We’ve put the cart before the horse. Many years ago we understood that civilization was a prerequisite for healthy government…
We hear lots of criticism of the Iraq venture from the left, right and center. There is everything from silly notions about presidential prevarication to how “it is only about oil” to one-world government conspiracy theories. Yet, while military action can rise from policy objectives, it’s often ignored that policy objectives tend to rise from the time’s prevailing philosophy. And the truth is that insofar as the war in Iraq has been misguided, the blame can be laid at the feet of the spirit our age.
I speak of a political correctness that would prescribe Western-world solutions to Third World problems.
Our problem in Iraq has not been winning the war, but winning the peace. Toppling Saddam Hussein was easy enough, but toppling the medieval attitudes of a fractious and often ferocious people is a different matter. And what do we prescribe as a remedy for this malaise? A dalliance with democracy.
President Bush has said that democracies don’t go to war with one another. This much reminds me of the quaint naivete of a century ago that dubbed WWI “The War to End All Wars.”
Now we have the political system to end all wars.
It’s not that our desire to democratize Afghanistan and Iraq grew from pure fantasy. After WWII, we installed democracies in the Axis powers and watched Germany, Japan and, to a lesser extent, Italy, develop vibrant economies and stable governments. Moreover, it’s also true that democratic forms of government provide checks and balances that temper the caprice of a ruler; a president’s desire to launch an imprudent military campaign will often be countered by cooler heads in bodies that share power. Thus, one could certainly conclude that democracies don’t go to war with one another. Yet, it occurs to me that a truer statement may be that democracies have not yet gone to war with one another; then, an even truer statement may be that democracies don’t always remain democracies: They descend into tyranny.
Then they may go to war with one another.
Those left scratching their heads have not learned from history, only pep talks. While we often view democracy as the terminus of governmental evolution, the stable end of political pursuits, the truth is that civilizations have tended to transition not from tyranny to democracy, but democracy to tyranny (e.g., the ancient Romans). As for recent history, we may be witnessing this pattern with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela; while elected democratically, he increasingly stifles opposition and consolidates power. Would anyone bet the house that democracy in Venezuela will be extant 10 years hence? Then we have the de facto dictatorships, such as Zimbabwe, where rigged elections ensure that the leader will be “democratically chosen” until power no longer intrigues him or he tastes cold steel. Thomas Jefferson understood this gravitation toward tyranny well, for when asked what kind of government had been created when he emerged from the constitutional convention, he said, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
This brings us to the crux of the matter: Even if we can successfully install democratic republics in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, what makes us think they can keep them?
Political correctness does. To average westerners, all groups are essentially the same, despite profound religious and cultural differences. Why, if a civilization – be it Moslem or Christian, Occidental or Oriental – suffers under the yoke of tyranny, it is only due to a twist of fate that has bestowed the wrong system of government upon it. Change that system and voila!, all live happily ever after. What eludes these Pollyannas is that politics doesn’t emerge in a vacuum but is a reflection of a far deeper realm, the spiritual/moral. Alluding to this, Ben Franklin observed,
“Only a moral and virtuous people are capable of freedom; the more corrupt and vicious a society becomes, the more it has need of masters.”
Such wisdom wasn’t unusual before we were beset by our collective naivete. In 1901, while opining that the Cubans of the day were incapable of stable self-government, Senator Orville H. Platt wrote, “In many respects they are like children.”
Paternalistic? Maybe. A justification for imperialism? In certain cases perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. A truth doesn’t cease to be a truth simply because it’s placed in the service of deceit. Just as people vary individually in terms of spiritual and moral development, so do they collectively. The ancient Aztecs were not the ancient Athenians, the Carthaginians were not the Romans, and the Iraqis are not us. Besides, paternalism is far safer than political correctness.
Speaking of the latter, President Bush has said that all people want freedom. That’s nice. How idealistic. Technically, though, Bush is correct: All people do want freedom. What’s overlooked is that wanting and being able to acquire are very different things.
A “common human desire for freedom” does not suffice to perpetuate democracy. After all, humans have lots of common desires. Everyone desires health, but many still smoke, gorge themselves on unhealthy foods, and drink too much. Virtually everyone desires money, but many aren’t willing to put their noses to the grindstone. Almost all desire good families, but many still play the human monkey wrench as they make their loved ones’ lives miserable.
It is common for humans to have desires. It is human nature to desire many things that are good. It is also human nature to be ridden with frailty that renders one unwilling or unable to do what’s necessary to attain them.
Really, we’ve put the cart before the horse. Many years ago we understood that civilization was a prerequisite for healthy government. Thus, we didn’t take a diamond in the rough and assume the problem was that it didn’t sit in a fancy gold ring. No, we sent missionaries and Christianized and educated the darker regions of the world. Sure, being human, Western motivations weren’t always pure, but the wisest among us knew that Western-type institutions were fruits that naturally grew on the tree of civilization.
Nowadays it’s considered uncivilized to call people uncivilized, and even if we still had faith – attended by the understanding that spiritual health must precede the political variety – the planting of crosses in the Moslem world is received no better than the planting of bombs. The fact remains, however, that people are different and cultures can be cultivated or callow. It may be uncomfortable for many to contemplate this truth, but all the wishing in the world doesn’t change reality. Democracy isn’t a deity, government isn’t God. In a morally corrupt society, the only difference between democracy and dictatorship is the rate at which the dark cloud of tyranny descends upon the people.
If I seem a tad culturally chauvinistic, I plead guilty. But if it assuages any feelings, know that I don’t ascribe a sanctified state to any culture, including my own. Perspective informs that most people throughout the ages have been incapable of maintaining freedom, which is why man has most often lived in tyranny. In fact, I know that the moral decay of Western civilization ensures regression to authoritarianism; this, mind you, is already evident in burgeoning laws that squelch freedom and governments that become ever more intrusive.
It is our ignorance of this phenomenon that contributes to our deification of democracy. It’s easy to view democracy as a mountaintop from which descent is impossible when one is oblivious to how his republic is even now being lost. Sure, a democratic republic can be the most stable of governments, but often forgotten is that it rests on a foundation composed of the moral fiber of the people. When that foundation deteriorates sufficiently, the edifice collapses.
And part of what blinds us to this Truth is moral relativism (which lies at the heart of our moral decay). It’s easy for us to fancy that a people’s character has no bearing on government, as relativism states that no character can be better than another. This prevents us from grasping both why we will not be able to “keep” our republic and why one like it cannot be perpetuated in certain rough-hewn lands. How can we possibly understand how lacking character will breed tyranny when we perceive the lack as merely the embrace of a different but equal “value system”?
So perhaps one could characterize the problem as a failure of the increasingly childish to understand how to govern children. And if you don’t think creeping juvenility bedevils us, consider that although we’re beset by traitors within and barbarians without, we’re ever more concerned with indulging frivolity and extolling deviancy. So many nowadays are not instilled with the discipline and moral compass that would enable them to govern themselves, nor do they know much about our constitution or system of government. But they do know how to pierce and paint their bodies, put prophylactics on bananas, and, by golly, they sure do care about fighting global warming so that Adam and Steve won’t have to honeymoon at the North Pole.
With priorities such as these, I suspect we will learn firsthand how democracy is no savior. It is an apparatus of civilization, not the author of it. In the meantime, we will stumble about engaging in “nation-building,” oblivious to the nature of the foundation on which we toil. The only thing missing is a cry to take up the democratic man’s burden.
Of course, all cultures could be equally capable of sustaining democracy; that is, if they all were morally equal. But that, my friends, is something only a child could believe.