous revolutions or social movements in history to say which is “better” and “worse.” Our belief in this reductionist quantitative comparison is manifested in the phrase “talking points.” Whichever side has a longer list of credible “talking points” gets the higher score and wins.
This is complete bullshit for the same reason that the first fallacy is. Every historical context is irreducibly different than every other. But the fact that we can’t reduce events to quantifiable “better” or “worse” rankings doesn’t signify absolute moral relativism because it doesn’t mean that discrete individual ethical observations cannot be made.
So when you’re shooting from the hip in your writing, like we all do in this post-journalistic, amateur space that we all inhabit together (wordpress bloggers and NY Times columnists alike), try to avoid these fallacies. You can only sculpt so deep, but don’t dis a whole religion of people.