Feb 2, 2011

Freedom on the march

I’ve always found Daniel Larison to be one of the most challenging writers around. Witness this bit of acidic skepticism about the recent protests in Egypt and Tunisia:
While the last thirty years have seen remarkable advances in the spread of democratic government and liberal political culture, it cannot be stressed enough that many of these advances are still fragile and reversible in many places, and they are also very recent developments that everyone has to acknowledge to be historically atypical. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore political change, or pretend that democratization always leads to a new form of despotism, but it does mean that we shouldn’t ignore the clear lessons of the dangers that come from democratization-as-shock-therapy when they are clearly relevant.
And this:
What has stood out in a lot of American commentary over the last week is an embarrassing giddiness about the upheaval in Egypt. It’s partly the usual reckless American enthusiasm for anything that can be described as “people power,” but there is an eagerness to get on the “right side of history” that resembles nothing so much as a rush to mouth the most preciously politically correct pieties. There are not “right” and “wrong” sides of history. Indeed, the implied notion of historical inevitability in that phrase ignores everything about history that matters–its contingency, its uncertainty, and the importance of human agency.
It’s a difficult sentiment to sympathize with, but one worth engaging. I remain hopeful that something better will emerge in Egypt, but it seems far from certain (and has little to do with the US at this point in any case). Larison was saying much the same thing about the Iranian uprisings of 2009 and he turned out to be largely correct. He pointed me to the book World On Fire, by Amy Chua, about the dangers of hasty democratization. This book is about how free markets and free elections can combine in toxic ways to produce ethnic violence. (I haven’t finished it yet, so more on that later.)

In that same vein (though not exactly in line with Chua’s thesis) comes the news that the Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato has been murdered. That led me to this staggering NPR piece I missed back in September that really has to be heard to be believed. It’s about a proposed Ugandan bill giving the death penalty to homosexuals, and the close ties the anti-gay movement there has to religious conservatives in the US.

See here for Jeff Sharlet’s more extensive article. Obviously such a genocidal piece of legislation is horrifying in the extreme, but what stood out to me was that the dictator is the only person blocking this bill. If there were a vote tomorrow it would pass, probably unanimously. If that doesn’t stand as a monument to the pitfalls of democracy, I don’t know what would.  Now, there is no such situation in Egypt, but I think the more general point holds. Just like free markets are no panacea for all a country’s ills, free elections aren’t either. Again, I hope things turn out for the best in Egypt, but I hesitate to cheerlead. One more time from Larison:
Most of us remain so preoccupied with arguing over who “lost” this or that country or how a given administration mishandled another country‘s internal political crisis that we miss that what Americans do or say on behalf of political dissidents and movements in other countries won’t help and ultimately doesn’t matter to the people involved. The best thing we can do in these circumstances is to recognize that it is really none of our business, and beat back the impulse to interfere.
UPDATE: It's worth celebrating South Africa's remarkable leadership in the area of gay rights. Though there is substantial religious conservatism here as well, in 2006 gay marriage was legalized (making this the fifth country in the world to do so at that time). I have personally met three openly gay Batswana, something I feel would be rare in Uganda.


  1. In zambia, a gay pcv was admin sep'd for talking to a member of a gay rights organization. I think there was a death or personal safety threat from the gov'T

  2. Eish! That makes the occasional homophobia I hear around here seem downright forward-thinking by comparison.

  3. I love your frankness about the uncertainty Egypt and Tunisia face and the naivete of the people cheerleading for them. I hope only the best--I love Egypt, an absolutely extraordinary place--but will not be surprised if things go pear-shaped. Revolutions often do.

  4. I think Sullivan's analogy to 1848 is a pretty good one. Unrest swept across Europe, clashes almost everywhere, yet to practically no effect in the short term. Still, 20 years later, a lot of the demands of the revolutionaries were implemented piece by piece, and it was an important turning point in retrospect.

    Obviously, tyrannies can't last forever, and I'm hoping things turn out for the best in the long term. The thing that I think most people fail to realize in the US is that 1) it's got basically nothing to do with us, and 2) whatever good feeling we might create by making nice-sounding noises will be outweighed by our long history of meddling in Middle Eastern politics, viz. propping up for years most of the dictators now being tossed out on their asses.

    Still, in the short term, it's likely that a lot of people are going to be killed. That's a sobering thought.