Chicken soup for the argument

Though I have no doubt David Brooks is unaware of us–especially since we almost never comment on him as he is firewalled–I was surprised to see that something of the idea of whom to ask critical questions about people places and things has crossed his mind:

>It happened just over a year ago in Key West, of all places. We’d come down for a conference organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and one afternoon two friends, Reuel Gerecht and Jeffrey Goldberg, squared off for a debate on the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

>Gerecht and Goldberg are Americans whose fascination with Islam has taken them to *ridiculous places.* Gerecht, a former member of the C.I.A. clandestine service, spends an astonishing amount of time in spare rooms in Middle East backwaters talking fatwas in klatches with bearded fundamentalists.

>Goldberg has lived in a madrasa in Pakistan. His pieces from inside Hezbollah won a National Magazine Award for The New Yorker. In the fall he has a book, “Prisoners,” coming out about his time as a prison guard in the Israeli Army, and his friendships with the Palestinian detainees.

You read that right–“ridiculous places”–as if to foreshadow where we are going in this piece.

Believe it or not, these two individuals “disagree utterly about the path to Arab democracy.” But which *one* of them will be right? The Middle East is such a *ridiculous* place, so how better to resolve the dispute about its future between two ridiculously adventurous westerners (they actually went to the Middle East and talked to those people? That’s ridiculous!) than with a ridiculous analogy:

>The only way to reform the Middle East, Gerecht concluded, is by changing political institutions and enduring as the spirit of democratic self-government slowly changes society. *There will be a period of fever, but the fever will break the disease.*

What a fitting analogy! But wait:

>When it was Goldberg’s turn (the transcript is available online at, his first observation was that *sometimes fevers break the disease but sometimes they kill the patient*.

Zing! Excellent point Dr.Goldberg! How will the moderator resolve it?

>What this debate is really about is *the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems.* Can we use political reform *to spark* cultural change, or do we have to wait for cultural reformation before *we* can change politics?

The concept of agency at work in this piece is so 19th Century: why bother asking people from the land of the ridiculous to participate? (maybe, and this is admittedly a ridiculous suggestion, they have another view, or views). Surely they couldn’t have come up with the chicken and egg metaphor for their predicament–that’s why they’re ridiculous.

10 thoughts on “Chicken soup for the argument”

  1. This reminds me of a passage in Said\’s \”Orientalism\” where Lord Balfour remarks:

    >Is it good for these great nations-I admit their greatness-that this absolute government should be exercised by us? I think it is a good thing. I think that experience shows that they have got under it far better governement than in the whole history of the world they ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilised west…We are in Egypt not merely for the sake of the Egyptians, though we are there for their sake; we are there also for the sake of Europe at large.

    Said\’s commentary on the above passage raises the same points that Dr. Casey raises in the analysis of the Brooks piece. This is such a simple ethical point that the media at large continually overlooks. Rather, the media likes to question the \”military strategy\” or the \”political benefit\” of such enterprises. This type of thinking is what I believe Chomsky refers to when he argues that a liberal democracy becomes authoritarian when the elite discourse is hobbled by narrow indoctrination. Balfour (and Brooks) can\’t even see the actual ethical problem. Either that, or they choose to ignore it.

  2. Thanks for the comment. That seems right. This reminds me of what a former student of mine said when he attended a conference on post-colonialism in Africa. Everyone was a white westerner. The foremost experts on African popular culture were British. Now most of the post-coloniallly inclined are super-lefties. So–if that anecdote has any traction–such paternalistic think-tanks are hardly the province of the silly right. We should keep in mind, I think, as we go about deciding when the Middle East has graduated to political adulthood, that we ought to hear from them–even if nay especially if we do not like the message.

  3. i guess the questioin that should be asked, then, is at what point democracy moved from an ostensibly inspirational socio-political form to a close-mided, prosellytizing one? when did americans and europeans begin to think not of their own liberties, but begin to make that decision for others who were too “underdeveloped” to determine their preferred form of government? isn’t that why we separated from England? “when in the course of human events, it becomes NECESSARY for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another…” not a lot of gray area there. is that not why parliamant stripped away the ruling powers of the monarch? yet we have grown so short-sighted that we, in the west, cannot see past the puffed-up pride in our own system, to the point that we fail to appreciate the right of a society to determine its socio-political climate for itself.

  4. I\’m just guessing but it might have something to do with democracy being put on the same plane as religion: it\’s not a multiply realizable form of political organization merely but a substantial view of the good. From form it became content. It doesn\’t help of course that we have as a nation surrended ourselves to evangelically driven political discourse. Everyone–right and left–must embrace and advance our american-exceptionalist values.

  5. i hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but it makes perfect sense. this rather tenuous alliance between the current administration and pseudo-religiousity makes me queasy.

  6. Nice analysis, Dr. Casey.

    Phil asked: “when did americans and europeans begin to think not of their own liberties, but begin to make that decision for others”

    It’s worth remembering that it’s not as if these countries have some natural state to return to, where they were getting along fine before the West came and interfered. Given that many (most?) of these countries are post-world-war creations of the West, is non-interference really a possibility? Is it ethical, at this point, to let historically antagonistic tribes and sects fight it out for the rule of their new West-imposed borders? Or do the borders make democracy “necessary.” Can you reinstate the “Prime Directive” after over a century of violation?

    I don’t mean to defend any particular current implementation of “interference,” but since you asked “when,” I think the answer is, relative to the existence of these countries: since always–since the West took some Crayolas to a map of the Mid-East and starting divvying up the spoils.

    As for Dr. Casey’s religion equation, I’m looking more and more forward to PHIL-342: “Religion and Globalization” in Fall. Phil, Jem, either of you taking it?

  7. Jeremy,
    I agree with you realistic analysis of the current state of the Middle-East, but remember that we’re dealing not only with facts when talking about the ethical problems facing the region. True, the West has unduly influenced the political process of this area for more than a century, rewarding the Arabs with the spoils of the fall of the Ottoman Empire after WWI (with heavy stipulations). The early beneficiaries of middle-eastern empire were the British and Americans, and who do we find still entrenched there today? I think Casey and Mayo are aware of the historical and political climate, but object to the attitude/belief structure that has facilitated this climate in the first place.

    The question is, is it just to direct the political and economic structures of independent nations for our benefit and to their detriment? The “benevolent hand of the West” myth is destroyed by one glaring fact. They (Middle-Easterners) have no autonomy. They are subjugated by an external dictatorship that limits their political freedom. They can’t truly vote for who they want for two main reasons:

    1) They, especially Iraq, are both ethnically and religiously divided countries. Sunnis and Shi’ites are at war in Iraq (Though I think the media stresses this divide much more than ought to be. Class and regional affilliation appear more likely culprits).

    2) Parties that would contradict the official U. S. line are simply not options. The West has a history of ignoring or blatantly undermining the legitimacy of democratically elected governments in all parts of the world. Hamas is a prime example.

    So an enduring democratic process in Iraq is very unlikely to occur at this point. If America can’t truly aid these countries in achieving some form of self-determination, then what are we still doing there? Well, we know the answer to that, as you have pointed out in your post. It seems that America can only do more harm than good in this reqion, and has done all in its power to destabilize the Middle-East for our benefit rather than strengthen it and/or care for the interests of its people.

    About the class: I wish I could take more philosophy classes but I have to finish my minor and study for the GRE’s. So little time.

  8. democracy should only be a “necessity” for the peoples of a given country when they find it to be the most acceptable system for themselves. it flies in the face of the bare-bones principles of democratic self-rule to say to another country/nation-state/tribe that i have chosen democracy as the most fitting remedy for your situation. as if something was wrong in the first place. if they chose to fight, why get involved? the obvious answer might be to preserve order in the world. when did that become the sole responsibility of the u.s. and when did the institution of democratic rule become part and parcel of that process? perhaps democracy is the most prefrable form rule for the nations of the world, but it can only be successful when it is chosen by its citizens, and the paternalistic approach adopted by the west in this regard, i.e. they’re too dumb to get, so we’ll have to forcibly demonstrate to them why democracy is a good, is actually detrimental to the process. for some reason, which i have yet to identify, though i think religion plays a large part in it, we in west and especially the u.s. have affected a cowboy mentality, like we have to play the part of the masked rescuer of the poor oppressed peoples of the world, yet, in the meantime, our own civil liberities are being eroded.

  9. I think the issues here are self-determination and the prevalent idea of Pax Americana in the US. There seems to be a common perception, especially among the neo-cons, that the US is the sole source and paragon of liberty and democracy in the world, as if the rest of the nations in the world were full of “barbarians”.From this world view they believe that the US should spread democracy to other less unfortunate and less civilized nations, to civilize the world or in other words to make the world American .
    But it seems that their definition of liberty and democracy does not mean what it should be, for them it means free markets, and in order to have free markets they have to support or create dictators whose political views are open to foreign investment (i.e exploitation) and control (Egypt and Saudi Arabia seem to be prefect examples). The problem is this warped idea of liberty and democracy that must be imposed on these nations for their own good, because apparently they do not know what is good for them, it totally ignores their right of self-determination. Any group of people have the right to determine what kind of government or society they want to create, I think this is a basic human right that should not be infringed under any circumstance. This world view did not go very well for the British (Pax Britannica) or the Romans before them ( Pax Romana), and it will definitely will not go very well with the US and whatever nation is being “pacified” and “civilized”.

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