Monday, April 03, 2006

We, the awful people

Why do you have to invoke Islamofascism or puppet regimes? The fundamental dilemma here is that democracy is no guarantor of liberalism (in the classical sense, not in the modern American sense).

Bush pretends democracy, liberty and justice are perfectly aligned virtues. That's the biggest bullshit, not WMDs. The reason it's a popular view is that American political language is extremely onanistic – all that's good and holy in social life must be attributed to "the people's" will with flowery paeans. It flies in the face of history – witch-burning, Crusades, the caste system, segregation and even slavery were popular social arrangements.

Havel's analysis of communist totalitarianism is also instructive. He sees the mechanism of power as not so much the rifle butts of a police state, but the self fulfilling incentive structure of society – voluntary compliance and peer monitoring, which makes the oppressors and the oppressed the same people! I can even imagine the Rwandan massacre to be "democratic", in broad sympathy, if not in execution. It's a peculiar American affliction to try and trace all social ills to a handful of villains, the Saddams and the Kim Jong-ils.

Lest I be perceived as an undiluted cultural chauvinist, let me clarify that I don't see the tension between democracy and liberalism as peculiar to non-Western societies. A big part of the conservative enterprise today is to pull down various liberal constraints on democracy incorporated in the Constitution, and resist some which ought to be added. The left's preoccupation, in the face of this assault, is denial – it doesn't seem able to face up to the fact that defense of some of its core values require a departure from populism, and the illiberalism it can breed. Somehow, I don't hear as many complaints about "judging from the legislature" as I hear about "legislating from the bench."

Anyway, the point is that in a conservative, religious society, apostasy laws are quite plausibly an expression of popular will, and not necessarily the diktat of a ruling cabal. Let the neo-imperialists face their well deserved Sophie's choice squarely: democracy or Western liberalism? My plea is: don't cloud it up with obscurantist platitudes like Islamofascism. They perpetuate the fantasy.

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