Sunday, July 28, 2013

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Profumo affair, Mark Steyn has reposted his obituary of John Profumo from seven years ago.  Steyn adopts the conventional view that Profumo's sexual escapades and subsequent disgrace represented the decadent, dissipated face of the old British ruling class, while his acceptance of responsibility and personal penance (he spent the last forty years of his life as a volunteer for a charity) represented its more laudable side, reflecting its devotion to integrity and honor.

But there is a more cynical view of the affair:  that Profumo's fall, and subsequent refusal to even attempt to regain his former position, demonstrated first and foremost the British ruling class' utter enfeeblement, and foretold its complete surrender shortly thereafter to other contenders--organized labor, the bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, the professional class, the entrepreneurial/financial class--for domination of British society.  Sexual indulgence, after all, is hardly limited to aristocrats, and there has been no shortage of political sex scandals in the years since John Profumo's.  But members of a robust, confident elite don't simply lie down and accept disgrace, then wander off to clean toilets for a poorhouse for the rest of their lives, as Profumo did.  And indeed, numerous British public figures have survived greater or lesser embarrassments and lived on to contend in the corridors of power.  Profumo, however, was astute enough to recognize that his and his peers' (in both senses of the word) time had past, and that any attempted comeback would be futile.

In America, where elites have long been more dynamic than in the Old World, we see a similar pattern:  the strongest (the Kennedys, to take the most obvious example) are never tainted by personal scandal, however egregious their behavior; the strong (the Clintons) brazen it out, and emerge largely intact; the weak (Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner) fall from power and must endure at least a period of disgrace before being allowed to attempt a comeback; and the weakest (John Edwards, Larry Craig) succumb, never to recover.

I have long held the opinion that in the political world, a "scandal" is best described as a kind of political contest:  an accusation is made against a politician by his or her political enemies, the consequences of which are determined primarily by the relative political power of the target and his or her enemies, largely irrespective of the actual severity or validity of the accusation.  This is particularly true of sex scandals, where "severity" is a highly subjective judgment that can easily be swayed by political sympathies.  John Profumo's indiscretion was fairly minor, even by the standards of his day.  But as an old-school upper-class traditionalist in a rapidly changing Britain, he had the misfortune to be politically vulnerable, and in the Darwinian world of democratic politics, even the tiniest of cuts will draw the predators to a sufficiently weakened prey.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

One of my favorite Middle East journalists is Jonathan Spyer, an intrepid, clearheaded Israeli who has not only ventured behind rebel lines in Syria, but has returned to write surprisingly non-breathless dispatches about it.  I was therefore a bit surprised--but only a bit--by his puzzlement over the empirical fact that liberal democratic movements in the Arab world are consistently incapable of competing for political power with the two dominant forces in Arab politics:  militaries and Islamists:
“In the Middle East, it is the regimes or the Islamists; there is no third way.”...[B]ut I do not quite understand why. After all, the throngs of young people that we have witnessed in recent days in the streets of Egypt are not a mirage. No more were the young civil society activists who began the uprising in Syria, or the sophisticated liberals and reformers in Egypt. What are the factors which time and time again prevent the emergence of a muscular, representative, civilian and secular politics in the Arab world?
Spyer displays here a very common misunderstanding:  that "representative, civilian and secular politics" is naturally "muscular", unless suppressed by "factors" that "prevent" its "emergence".  In fact, it is not the absence of democracy that requires an explanation:  the very idea of democratic government--indeed, even the idea that governments ought to be accountable to their citizens, the principle on which elective, representative democracy is based--was simply unheard-of until a couple of centuries ago.  Until then--and even to this day, in many places--it was universally taken for granted that governments are, should be and always would be selected and maintained by force of might or apparent divine sanction, and their power to impose laws unlimited, except perhaps by greater might or holier divine sanction. 

Democracy is thus perhaps best thought of less as a political movement than as a kind of technology:  a collection of non-obvious principles, practices and processes that enable a society to impose accountability on its own government.  And like many technologies--say, the automobile--it needs both a broad supporting infrastructure and a widespread understanding of its use and maintenance in order to permeate a society.  One would never pause to wonder why automobiles weren't ubiquitous in those societies that haven't yet developed both the physical infrastructure to support them and the intellectual infrastructure to use and maintain them.  Likewise, one shouldn't be surprised at the lack of "muscular" democratic politics in countries--like those of the Arab world--that haven't yet created either the supporting institutions or the consensus understandings that make a working democracy possible. 

It is therefore heartening and necessary--though obviously far from sufficient--to see protestors overthrowing governments in places like Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.  Although such proto-democratic actions are far from authentic democracy--no doubt many of the protestors in those countries actually have little understanding of it, and even less sympathy for it--they nevertheless represent a slightly broadening public embrace of a weak version of the important democratic principle of popular sovereignty.  And while full-fledged democracy may be unlikely to blossom any time soon in those countries--the path from the French Revolution to representative democracy took nearly a century, after all--every such step brings them closer to the day when democratic ideas are as natural and obvious to their populations as they are to the citizens of Western democracies.