Sunday, June 17, 2007

Democracy in the Middle East

Crooks and Liars had a video clip from The Cafferty Files in which Jack Cafferty chided President Bush for the failed attempts to turn the Middle East into a bastion of democracy.

Cafferty: When there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President Bush immediately seized on the idea of bringing freedom and democracy. How’s that working out for you, Mr. President? The United States also pressured the Palestinians to hold elections. They elected Hamas, a terrorist organization. How’s that working out for you, Mr. President? Hamas has now seized Gaza. The Abbas government has been dismantled and Hamas militants have been on a rampage, pillaging government institutions. It’s very unlikely they’ll be dipping their fingers in ink wells there, any time soon.

My first question is: Is instituting something like a democratic, open society in the Middle East such a bad idea? I mean . . . are we going to argue that theocratic dictatorship is the preferred option, and that the last thing we should ever consider is replacing theocratic dictatorship with secular democracy?

On this particular issue, I believe it is very important to clearly distinguish between means and ends.

When Bush started his campaign to turn Iraq into a democracy, I expressed the attitude that the objective was certainly sound. However, I was against the policy. The reasons that I offered at the time were that Bush was incompetent and would almost certainly screw things up, doing more harm than good. It is not that the objective was a bad idea, but that Bush and his team in the White House could not possibly pick the best means towards that particular end.

So, the news items today tell us the following:

The Taliban in Afghanistan are starting to use the same tactics used in the Iraqi insurgency, punctuated today by a headline that says, “At least 35 killed in Afghan bus explosion.”

Among the Palestinians, we have to deal with the fact that Hamas has a great deal of popular support, enough to support an uprising in Gaza.

And the situation in Iraq does not seem to be getting any better.

The main problem centers around the fact that the people in these regions do not have the moral foundation for a democracy, which requires, among other things, a decision not to use violence to obtain political ends, and to fight all battles on the airwaves.

The Bush Administration thought that all they needed to do was to remove the dictator, and the people will instantly create a thriving democratic state in its midst. It did not recognize that democracies can only be built on a particular moral foundation, and the moral foundation for a democracy did not exist. There were too many people in Iraq willing to use force of arms to execute their political will, and had too weak of an aversion to killing.

I have suggested throughout this blog that the tools to be used in promoting useful desires and aversions are praise and condemnation.

Here is where the secular, liberal political establishment has failed for the past several decades.

Sam Harris like to blame ‘religious moderates’ for the idea that one may not criticize other cultures and traditions. However, that particular fault can be more accurately assigned to progressive liberals. For decades, they promoted the idea that all value is subjective and that it makes no sense to criticize another culture. Moral and cultural institutions were like differences in diet and clothing styles. A person in one culture might be able to say, “I would not like that for myself,” but that is the worst form of criticism that a person can give.

In fact, the idea that all cultures are the same, that nobody is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in matters of value, is quite at odds with most religious teachings. Those teachings say that certain acts are right and wrong. Where other cultures have different teachings, our tolerance of them is more of a matter of tolerating other people’s mistakes in order to keep the peace, than in a genuine assertion that their truth is just as good as our truth.

As such, it was the secular liberals, not religious moderates, who gave would-be dictators and theocrats moral permission to set up their oppressive regimes.

It is way past time for secular liberals to become critical, to face people who do stupid and evil things, and to call them stupid and evil – to condemn them for what they do wrong, and to praise them for what they do right.

One of the common responses that others will give to this type of behavior is to say, “You are trying to destroy our way of life. You are engaging in intolerant, militant, and even fundamentalist behavior against this target group.”

“No, in fact, what I am trying to do is to convince you that some of the things that you believe are in error.” Imagine that you have a friend or family member that you are trying to get off of alcohol, drugs, or tobacco. While you argue about the health effects of their activity, somebody comes up to you and says, “You are simply trying to destroy their way of life. You are engaging in intolerant, militant, and fundamentalist behavior against this target group.”

These charges are entirely out of line. The ‘militant’ charge, in particular, is completely slanderous in the absence of evidence that the person it is being used against has actually threatened to take up arms against their target group. If the only weapons being used are words and private actions, then there is no militancy. There is no militancy without violence. The accusation of militancy is an accusation that the accused is at least on the verge of using military force (violence) to impose his views on others. In most cases, those accusations are themselves nothing but lies intending to promote fear.

The charges of ‘intolerance’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are themselves out of line, unless attempts to convince people to give up smoking or drug use are examples of intolerance and fundamentalism against an alternative lifestyle.

Even here, the problems with smoking and other forms of drug use is that these behaviors primarily harm only the person who engages in them. They harm others to the degree that others care about the person who is destroying her own life, or insofar as they cause the person to act irresponsibility (e.g., drunk driving or to steal for drugs).

This is not the case for those who suffer from an insufficiently strong aversion to killing others to obtain a political end. Imagine condemning somebody with an insufficiently strong aversion to killing others to obtain a political end, and hearing in response, “You are an intolerant bigot who merely wants to destroy our way of life.”

“Well, since your way of life includes killing others to obtain a political end, then, yes, actually, I am intolerant of that life style and I wish to see it destroyed. Sorry, I do not see how we have a lot of options in this matter. I would be perfectly willing to tolerate your lifestyle, if not for the fact that you are killing people to obtain a political end.”

Contrary to the secular/political ideologies of the last part of the 20th Century, criticism is quite appropriate. In many cases, the absence of criticism is what we need to condemn. Praise and condemnation are important tools that need to be put into place in order to develop a set of desires and aversions where democracy can grow.

Without it, we will continue to be less effective than we could otherwise be at replacing theocratic dictatorships with democratic institutions.


Sheldon said...

"As such, it was the secular liberals, not religious moderates, who gave would-be dictators and theocrats moral permission to set up their oppressive regimes."

I would like to comment on this further. But first I would like to ask exactly who do you mean by secular liberals? Are there any actual names that can serve as representatives?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I meant my comment to embrace the following set of facts.

(1) The idea that other cultures are beyond criticism - even, in its extreme forms, the cultures of slavery and Nazi Germany - found its strongest foothold in the philosophies of cultural and individual relativism (particularly in ethics) and in post-modernism.

(2) Relativism and post-modernism were by far more strongly held by members of the political left, than the political right. Indeed, they were practically the defining characteristic of the intellectual left throughout the 1990s.

I have been criticizing these views for quite some time (since I hold that moral claims are propositions that are objectively true or false). And in those debates the people I argued against were not "Republicans" or "Conservatives". They were "Democrats" and "Liberals".

Now I see these people condemning 'religious moderates' for an excess of tolerance, when the real culprits - the social leaders in the doctrine of excessive tolerance, were seldom religious or moderate.

Sheldon said...


My first question was based on a concern that you might have been painting with too broad of a brush. Of course, this is a common problem when we use general political labels for categories that contain much variation. On the one hand we need these labels to talk about categories in an economical manner, on the other hand they can mislead us into innacurate generalizations.

I certainly recognize the existence of intellectual fashions that fall under the heading post-modernism and relativism.

However, while many post-modernists/relativists fall somewhere within the left side of the political spectrum, not all those on the left are post-modernist/relativists. I think you probably recognize this yourself.

Although many on the political right do not explicitly espouse ethical relativism, what they condone or condemn politically demonstrates that they often practice ethical relativism.

Secondly, I am also concerned that when we talk about the phrase "cultural relativism" we may fail to distinguish the term from ethical/moral relativism; or not appreciate the nuances or degrees of cultural relativism.

Because my academic training is in anthropology, I approach the question of cultural relativism from a different perspective. The term was introduced into anthropology by Franz Boas. In the Boasian sense, cultural relativism is the stance that cultural practices should be understood within their own cultural-historical context. It does not neccessarily entail ethical relativism.

I am going to break this up, and move on to something else that trouble me in this post later.

Thank you for your response.