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January 30, 2007

China and Democracy

KL over at Chinargh has written a chilling assessment of the typical Western optimissim about China's democratic "path." It is, KL claims, a dangerous delusion--part wishful thinking, part projection of Western values on a culture we treat as a quaint fetish. What we don;t see, KL asserts, is that china has been able to neatly fold Western technology into it's own brand of authoritarianism:

This unrealistic dream has come to haunt Sino-US relations, as it has become so embedded in Americans perspective of China, it no longer seems only a fantasy, but instead a definite future. This misperception continues to grow as China modernizes and increasingly incorporates western aspects into Chinese society. However, China’s future democratization is a delusion. China manipulates western technology as well as American’s misperceptions in order to further their authoritarian regime .

It's a disturbing analysis if true--and, we really have no sure basis on which to say it isn't. Still, it's difficult to dismiss entirely the connection between an exploding capitalist market (which must be fed information and innovation) and the Western Enlightenment values that legitimize intellectual freedom. This is precisely the point Will Hutton makes in an essay in the Observer:

All societies are linked to their past by umbilical cords - some apparent, some hidden. China is no different. Imperial Confucian China and communist China alike depended - and depend - upon the notion of a vastly powerful, infallible centre: either because it was interpreting the will of heaven or, now, of the proletariat. In neither system have human rights, constitutional checks and balances or even forms of democracy figured very much. As a result, China has poor foundations on which to build the subtle network of institutions of accountability necessary to manage the complexities of a modern economy and society. Sooner or later, it is a failing that will have to be addressed.

And Hutton seems to think that day of reckoning will come sooner rather than later:

Western values and institutions are not being blown away. The country has made progress to the extent that communism has given up ground and moved towards Western practices, but there are limits to how far the reformers can go without giving up the basis for the party's political control. Conservatives insist that much further and the capacity to control the country will become irretrievably damaged; that the limit, for example, is being reached in giving both trade unions more autonomy and shareholders more rights. It is the most urgent political debate in China.

The tension between reform and conservatism is all around. For example, the party's commitment now is no longer to building a planned communist economy but a 'socialist market' economy. The 26,000 communes in rural China, which were once the vanguard of communism, were swept away by the peasants themselves in just three years between 1979 and 1982, the largest bottom-up act of decollectivisation the world has ever witnessed. Hundreds of millions of peasants are, via long leases, again farming plots held by their ancestors for millenniums. China's state-owned enterprises no longer provide life-long employment and welfare for their workers as centrepieces of a new communist order; they are autonomous companies largely free to set prices as they choose in an open economy and progressively shedding their social obligations.

This is one dispute I really can't decide on. My problem is my own competing assumptions about the world. For me, democratic libety has always been more than a transcendent moral value; it is also, I believe, something like a force of nature (please assume all the postmodern caveats it's possible to make). So of course, I am disposed to believe Sutton. That said, I also recognize just how deep run the roots of culture. Indeed, most of my criticism of the Bush war policy is based on a frustration with the Administration's failure to understand that it is waging a cltural fight it cannot win.

Perhaps the important question is "does it matter which side we bet on?" Does the adoption of one side or the other determine a set of policy choices that matter in the real world?

Posted by stevemack at 05:22 PM | Comments (3636) | TrackBack

Ahmadinejad's Debt to Bush

The latest Administration line on criticism of it's war policy is that such talk only emboldens the enemy. It's such a profoundly undemocratic argument that, even if it were true, you'd think it would be too offensive to make. (It assumes that hostile foriegn powers should be allowed to stiffle policy debate in this country.)

But since they raised the issue, it seems only fair to consider just whose policies seem poised to benefit our adversaries. On that score, it's interesting to note that Iran's firebrand president seems to be on the domestic political ropes. For example, Wall Street Journal writes just today:

Many of Tehran's elite politicians and even clerics have long harbored concerns about Mr. Ahmadinejad, who ascended to the country's top political post from outside the traditional ruling circles. But the immense popularity he generated among Iran's poor and working-class voters kept many of his critics from speaking out or openly moving against his policies.

He also appeared to have the backing of the most important figure in Iran's power structure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But a round of elections late last year -- for local municipal and village leaders as well as an important national consultative body -- has undermined Mr. Ahmadinejad's political momentum and unleashed a flood of public criticism and moves to clip his wings. Candidates whom Mr. Ahmadinejad supported fared poorly in the elections, while key adversaries re-established themselves as fixtures of the political scene.

Now, contrast the above with today's WaPo article on Iran's thriving regional profile:

Four years after the United States invaded Iraq, in part to transform the Middle East, Iran is ascendant, many in the region view the Americans in retreat, and Arab countries, their own feelings of weakness accentuated, are awash in sharpening sectarian currents that many blame the United States for exacerbating.

Iran has deepened its relationship with Palestinian Islamic groups, assuming a financial role once filled by Gulf Arab states, in moves it sees as defensive and the United States views as aggressive. In Lebanon and Iraq, Iran is fighting proxy battles against the United States with funds, arms and ideology. And in the vacuum created by the U.S. overthrow of Iranian foes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is exerting a power and prestige that recalls the heady days of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iranian clerics led the toppling of a U.S.-backed government.

It's a long-standing political truism that nothing props up a weak leader at home than a little foriegn policy success. And how ironic that Iranian success is nothing more than Bush Administration incompetence.

Thanks George!

Posted by stevemack at 04:25 PM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

January 26, 2007

Radical Islam, Identity, and Iraq: Fukuyama Flinches

Francis Fukuyama gets into the cultural criticism business by launching an intellectually subtle and largely valid attack on Western notions of multiculturalism. What’s both interesting and ironic about his argument, though, is that while it’s main thrust is a critique of the anti-nationalist (or anti-“national identity”) thinking predominant in Western democracies (mostly European), it’s also a powerful statement on the futility of the Iraq war. Unfortunately, he doesn't connect all the dots.

Fukuyama pits the Western aversion to normative identity (which manifests itself in a multiculturalist affirmation of the equality of all identities) against the felt need of migrants (particularly Muslims migrating to Europe) to secure a sense of self in an alien land. His argument rests on the premise that full selfhood inevitably relies on a sense of belonging, a deep connection to others—and the social and legal structures of a homeland. When migrants leave their home they will either identify with the social arrangements of their new home, or live as aliens and bond with some alternative. Hence when migrants move to Western European nations, they (or their children) become psychologically open to identifying with the new culture—provided there is a culturally specific vision of selfhood to adopt. And that is the problem. In Western Europe the notion of national identity has fallen out of favor, replaced, “officially” at least, a much weaker European cosmopolitanism bracketed by a multiculturalist tolerance. Migrating Muslims are “welcomed” within the borders (sort of), but not given either the incentive or the cultural mechanism to integrate into those societies.

Radical Islamism and jihadism arise in response to the resulting quest for identity. Those ideologies can answer the question of "Who am I?" posed by a young Muslim in Holland or France: you are a member of a global umma defined by adherence to a universal Islamic doctrine that has been stripped of all of its local customs, saints, traditions and the like. Muslim identity thus becomes a matter of inner belief rather than outward conformity to social practice. Roy points out that this constitutes the "Protestantisation" of Muslim belief, where salvation lies in a subjective state that is at odds with one's outward behaviour. Thus could Mohammed Atta and several of the other 9/11 conspirators allegedly drink alcohol and visit a strip club in the days before the attacks.

Understanding radical Islamism as a form of identity politics also explains why second and third-generation European Muslims have turned to it. First-generation immigrants have usually not made a psychological break with the culture of their land of birth and carry traditional practices with them to their new homes. Their children, by contrast, are often contemptuous of their parents' religiosity, and yet have not become integrated into the culture of the new society. Stuck between two cultures with which they cannot identify, they find a strong appeal in the universalist ideology of contemporary jihadism.

Fukuyama’s reading of “radical Islam” explains what so many in the
West assert with a kind of strained optimism: that jihadism has nothing to do with theology. It’s identity, stupid.
He also points out that this is not a problem in the United States, at least not in the same degree. Here, the notion of national identity still thrives, even if it has lost some if its luster in some precincts of the intelligentsia. More importantly, in the US national identity has always been “ideological.” It has not been absolutely grounded in common race or ethnicity, a shared primordial history, language, or myths of divine existential privilege. (Sure, those Massachusetts Bay colonists were on a mission from God to set up their city on a Hill; but as they saw it, their privilege was wholly contingent upon their performance.) Fukuyama uses Seymour Martin Lipset to help him make the point:

American identity was always political in nature and was powerfully influenced by the fact that the US was born from a revolution against state authority. The American creed was based on five basic values: equality (understood as equality of opportunity rather than outcome), liberty (or anti-statism), individualism (in the sense that individuals could determine their own social station), populism and laissez-faire. Because these qualities were both political and civic, they were in theory accessible to all Americans (after the abolition of slavery) and have remained remarkably durable over the republic's history. Robert Bellah once described the US as having a "civil religion," but it is a church that is open to newcomers.

I might point out here that I develop this idea in the introduction to my book on Whitman and his construction of patriotism and identity:

American patriotism means identifying oneself, both emotionally and intellectually, with classic American democratic values and ideals. Loyalty to America, in this sense, is loyalty to a utopian democratic creed—a “civic religion,” as writers such as William James, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and of course, Walt Whitman, viewed it. In practice, such patriotism means permitting oneself genuine pride in those moments in history when Americans were able to translate their ideals into successful public policy. But even more importantly, it means laying legitimate claim to those democratic values and ideals—both as a resource for imagining new policy goals and as a powerful rhetorical tool to aid in achieving them.

If Fukuyama’s analysis fails at any point it’s in the assumption that the dynamics he writes of apply primarily to the problem of migration. In fact, the same tensions are at play in the neocolonial environment of the Middle East. He acknowledges as much, but does not develop the point

the problem of jihadist terrorism will not be solved by bringing modernisation and democracy to the middle east. The Bush administration's view that terrorism is driven by a lack of democracy overlooks the fact that so many terrorists were radicalised in democratic European countries. Modernisation and democracy are good things in their own right, but in the Muslim world they are likely to increase, not dampen, the terror problem in the short run.

Several months ago, Fukuyama famously withdrew his initial endorsement of the war in Iraq. But armed with such insights as above one wonders what the hell he could have been thinking in the first place. To possess a strong faith in the transcendent value of Western democracy, fundamental human rights, and universal liberty—a faith that I maintain without reservation—does not mean that one cannot appreciate that such values pose a threat to the version of selfhood prevalent in the traditionalist societies of the Middle East. Democratic values MUST threaten traditionalist cultures. Frankly, those cultures constitute the oppression from which we believe people deserve liberation. But liberation is first a condition of the mind. And a great military power cannot impose liberty. It can only help a people secure the political liberty they have already claimed as their spiritual birthright.

Posted by stevemack at 07:55 PM | Comments (3686) | TrackBack

January 16, 2007

The Case for Partition

As the long-awaited (four years too late) congressional debate over Iraq looms, it is disheartening to think just how off the mark it’s likely to be. The most important issues surrounding the catastrophic failure of Bush’s war policy may not be ignored, exactly, but they won’t be productively discussed. They can’t be.

Here’s the problem: The debate is going to pivot on the question of whether or not to continue the war, whether to stay or find some formula for leaving. That is, the issue will not be the problem of Iraq and how best to resolve it; rather, it will be narrowly focused on continuing one policy fix—war—as the only game in town.

Framed this way, the President has himself a slam-dunk argument (pubic opinion notwithstanding). All he needs to do is argue the necessity of success, not the efficacy of his means to achieve it. Hence, his “surge” speech:

The consequences of failure are clear: Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people.

Robert Kagan draws a more dramatic picture and links it to military strategy:

We should not kid ourselves about the cost of failing to create a relatively secure situation in Iraq. The sectarian violence we are seeing today will seem minor compared with the massive bloodshed of a genuine Iraqi civil war. The idea of a "phased redeployment" implies a smooth, gradual process whereby U.S. military forces withdraw and Iraqis peacefully adjust. It's almost impossible to imagine events unfolding that way. Once we begin the process of U.S. withdrawal, there will be an eruption of violence to fill the vacuum. International terrorist groups will find themselves unchallenged in parts of Iraq and able to establish new bases from which to launch attacks against the United States and its allies. It is fanciful to imagine that the Iraqis themselves will take action against these groups: They will have their hands full fighting one another.

The problem with these predictions is that they’re right—or at least sufficiently probable to make them intellectually impossible to dismiss. Iraq is a mess, and even a phased American withdrawal (all things being equal) will likely leave it in more of a mess than it is now. Of course, acknowledging such probabilities does not mean that the war should be continued or escalated. It’s quite easy to make the case that the war only exacerbates these same problems. But no matter. So long as “the consequences of failure” are accepted as bush’s best argument, opponents of the war are left in an absurd and dangerous rhetorical position: They must apparently choose between denial or indifference—must say either “that’s an exaggeration, it won’t really happen” or, “so what? it doesn’t really matter (a little Islamic terrorism never hurt nobody).”

Faced with this choice—plus the Administration fantasy that the war can still be won—war critics have by and large been content to focus on the war’s delusional rationale and its failure to achieve whatever objectives the President happens to be offering for it at the time. But the only one talking loudly about long term interests is Bush—and what he’s saying is dangerous and just plain stupid.

In a truly meaningful debate, the “consequences” of the Iraq fiasco and how best to manage them would be the issue. The question needs to be how, if possible, to extract ourselves from the war without doing more damage than we have already, and maybe even undoing some of it. That is, since our presence there has: 1. turned Iraq into an incubator for terrorism, and 2. staged the ideal conditions for region-wide sectarian warfare, it would be nice if we could leave the country in a manner that would retard somewhat the development of those two political cancers.

The best hope, I believe, is partition—or radical federalization. Senator Joseph Biden has articulated this idea several times, but not to generally receptive ears. But it’s the only idea I am aware of that offers any hope of leaving Iraq in some crude form of stability. Biden’s approach has appeared several times in print, but he put it sharply in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece on August 24th of last year (2006):

First, the plan calls for maintaining a unified Iraq by decentralizing it and giving Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis their own regions. The central government would be left in charge of common interests, such as border security and the distribution of oil revenue. Second, it would bind the Sunnis to the deal by guaranteeing them a proportionate share of oil revenue. Each group would have an incentive to maximize oil production, making oil the glue that binds the country together. Third, the plan would create a massive jobs program while increasing reconstruction aid -- especially from the oil-rich Gulf states -- but tying it to the protection of minority rights. Fourth, it would convene an international conference that would produce a regional nonaggression pact and create a Contact Group to enforce regional commitments. Fifth, it would begin the phased redeployment of U.S. forces this year and withdraw most of them by the end of 2007, while maintaining a small follow-on force to keep the neighbors honest and to strike any concentration of terrorists.

It’s not clear that, at this late date, there’s anything we can do. But by attempting to “incentivize” disengagement (as Rummy might have put it), the Biden plan holds out at least the hope of arresting sectarian violence before it spills over the borders. By extension, it might help eliminate the local militia’s role as employer of first resort and sponsor of the neighborhood academy of terror.

Posted by stevemack at 08:15 PM | Comments (10352) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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