Thursday, April 17, 2003

The bizarrely ambivalent Arab reaction to the fall of Saddam Hussein has consistently shown greater apparent concern for the loss of Iraqi and Arab honor than celebration of Iraqis' gain in freedom, democracy or even physical safety. Oxblog's David Adesnik, true to his inveterate democratic optimism, suggests that the problem is a lack of previous experience of positive effects from Western influences, including democracy. Similarly, Thomas Friedman attributes the negative Arab reaction to the fall of Saddam Hussein to "an entrenched Arab mind-set, born of years of colonialism and humiliation, that insists that upholding Arab dignity and nationalism by defying the West is more important than freedom, democracy and modernization." Optimists such as Adesnik and Daniel Pipes also see an opportunity in the current turmoil for a kind of awakening in the Arab world, as it tries to make sense of the Iraqi experience.

The problem with this theory is illustrated by the Palestinian take on the liberation of Iraq. The Palestinians, of course, have close familiarity with a functioning democracy, and have also experienced firsthand, in recent years, the disastrous effects of the accession to power of a corrupt, militaristic, unaccountable local dictatorship on their own lives. Yet, as I've pointed out before, they still overwhelmingly prefer such a violent dictatorship over any of the peaceful, democratic alternatives.

It's important to remember that this sentiment is no more some kind of idiosyncratic Arab cultural pathology than is the so-called Palestinian "death cult" which celebrates the massacres of Jews in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. In fact, self-sacrificing romantic devotion to a brutal, charismatic, dictatorial leader was quite popular in the heart of Europe in the 1930's, and has probably been the norm throughout history--usually in the context of a monarchy, military state or theocracy.

Democracy is a very recent and, one might say, rather unnatural form of government, comparable to such artificial organizational "technologies" as the traffic light. Once such a mutually beneficial convention has become established by consensus, everyone benefits, and it thus tends to display great resiliency over time. However, establishing the convention to begin with can be difficult, because if it's rejected in advance by a significant fraction of the population, then its beneficial effects are negated--as in the case of locales where traffic lights are routinely ignored, and thus rendered quite useless. Although one never can tell--societies can, after all change radically in amazingly short periods of time--it seems unlikely that the consensus necessary for the convention of democracy to take root is about to form in any large Arab country any time soon.

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