February 10, 2008
Turkey’s Parliament Lifts Scarf Ban
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
ISTANBUL — Parliament took a major step on Saturday toward lifting a ban against women’s head scarves at universities, setting the stage for a final showdown with Turkey’s secular elite over where Islam fits in the building of an open society.
Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a measure supported by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change the Constitution in a way they say will guarantee all citizens the right to go to college regardless of how they dress.
The authorities imposed the ban in the late 1990s, arguing that the growing number of covered women in colleges threatened secularism, one of the founding principles of modern Turkey.
Secular opposition lawmakers voted against the change, with about a fifth of all ballots cast. Crowds of secular Turks backed them on the streets of the capital, Ankara, chanting that secularism — and women’s right to resist being forced to wear head scarves by an increasingly conservative society — was under threat.
“This decision will bring further pressure on women,” said Nesrin Baytok, a member of Parliament from the opposition secular party, during the debate in Parliament. “It will ultimately bring us Hezbollah terror, Al Qaeda terror and fundamentalism.”
Another member from that party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said the group would take the amendments to the Constitutional Court, a pro-secular institution that is likely to rule against Mr. Erdogan. That process must wait until the changes are approved by the president and published in the official state newspaper.
The head scarf ban, and the push to repeal it by Mr. Erdogan’s governing party, has become one of the most emotional issues in Turkey. It pits a rising, increasingly wealthy middle class of observant Turks, on one side, against a secular elite, backed by the military and the judiciary, on the other.
“It’s all about power,” said Jenny B. White, an anthropologist at Boston University who has been studying Turkey since the 1970s. “It’s about who gets to decide what Turkey’s image and emblematic lifestyle will be. Islam is the lightning rod for all the fears and concerns.”
Many secular Turks are concerned that the Justice and Development Party led by Mr. Erdogan has such significant power, controlling Parliament, the presidency and the prime ministry, that it will impose its own conservative values on Turkey.
“It’s been presented as a liberty to cover the head, but in practice, it is going to evolve into a ban on uncovered hair,” said Hikmet Sami Turk, a former justice minister, speaking on NTV television.
Turkey’s current tensions are rooted in its recent past, when migrants from the country’s more observant heartland moved to cities, starting in the 1950s, in a process that changed Turkey into an urban society.
But it remained divided by class, and when many covered women began entering universities and taking public sector jobs, the secular elite banned head scarves.
Now, Mr. Erdogan is trying to lift the ban, and the debate, which began in Parliament on Wednesday, has been emotional.
“I will entrust liver to a cat, but won’t entrust secularism to you,” Deniz Baykal, the head of the secular opposition party, said Wednesday, according to Today’s Zaman, an English-language daily newspaper.
Cemil Cicek, a conservative member of Mr. Erdogan’s party, countered, “We are not trying to bring a ban; we are trying to lift a ban.”
“Why aren’t you willing to reach consensus, but spread radioactive fear and horror across the country like the Chernobyl power station?” he asked in Wednesday’s debate. “What is this?”
Turkey is groping toward a new understanding of itself. Observant Turks, the underclass for years, are now firmly part of the elite, and hard questions have emerged about how to share public space, like college campuses and public buildings.
Those who argue for retaining the ban say they do not oppose the head scarf worn in times past by grandmothers, tied babushka-style under the chin.
Nilufer Gole, a Turkish sociologist who wrote “The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling,” argues that the past generation was mostly working class, and therefore not threatening, while today’s wealthier covered women are.
“We liked our grandmothers because they were just knitting,” she said by telephone from Paris. “They were never trying to go to university.”
Turkey’s booming economy is a great equalizer. On the streets of Istanbul, young women in jeans, stylish T-shirts and Keds wear head scarves of all colors. Young observant women are more integrated than ever.
“For me it’s a good sign,“ Ms. Gole said. “It means they are participating.”
Still, Turkey is entering uncharted waters in its attempts to balance liberal democracy, Islam and secularism, and Western models do not show the way.
“It’s not like a Sikh policeman wearing a turban under his helmet in England,” said Murat Belge, a professor at Bilgi University in Istanbul. In Britain, Sikhs are a tiny minority. In Turkey, he said, those asking to have their way are a majority.
That majority, many secularists believe, is using the veil as a first step toward a repressive Islamic state.
But Ms. White, writing in a Turkish newspaper on Friday, said the veil’s political meaning is in the eye of the beholder. “Meaning,” she wrote, “is in our heads, not on our heads.”
February 24, 2008
Obama’s Kenyan Roots
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
A barefoot old woman in a ripped dress is sitting on a log in front of her tin-roof bungalow in this remote village in western Kenya, jovially greeting visitors.
Mama Sarah, as she is known around here, lives without electricity or running water. She is illiterate and doesn’t know when she was born. Yet she may have a seat of honor at the next presidential inauguration in Washington — depending on what happens to her stepgrandson, Barack Obama.
Mama Sarah cannot communicate with Mr. Obama, who calls her his grandmother, because she speaks only her Luo tribal language and a little Swahili. Senator Obama’s Luo is pretty much limited to “musawa,” meaning “how are you?”
People around here are giddy at the prospect of a President Obama.
“I’m up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. to listen to BBC news and get the latest on the campaign,” said Nicholas Rajula, who describes himself as a cousin of the senator. “By the way, what’s the latest news about the superdelegates?”
You might think that all Kenyans would be vigorously supporting Mr. Obama. But Kenya has been fractured along ethnic lines in the last two months, so now Mr. Obama draws frenzied support from the Luo ethnic group of his ancestors, while many members of the rival Kikuyu group fervently support Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Obamas are better off than most in the area, for Mama Sarah’s house has a tin roof — a step up from the mud huts with thatch roofs that are common in the village. Mama Sarah also has a cellphone, which she charges from a solar panel, and a radio that she uses to follow primaries in America.
But the poverty is unmistakable. Jane Raila, who says she is another relative of the senator, was hobbling barefoot with a homemade crutch, for she had been crippled by polio as a child. “We’re all very excited by the news from the U.S.,” she said. “We stay up late to listen to the news bulletins.”
Mr. Obama’s late grandfather is said to have been the first person in the area to wear Western clothes rather than just a loincloth. For a time he converted to Christianity and adopted the family name Johnson.
Later he converted to Islam, taking four wives. Senator Obama’s father, who apparently converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school, was also polygamous in keeping with local custom, taking an informal Kenyan wife who preceded Mr. Obama’s mother but remained a consort, according to accounts by local people and the senator himself.
The father, also named Barack Hussein Obama, was as much of a pathbreaker as his son. He went from herding goats in Kogelo to studying in Hawaii and at Harvard, even if his career as an economist was frustrated in part by ethnic rivalries.
Senator Obama barely knew his father and does not know his Kenyan relatives well. He has visited Kenya three times, most recently very briefly in 2006.
On his last visit, Mr. Obama visited two area schools that had been renamed for him. The intention in renaming the schools seems to have been partly to attract funding. One person after another noted pointedly that it was a shame that a school named for a great American should be so dilapidated.
Some of Mr. Obama’s innumerable relatives also see him as a meal ticket. They have made arrangements with a tour group to bring buses of visitors to have tea with Mama Sarah.
They are also trying to raise money from interviews with her. I had made arrangements to visit Mama Sarah weeks ago, and she had agreed to speak. But when I showed up, she said that her children had told her to keep quiet. Frantic phone calls. Fierce arguments. Hints that money might make an interview possible. I didn’t pay. I didn’t get the interview.
That’s O.K. Having seen the poverty in Kogelo, I’m less offended by the outstretched palms than awed by the distance that the Obama family spans.
Frankly, I worry that enemies of Senator Obama will seize upon details like his grandfather’s Islamic faith or his father’s polygamy to portray him as an alien or a threat to American values. But snobbishness and paranoia ill-become a nation of immigrants, where one of our truest values is to judge people by their own merits, not their pedigrees. If we call ourselves a land of opportunity, then Mr. Obama’s heritage doesn’t threaten American values but showcases them.
The stepgrandson of an illiterate, barefoot woman in this village of mud huts in Africa may be the next president of the United States. Such mobility — powered by education, immigration and hard work — is cause not for disparagement but for celebration.
March 10, 2008
Tribalism Here, and There
By ROGER COHEN
The joke going around here, after a rigged vote, is that it may be easier to elect a Luo president in the United States than in Kenya.
“We beat them to it, I just wasn’t sworn in,” Raila Odinga, the opposition leader and a member of the large Luo ethnic group, told me. “Obama, if elected, would have been second, but I was robbed at the ballot box.”
Barack Obama is an American delivered by birth from the fissures of his father’s land. But it is through the charged tribal prism that Kenyans view the U.S. presidential race after a spasm of postelectoral ethnic killing and cleansing that left more than 1,000 dead and a half-million people uprooted.
Because Obama’s paternal family is Luo, the Luos love him without reserve. By contrast, Kikuyus, the largest tribe, are cool to him.
Since independence in 1963, Kenya has never had a Luo president. The incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, is a Kikuyu and widely accused, as the country’s first president Jomo Kenyatta was, of favoring his tribe.
That’s the 45-year backdrop to the violence, now stanched, that saw Luos who felt cheated in the Dec. 27 election chasing Kikuyus from their homes and Kikuyus killing in reprisal.
History is prologue. Back in the 1960s, Obama’s father, shaped by his American experience, warned that “tribalism was going to ruin the country,” according to the senator’s memoir. Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, punished the “old man” for his frankness.
Odinga’s father also suffered as a Luo. Oginga Odinga, the first vice-president to Kenyatta, was arrested in 1969 after ethnic violence in the Luo-dominated western city of Kisumu, near the Obama homestead. Today, burnt buildings and shattered stores line Kisumu once again.
But we’re beyond tribalism, right?
Wrong. The main forces in the world today are the modernizing, barrier-breaking sweep of globalization and the tribal reaction to it, which lies in the assertion of religious, national, linguistic, racial or ethnic identity against the unifying technological tide.
Connection and fragmentation vie. The Internet opens worlds and minds, but also offers opinions to reinforce every prejudice. You’re never alone out there; some idiot will always back you. The online world doesn’t dissolve tribes. It gives them global reach.
Jihadism, with its mirage of a restored infidel-free Caliphate, is perhaps the most violent tribal reaction to modernity. But fundamentalism is no Islamic preserve; it has its Christian, Jewish, Hindu and other expressions.
America’s peaceful tribes are also out in force. As Obama and Hillary Clinton engage in the long war for the Democratic nomination, we have the black vote, and the Latino vote, and the women-over-50 vote, and the Volvo-driving liberal-intellectual vote, and the white blue-collar vote, and the urban vote, and the rural vote, and the under-30s vote — sub-groups with shared social, cultural, linguistic or other traits and interests.
That’s democracy at work. Sure. But the United States is divided, within itself and from the world, in growing ways.
It is divided by war, by income chasms, by foreclosures, by political polarization and by culture wars. Increasingly it is looked upon from outside with dismay or alarm. Healing, within and without, will be a central task of the next president.
For several years now, Obama has made the possibility of unity beyond division the core of his politics. That’s just poetry, the pooh-poohing Clinton people say, but governing is about the prose of experience and grit.
I see plenty of Obama prose, in new proposals for national service, for more equitable taxation, for health care, for international dialogue; and in his unique experience, both personal and professional, of reaching across continental, racial, religious and class lines. His grit is self evident. Look where he came from.
I looked. Those charred buildings and smashed windows in Kisumu are borne somewhere in Obama’s soul, just as the words of his half-sister Auma are when she described their elusive father’s travails: Kenyatta telling him “he would not work again until he had no shoes on his feet.” On the south side of Chicago, Obama has lived the American refractions of such violent division.
If I was to sum up this presidential race, I’d say: “It’s the generations, stupid.”
An American generation under 45 has glimpsed an interconnected world beyond race and tribe. They know its attainment will be elusive but, after a bleak season, they feel summoned by what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” And, speaking of experience, they know Lincoln came to the presidency with all of two years in Congress behind him, and a failed Senate campaign.
Looking out from Kenya, where he mediated an end to the tribal violence, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary general, told me: “I think an Obama presidency would be inspirational, an incredible development in the world.”
March 21, 2008
Turkey’s Democracy on Trial
The lawsuit filed by one of Turkey’s top prosecutors last week, asking the country’s Constitutional Court to shut down its largest political party, gravely threatens political and economic stability and Ankara’s international reputation.
It accuses the governing Justice and Development Party of “anti-secular activities,” and also asks the court to ban 71 of the party’s members from politics for five years, including the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the president, Abdullah Gul. The court, which must now decide whether to hear the lawsuit, should turn it down. And Turkey’s Parliament should repeal the undemocratic law under which the charges were brought.
The prosecution claims to be defending the forward-looking values of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In fact, it degrades those values. Intolerance and contempt for democracy have increasingly characterized the way Turkey’s old-guard political establishment has responded to the rise of a modern, Western-oriented and democratic political party rooted in the country’s majority-Muslim faith.
Turkey’s courts and prosecutors, along with its top generals, see themselves as the institutional defenders of this cramped and self-serving interpretation of the Ataturk legacy.
But the deeper problem is a set of rigidly ideological laws that allow selective prosecutions in the name of broadly defined abstractions like “secularism” and “Turkishness.” These laws have been used not only against political parties but against some of Turkey’s leading writers and intellectuals.
The Justice and Development Party has been a distressingly frequent target. It has already had to overcome a legal ban on Mr. Erdogan becoming prime minister, military coup threats and an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Parliament from electing Mr. Gul as president. These desperate maneuvers have only increased the party’s electoral support. But the beleaguered political establishment does not seem to get the message.
What apparently provoked the latest legal action was the government’s decision this year to allow observant Muslim women to wear head scarves at Turkish universities. If the Constitutional Court accepts the lawsuit and Parliament leaves the law unchanged, Turkish politics face turmoil for the next year or more. Needed reforms to strengthen the economy and meet the entrance requirements for the European Union would languish.
Laws like this are an embarrassment and a danger to Turkey’s modern, democratic society, which has outgrown them. The Justice and Development Party should use its parliamentary majority to repeal them, and those secular party representatives who truly believe in democracy should support the effort.
Cherish freedom of the season
Regardless of belief, all Canadians can celebrate Easter
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Today is Easter Sunday, when Christians celebrate their confidence that Jesus Christ, having died the grisly death of crucifixion and having been buried in a sealed, guarded tomb, came back to fleshly life. Leaving an empty tomb, He saw His friends again and, in ultimately rejoining His father God in Heaven, cleared the way for all Christians who asserted He was the Son of God to be similarly accepted.
It is a challenging belief, by no means universally accepted in Canada, but still by far the majority opinion.
Yet all of us, even those who believe otherwise, live in a country founded upon Christian principles -- of which this Easter resurrection is the cornerstone -- and have equal cause to be glad of it.
For, much as it is conventionally accepted that politics and religion should not mix, the beliefs of the writers of a country's constitution actually make a vast difference. People who view the state as more important than its people write totalitarian constitutions. Think of Communist parties, for instance, or Louis XIV, who notoriously declared, "L'etat, c'est moi."
On the other hand, somebody who believes the individual is important because God accepts each one of us on the basis of a personal decision about the resurrection -- not because they belong to some favoured class or race -- is much more likely to see the state as an instrument of individual empowerment.
Indeed, when the world's kingdoms are sorted and categorized, there is ultimately but one distinction that matters: Does the individual serve the government, or does the government serve the individual?
Generally speaking, it is better to be a citizen of the latter than a subject of the former -- among which we may number absolute monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships of all kinds and every political arrangement where the interests of the ordinary person are subsumed beneath those of whomever happens to have the upper hand.
In contrast, a cavalier dismissal of individual citizen rights is inconsistent with the constitutions of such countries as Canada and the U.S., where the basic form of government was established by people believing the individual received his rights directly from God.
"Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God," begins the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, itself the first section of the Canadian Constitution.
Those who signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence were even more specific, holding it a self evident truth that men were "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
This is not to say Canada (or the U.S., Great Britain, or any other western country,) is perfect; however, it is to say that when the individual is affronted, there is a national conscience to which he may appeal and a mechanism provided through which the determined may find redress.
This is simply not so in countries where the individual is a cog to the state's wheel.
Thus, the imprisonment of a man wrongfully convicted is thought to shame the nation; likewise, so does unjust discrimination. Cruel punishments are outlawed. And, on those occasions when the Canadian state oppresses its citizens anyway -- one thinks of Quebec's padlock laws of the '50s, or Alberta's own ill-conceived 1937 Press Act -- it is never justified as the perquisite of governors, but considered scandalous.
Indeed, sometimes the most flagrant violations of good intentions prove them: Slavery was abolished in the U.S. in no small measure because a majority of Americans could no longer deal with the inconsistency of forced labour, in a country whose constitution tried to define freedom.
Compare that to the vicious suppression of dissenters in Tiananmen Square, still barely acknowledged by its perpetrators and, apparently, still unregretted.
There are countries people seek to leave, and others to which they flock -- Canada among them. What draws them?
Freedom. It is always attractive to those who do not have it, and the destinations of choice for immigrants are broadly those where, whether the host population understands and honours its heritage or not, a generous Christian world view elevates the worth of the people.
As the Bible puts it, "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (2 Cor. 3:17)
To all our readers, wherever you come from and whatever you believe, we wish the blessings of the Easter season -- and if that is not what you would receive, at least allow us to wish you the ongoing liberties the season's full appreciation by our wise forefathers has bestowed.
So the Vatican has introduced a new list of seven mortal sins to supplement its traditional list of seven deadly sins. The seven deadly sins -- lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy and pride --were introduced in the 6th century under Pope Gregory and popularized by Dante in his famous Inferno. For centuries Catholics have been encouraged to substitute in their place the seven holy virtues: chastity, abstinence, temperance, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.
This month, L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, announced the church is supplementing this list with seven new mortal sins: environmental pollution, genetic manipulation, accumulating excessive wealth, inflicting poverty, drug trafficking and consumption, participating in morally debatable experiments, and the violation of fundamental rights of human nature.
This new list is not as concise as the original, and less likely to become indelible in our collective memory, but people around the world are being encouraged to take the list seriously. According to the church's catechism, "immediately after death, the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell."
Given such high stakes, one item on the new list especially caught my eye. Is the accumulation of excessive wealth really a sin? Is it really wrong that some people have the talent and ability to earn more money than they really need? Many people will find this hard to believe.
For one thing, the distribution of wealth is not a zero-sum game. It's not like poker, where one person can increase his winnings only by another person's losing. Some people simply have the ability -- because of their creativity, insight, hard work or other talents -- to create new wealth, and they do so without penalizing or impoverishing their neighbours or fellow citizens.
Just as important is the challenge the church will face in developing a morally viable definition of what it means by excessive. Extreme wealth, by its nature, doesn't have a lot to do with money, at least not as we normally conceive it. Instead, it has everything to do with power. After a certain point, increased wealth has nothing to do with having a larger bank account or a bigger house. Instead, it simply means increased influence and responsibility.
As the economists tell us, increases in wealth almost always lead to shifts in what is known as "marginal utility." For most of us, increases in salary allow us to change our lives and our lifestyles. If we get a raise, this lets us buy a newer car or go on a longer vacation. If we inherit enough money we might decide to work less, or even stop altogether.
But among the "excessively" wealthy such considerations will have ceased to be factors long ago. At some point, earning or inheriting an extra million dollars, or even an extra billion dollars, won't affect a person's lifestyle. Extreme increases in wealth don't mean things initially out of reach -- a fancy dinner, a new suit, a bigger house -- have now become possible when before they weren't.
Instead, they mean some people have influence over the economy in a way that others of us lack. By deciding where and how to invest their capital, the wealthy have more power over where and how a local industry might develop. They have more influence over local and even national employment, and over stock and bond prices around the world.
Admittedly, when compared to the economy as a whole, the power of even the richest individuals is still relatively modest. But even so, wealth has ceased to function as money in the ordinary sense of the term. Instead, extreme wealth simply means more influence and responsibility.
A case can even be made that because it is the innumerable economic decisions that each of us freely make each day that give some people the higher degree of economic influence they have, excessive wealth may even be the most democratic of all power distributions.
But should anybody have this power? Should ordinary men and women -- the press baron, the steel magnate, the Hollywood mogul, and now the computer entrepreneur and the sports superstar -- be able to influence the economy more than the rest of us? Or should this kind of influence be left only to elected officials? Or to religious leaders?
By any ordinary test, the Pope is certainly among the most excessively wealthy of all the people on the planet. He will never go hungry a day in his life, unless by choice. He can travel wherever and whenever he chooses. He has immediate access to the world's greatest art collection and to one of the world's greatest libraries. But much more importantly, his moral (and hence indirectly, his material) influence over millions of people is unquestioned.
So the question of whether the excessively wealthy should have the power they do becomes in part the question of whether the Pope should have the power he does. Should this kind of influence remain solely in the hands of a few elected officials and the bureaucrats they appoint? Or should it also be distributed more widely among unelected religious and community leaders?
Given the history of the 20th-century, this question is an easy one. Wherever they have sprung up, command economies (and command moralities alike, one might add) have been a disaster. So unless we want to return to either the rudimentary agrarian economies of the Middle Ages or the cottage industries of the early Industrial Revolution, the greater the diversity of extreme wealth, the more protected we all are when it comes to our own savings, investments and employment opportunities.
In short, if the economic history of the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that the diversification of extreme wealth is a good thing for everyone. Despite what the Vatican might have us believe, the more billionaires we have in the world, the better for all of us.
Andrew Irvine teaches philosophy at the University of British Columbia.
Is democracy a natural state of mankind?
Maybe Alexander Hamilton, not Thomas Jefferson, was right after all.
By Tim Hackler
Sixteen years ago in this newspaper, I tried to answer a perennial question about American politics. Does the United States look more like the country predicted by Thomas Jefferson, or by his rival, Alexander Hamilton?
Jefferson asserted that ordinary people with sufficient education and virtue can govern themselves wisely, that liberty is the natural desire of all mankind, and that the world's monarchs and dictators will ultimately be overthrown. Hamilton, on the other hand, claimed Jefferson's view was folly, based on wishful thinking, because human nature itself precludes the kind of wisdom necessary for self-government.
In short, Jefferson speaks to our hopes; Hamilton speaks to our fears.
Back in 1992, I concluded that America, and the world, reflected features of both men's views – their great philosophical fight lay unresolved. Today, Hamilton clearly has the upper hand.
Before the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, Hamilton observed the activities of a few state legislatures and concluded: "The inquiry [of legislators] constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people." But he went a step further: It's the people themselves, not the legislators, who are to blame. The people, he said, "murmur at taxes, clamor at their rulers" but then elect demagogues who appeal to our worst instincts.
Over the years, Jefferson became less optimistic about the wisdom of the people, but in the last letter of his long life, he summed up his life's vision: "All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man." He hoped America's experiment with democracy would be "the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition has persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government."
In 1992, it was still possible to believe Jefferson's prediction could one day come true. Many among us thought that the "blessings of freedom and democracy" might ultimately reach all areas of the globe.
But 16 years later, can we still believe this? I think most of us have moved at least slightly toward Hamilton's darker view of human nature. Can we still believe, for example, that Jeffersonian democracy will one day arrive and then survive throughout Africa and the Middle East? The painful failures of the Iraq war have sowed substantial doubts: "Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well," wrote Danielle Pletka in The New York Times recently. "I was wrong. There is no freedom gene...."
History suggests that culture, not genetics, determines fitness for democracy. And history suggests we can pinpoint what kind of culture is required – a culture of the Enlightenment.
We in the West take the Enlightenment for granted. But it took centuries of brave, stubborn people, beginning in the 16th century, to push back against the ignorance and superstition in which all mankind had lived, to bring forth in isolated centers of learning a world based on reason and logic.
Here is a thought experiment to put things in perspective. Imagine a map of the world in 1800. Color in all the countries that took part in or were directly influenced by the Enlightenment (let us say, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Belgium,
Luxembourg, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, the US, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries).
Now jump forward two centuries and color in all the countries with working democracies (as defined by the Economist Intelligence Unit). It is virtually the same map. Every one of those 22 nations (or their derivatives) today has a working democracy. And how many countries have a fully functional democracy but were not among, or did not spring from, those 22 countries? Just one – Japan.
What does this tell us about the Jefferson versus Hamilton question? In a Hamiltonian world, democracy will always be a precious commodity – sustained, and even desired, only by people whose cultural history includes an enlightened viewpoint, or something close to it. The Enlightenment was a kind of miracle, and not one we should take for granted.
Indeed, if Jefferson returned today, he would be shocked by the reemergence of self-styled Christians hacking away at the wall between church and state. Hamilton and Jefferson were both deeply affected by the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason, but Hamilton believed reason would always be under attack by demagogues who know hate and fear are stronger motivators than reason and rationality.
Why do I take a darker view than I did 16 years ago? Today, we have a coarser public discourse and lower standards, and we have suffered the consequences of a political party that quite openly set about to divide Americans into hostile camps because it believed that strategy would give them a narrow electoral advantage. The result is an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible to have a mature, adult, logical national debate about important issues.
Maybe Hamilton was on to something. Is democracy a natural state of mankind? Is the survival of democracy assured even in the United States? It is a sign of our times that we cannot be sure the answer to these questions is "yes."
• Tim Hackler, a freelance writer, served as press secretary for two Democratic senators in the 1980s and was a resident fellow at the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville, Va.
May 6, 2008
In Democracy Kuwait Trusts, but Not Much
By ROBERT F. WORTH
KUWAIT — In a vast, high-ceilinged tent, Ali al-Rashed sounded an anguished note as he delivered the first speech of his campaign for Parliament.
“Kuwait used to be No. 1 in the economy, in politics, in sports, in culture, in everything,” he said, his voice floating out in the warm evening air to hundreds of potential voters seated on white damask-lined chairs. “What happened?”
It is a question many people are asking as this tiny, oil-rich nation of 2.6 million people approaches its latest round of elections. And the unlikely answer being whispered around, both here and in neighboring countries on the Persian Gulf: too much democracy.
In a region where autocracy is the rule, Kuwait is a remarkable exception, with a powerful and truculent elected Parliament that sets the emir’s salary and is the nation’s sole source of legislation. Women gained the right to vote and run for office two years ago, and a popular movement won further electoral changes.
Despite those gains, Kuwait has been overshadowed by its dynamic neighbors — Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar — where economies are booming under absolute monarchies. Efforts to overhaul Kuwait’s sclerotic welfare state have stalled in its fractious and divided Parliament, and scandals led the emir to dissolve the chamber last month for the second time in less than two years, forcing new elections.
All this has left many Kuwaitis deeply disenchanted with their 50-member elected legislature. The collapse of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy in the region and the continuing chaos in Iraq, just to the north — once heralded as the birthplace of a new democratic model — have also contributed to a popular suspicion that democracy itself is one Western import that has not lived up to its advertising.
“People say democracy is just slowing us down, and that we’d be better off if we were more like Dubai,” said Waleed al-Sager, 24, who is advising his father’s campaign for Parliament.
Like many Kuwaitis, Mr. Sager quickly distanced himself from that view. But as the May 17 parliamentary elections approach, with near-constant coverage in a dozen new newspapers and on satellite television stations, candidates refer again and again to a “halat ihbaat” — state of frustration. His father, Mohammed al-Sager, a longtime member of Parliament, delivered his own opening campaign speech shortly after Mr. Rashed two weeks ago, and spent much of it urgently reminding his listeners of the need for an elected assembly.
“Some people have called for a permanent dissolution of Parliament,” he said, his face telecast on an enormous screen to a thick overflow crowd outside the tent. “But everywhere in the world — in Africa, in Palestine, in the old Soviet Union — people have turned to elections to solve their problems, not away from them. Whatever problems we have in our Parliament, we must remember that it is much better than no Parliament at all.”
One source of frustration has been the failure to reform Kuwait’s state-controlled economy. After the 2006 elections, many Kuwaitis were hoping for changes to cumbersome government rules that allow land to be allocated for business projects. Instead, the effort was blocked in Parliament. The slow pace of efforts to privatize the national airline and parts of the oil sector has also caused disappointment.
Many Kuwaitis also complain about government neglect of public hospitals and schools. Problems with the power grid caused brownouts last summer.
Although parts of Kuwait City were rebuilt after the Iraqi invasion of 1990, much of it looks faded and tatty, a striking contrast with the gleaming hyper-modernity of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
The current political malaise is especially striking because most Kuwaitis take pride in their nation’s relatively democratic traditions. The ruling Sabah family acquired its position not through conquest, but with an agreement among the coastal traders of the region in the mid-18th century. After Kuwait gained independence from the British in 1961, the emir approved a written Constitution that sharply limited his power in relation to Parliament.
“This ruling family is different from any other ruling family in the region,” said Ghanim al-Najjar, a newspaper columnist and professor of political science at Kuwait University. “They are part of the political process, not on top of it.”
In some ways, Kuwait is the most democratic country in the Arab world, aside from Lebanon. There are Arab republics — in Yemen, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq and Tunisia — but despite their democratic forms, those countries have generally been more autocratic and repressive than the region’s monarchies. Even in Lebanon, democracy is limited by a sectarian system of power-sharing.
In Kuwait, by contrast, tensions between the majority Sunnis and minority Shiites are minimal. Kuwaitis of all backgrounds mix socially at diwaniyas, the traditional evening gatherings where political and social gossip is shared over tea and coffee. There is some conflict between Islamists and liberals in Parliament, but with no officially recognized political parties, ideology is flexible and shifting.
And while there have been setbacks — the royal family suspended Parliament in the late 1970s and again in the late 1980s — Kuwait has grown steadily more democratic. Two years ago, popular pressure forced a change in the electoral districting law, making it harder to buy votes. Women gained the right to vote and run in elections (though none have won seats). In mid-April, Kuwaiti democrats won yet another battle after the government tried to pass a law restricting public gatherings. There were popular demonstrations against the proposal, and the government backed down.
But those civic freedoms have come alongside signs of real frustration. Despite the world’s fifth largest oil reserves, many Kuwaitis are upset with the absence of business and investment opportunity, at least as compared with other countries nearby.
At a recent campaign rally, Abdul Rahman al-Anjari, a candidate for Parliament, pounded his fist on the lectern as he recited statistics showing that capital outflow and inflow in Kuwait was a small fraction of the numbers in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“What does this mean?” Mr. Anjari said, standing in front of a vast banner bearing his name and those of three other candidates who favor privatization. “It means we are losing jobs to other gulf countries, and for no reason!”
It is unlikely that many Kuwaitis would be willing to trade their political rights and freedoms for more economic opportunity. But the notion that democracy is somehow holding Kuwait back is common.
“It’s true, the friction in our politics delays things,” said Kamel Harami, an oil analyst. “The sheik of Abu Dhabi can say, ‘Go build this,’ and it’s done. He doesn’t have me, the press, the TV stations, the Parliament, getting in his way. But what people need to understand is that democracy isn’t the problem; it’s that democracy isn’t being used correctly.”
Some Kuwaitis say the current emir, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, has deliberately fostered the idea that Parliament is the root of the country’s problems. When he called for new elections in March, the emir pointedly urged Kuwaitis to elect a Parliament that would help develop the country.
There is an authoritarian wing of the royal family that has long wanted to curtail Parliament’s powers, as happened in the late ’70s and the late ’80s. The royal family, which appoints the executive branch, has also used its influence to support parliamentary candidates from Kuwait’s more tribally oriented “Bedouin” population, because they were more pliant and less interested in political reform. They are also generally less wealthy, and many say the Bedouins (who no longer live in the desert as their ancestors did) are now resisting economic reforms because they believe they would not benefit from them as much as Kuwait’s urban merchant elite would.
But Parliament has its own share of responsibility. Reform legislation on foreign investment and other issues has consistently stalled. Parliament has also set off embarrassing controversies, when members subjected ministers from the non-elected executive branch to public questioning sessions — a practice known in Kuwait as grilling — intended to humiliate or force a resignation. It was a grilling of the defense minister, and the prospect of a similar clash with the prime minister, that appears to have pushed the emir to dissolve Parliament.
Many younger Kuwaitis who took part here in what they called the Orange revolution two years ago, when street demonstrations helped press the government to overhaul the country’s election districting law, now seem cynical. One popular Kuwaiti blog posted a poem lamenting the absence of real change on the political scene, ending with the lines: “Restart does not work / neither does Turn Off / and we can’t leave the country on Stand By.”
Still, as the candidates troop from one diwaniya to the next in search of votes, any sort of retreat from democratic values seems unlikely.
“There are people who want to say, Look at democracy, look at what it causes,’ ” said Nawaf al-Mutairi, a business student. “But we know democracy is our last hope. The problem is just that democracy is incremental.”
May 7, 2008
The Democratic Recession
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
There are two important recessions going on in the world today. One has gotten enormous attention. It’s the economic recession in America. But it will eventually pass, and the world will not be much worse for the wear. The other has gotten no attention. It’s called “the democratic recession,” and if it isn’t reversed, it will change the world for a long time.
The term “democratic recession” was coined by Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist, in his new book “The Spirit of Democracy.” And the numbers tell the story. At the end of last year, Freedom House, which tracks democratic trends and elections around the globe, noted that 2007 was by far the worst year for freedom in the world since the end of the cold war. Almost four times as many states — 38 — declined in their freedom scores as improved — 10.
What explains this? A big part of this reversal is being driven by the rise of petro-authoritarianism. I’ve long argued that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse correlation — which I call: “The First Law of Petro-Politics.” As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.
“There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy,” explains Diamond. “Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria are the poster children” for this trend, where leaders grab the oil tap to ensconce themselves in power.
But while oil is critical in blunting the democratic wave, it is not the only factor. The decline of U.S. influence and moral authority has also taken a toll. The Bush democracy-building effort in Iraq has been so botched, both by us and Iraqis, that America’s ability and willingness to promote democracy elsewhere has been damaged. The torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay also have not helped. “There has been an enormous squandering of American soft power, and hard power, in recent years,” said Diamond, who worked in Iraq as a democracy specialist.
The bad guys know it and are taking advantage. And one place you see that most is in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has been trying to steal an election, after years of driving his country into a ditch. I would say there is no more disgusting leader in the world today than Mugabe. The only one who rivals him is his neighbor and chief enabler and protector, South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki.
Zimbabwe went to the polls on March 29, and the government released the results only last week. Mugabe apparently decided that he couldn’t claim victory, since there was too much evidence to the contrary. So his government said that the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had won 47.9 percent of the vote and Mugabe 42.3 percent. But since no one got 50 percent of the vote, under Zimbabwe law, there must now be a runoff.
Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change claim to have won 50.3 percent of the vote and have to decide whether or not to take part in the runoff, which will be violent. Opposition figures have already been targeted by a state-led campaign of attacks and intimidation.
If South Africa’s Mbeki had withdrawn his economic and political support for Mugabe’s government, Mugabe would have had to have resigned a long time ago. But Mbeki feels no loyalty to suffering Zimbabweans. His only loyalty is to his fellow anti-colonial crony, Mugabe. What was that anti-colonial movement for? So an African leader could enslave his people instead of a European one?
What Mugabe has done to his country is one of the most grotesque acts of misgovernance ever. Inflation is so rampant that Zimbabweans have to carry their currency — if they have any —around in bags. Store shelves are bare; farming has virtually collapsed; crime by people just starving for food is rampant; and the electric grid can’t keep the lights on.
What can the U.S. do? In Zimbabwe, we need to work with decent African leaders like Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa to bring pressure for a peaceful transition. And with our Western allies, we should threaten to take Mugabe’s clique to the International Criminal Court in The Hague — just as we did Serbia’s leaders — if they continue to subvert the election.
But we also need to do everything possible to develop alternatives to oil to weaken the petro-dictators. That’s another reason the John McCain-Hillary Clinton proposal to lift the federal gasoline tax for the summer — so Americans can drive more and keep the price of gasoline up — is not a harmless little giveaway. It’s not the end of civilization, either.
It’s just another little nail in the coffin of democracy around the world.
May 9, 2008
The Conservative Revival
By DAVID BROOKS
For years, American and British politics were in sync. Reagan came in roughly the same time as Thatcher, and Clinton’s Third Way approach mirrored Blair’s. But the British conservatives never had a Gingrich revolution in the 1990s or the Bush victories thereafter. They got their losing in early, and, in the wilderness, they rethought modern conservatism while their American counterparts were clinging to power.
Today, British conservatives are on the way up, while American conservatives are on the way down. British conservatives have moved beyond Thatcherism, while American conservatives pine for another Reagan. The British Conservative Party enjoyed a series of stunning victories in local elections last week, while polls show American voters thoroughly rejecting the Republican brand.
The flow of ideas has changed direction. It used to be that American conservatives shaped British political thinking. Now the influence is going the other way.
The British conservative renovation begins with this insight: The central political debate of the 20th century was over the role of government. The right stood for individual freedom while the left stood for extending the role of the state. But the central debate of the 21st century is over quality of life. In this new debate, it is necessary but insufficient to talk about individual freedom. Political leaders have to also talk about, as one Tory politician put it, “the whole way we live our lives.”
That means, first, moving beyond the Thatcherite tendency to put economics first. As Oliver Letwin, one of the leading Tory strategists put it: “Politics, once econo-centric, must now become socio-centric.” David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, makes it clear that his primary focus is sociological. Last year he declared: “The great challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival.” In another speech, he argued: “We used to stand for the individual. We still do. But individual freedoms count for little if society is disintegrating. Now we stand for the family, for the neighborhood — in a word, for society.”
This has led to a lot of talk about community, relationships, civic engagement and social responsibility. Danny Kruger, a special adviser to Cameron, wrote a much-discussed pamphlet, “On Fraternity.” These conservatives are not trying to improve the souls of citizens. They’re trying to use government to foster dense social bonds.
They want voters to think of the Tories as the party of society while Labor is the party of the state. They want the country to see the Tories as the party of decentralized organic networks and the Laborites as the party of top-down mechanistic control.
As such, the Conservative Party has spent a lot of time thinking about how government should connect with citizens. Basically, everything should be smaller, decentralized and interactive. They want a greater variety of schools, with local and parental control. They want to reverse the trend toward big central hospitals. Health care, Cameron says, is as much about regular long-term care as major surgery, and patients should have the power to construct relationships with caretakers, pharmacists and local facilities.
Cameron also believes government should help social entrepreneurs scale up their activities without burdening them with excessive oversight.
This focus means that Conservatives talk not only about war and G.D.P., but also the softer stuff. There’s been more emphasis on environmental issues, civility, assimilation and the moral climate. Cameron has spent an enormous amount of time talking about marriage, families and children.
Some of his ideas would not sit well with American conservatives. He wants to create 4,200 more health visitors, who would come into the homes of new parents and help them manage day-to-day stress. But he also talks about rewriting the tax code to make it more family friendly, making child care more accessible, and making the streets safer.
Some of this is famously gauzy, and Cameron is often disdained as a mere charmer. But politically it works. The Tory modernization project has produced stunning support in London, the southern suburbs, the Welsh heartlands and the ailing north. It’s not only that voters are tired of Labor. The Conservatives have successfully “decontaminated” their brand. They’re offering something in tune with the times.
Cameron describes a new global movement, with rising center-right parties in Sweden, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, California and New York (he admires Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg). American conservatives won’t simply import this model. But there’s a lot to learn from it. The only question is whether Republicans will learn those lessons sooner, or whether they will learn them later, after a decade or so in the wilderness.
Each year, the human rights watchdog Freedom House surveys all 193 countries in the world, plus 15 select territories, and assesses the state of freedom in each.
During 2007, Freedom House determined that 90 countries (47 per cent) were free. Their governments respected "a broad array of basic human rights and political freedoms." This is good news. Since these countries also represent nearly one-half of the world's population, that means we are approaching the day when a majority of Earth's inhabitants live free.
Since 1977, the number of free countries has doubled. Another 60 countries (31 per cent) were "partly free." While there were "some abridgements of basic rights and weak enforcement of the rule of law" in these countries, political dissent was mostly permitted, elections were largely free and citizens could believe what they wished without much fear of imprisonment. (Sort of like Canada before human rights commissions began telling us what thoughts were and were not acceptable.)
But 43 countries and eight territories were "not free," according to Freedom House. In those states "citizens endure systematic and pervasive human rights violations." Freedom of expression and assembly are limited or non-existent. Critics of the government are imprisoned and occasionally executed. Of this Un-Free 43, Freedom House considers 17 countries and three territories to be "the worst of the worst."
"Within these (17) entities," Freedom House explains, "state control over daily life is pervasive and wide-ranging, independent organizations and political opposition are banned or suppressed, and fear of retribution for independent thought and action is part of daily life."
Furthermore, eight of these are considered "the world's most repressive regimes." These include Burma (Myanmar), where the junta is so repressive and paranoid it won't permit most international aid to enter its cyclone-ravaged land for fear aid workers will seduce the Burmese into revolt.
They value their power more than they value the lives of tens of thousands of their countrymen. The other seven most-repressive are Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Also included are two territories, Chechnya and Tibet.
Freedom House only places China in the next-to-worst group -- the nine countries and one territory that, while among the worse regimes on the planet, are not quite as bad as the eight "most-repressive."
China, then, is in a sort of outer-circle-of-hell group along with Belarus, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Zimbabwe.
The fascinating aspect for me is how many of Freedom House's "worst of the worst list" have also been elected by the UN to be voting members on its human rights council.
The UN human rights watchdog has 47 members. One, Cuba, is among the eight most-repressive governments in the world, as judged by Freedom House. And two more, China and Saudi Arabia, are among the bottom 17 countries.
In all, 10 members of the UN Human Rights Council -- more than one-fifth of its complement -- are from Freedom House's list of countries that have few if any freedoms.
On May 21, 15 of the 47 UNHRC seats will come up for election or re-election. Along with UN Watch, an organization that analyzes UN activities, statements and programs, Freedom House has declared that five of the 15 candidate countries -- Bahrain, Gabon, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zambia -- are entirely unfit for membership because of their rights records. All but one of them (Bahrain) is already a member of the commission. This goes to show how useless the UN is at protecting human rights.
Of the 47 member states, UN Watch calculates that just 13 have pro-freedom voting records at council meetings. Canada leads the way with 19 freedom-defending votes on the 32 most important resolutions to come before UNHRC last year. The next-best records belong to France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, Slovenia and the United Kingdom, all with 11 for 32 records.
Yet that leaves 34 UNHRC members with anti-freedom voting patterns, including Russia and China, which voted against expanding freedom 18 of 32 times and 19 of 32, respectively.
This was not supposed to happen. Three years ago when the corrupt, feckless UN Commission on Human Rights was replaced by the UNHRC, the world was reassured the council would never become hijacked by rights-abusing countries the way its predecessor had been.
But once again the UN has placed the foxes in charge of the henhouse.
May 22, 2008
Earthquake and Hope
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
In the aftermath of the great Sichuan earthquake, we’ve seen a hopeful glimpse of China’s future: a more open and self-confident nation, and maybe — just maybe — the birth of grass-roots politics here.
In traveling around China in the days after the quake, I was struck by how the public and the news media initially seized the initiative from the government. Ordinary Chinese are traveling to the quake zone to help move rubble, and tycoons, peasants and even children are reaching into their pockets to donate to the victims.
“I gave 500 yuan,” or about $72, a man told me in the western city of Urumqi. “Eighty percent of the people in my work unit made donations. Everybody wants to help.”
Private Chinese donations have already raised more than $500 million. That kind of bottom-up public spirit is a mark of citizens, not subjects.
Immediately after the earthquake, the Propaganda Department instinctively banned news organizations from traveling to the disaster area. But Chinese journalists ignored the order and rushed to Chengdu — and the order was rescinded the next day.
Since then, the authorities have managed to rein in the media again, and the Propaganda Department is ordering news organizations to report on how wonderful the relief efforts are. Many Chinese journalists are chafing instead to investigate corruption and the reasons schools collapsed when government offices didn’t. The final score will depend on whether those stories are published.
China-watchers have long debated whether the country is evolving toward greater freedom and pluralism. One camp, myself included, believes it is. We see China slowly following the trajectory of South Korea, Indonesia, Mongolia and other neighboring countries away from authoritarianism. We see perestroika leading to glasnost.
Frankly, the evidence has been mixed, and the skeptics are right to note that dissidents are still more likely to end up in jail than on the news. But on balance, the earthquake gives hope to us optimists.
China may claim to be Marxist-Leninist, but it’s really market-Leninist. The rise of wealth, a middle class, education and international contacts are slowly undermining one-party rule and nurturing a new kind of politics.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is hard-working and blessed with nearly a photographic memory, but he also may be the second-most boring person alive (after his boss, President Hu Jintao). Both Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen rose through the system as classic Communist apparatchiks — Brezhnevs with Chinese faces. Yet Mr. Wen has seen the political landscape changing and has struggled recently to reinvent himself. When the earthquake hit, Mr. Wen flew immediately to the disaster area and appeared constantly on television, overseeing rescue operations.
Heroic tidbits seeped out. Mr. Wen fell and cut himself but refused medical attention. He bellowed directions to generals over the telephone and then slammed the handset down. He shouted to children buried in a pile of rubble: “This is Grandpa Wen Jiabao. Children, you’ve got to hold on!”
Mr. Wen’s conduct is striking because it’s what we expect of politicians, not dictators. His aim was to come across as a “good emperor,” not to win an election. But presumably he behaved in this way partly because he felt the hot breath of public opinion on his neck.
China now has 75 million blogs, often carrying criticisms of the government, as well as tens of thousands of citizen protests each year. China’s police announced that they had punished 17 earthquake “rumor-mongers” last week, with penalties of up to 15 days in jail. But repression isn’t what it used to be, and dissidents now are often less afraid of the government than it is of them.
In the 1980s, China’s hard-liners ferociously denounced “heping yanbian” — “peaceful evolution” toward capitalism and democracy. The hard-liners worried that if citizens had a choice of clothing, of jobs, of housing, of television programs, they might also want a role in choosing national policy. The earthquake may be remembered as a milestone in that peaceful evolution. My hunch is that the Communist Party is lurching in the direction, over 10 or 20 years, of becoming a Social Democratic Party that dominates the country but that grudgingly allows opposition victories and a free press.
China today reminds me of Taiwan when I lived there in the late 1980s when the government was still trying to be dictatorial but just couldn’t get away with it. It was no longer scary enough.
Back then, the smartest of the Taiwan apparatchiks, like a young Harvard-educated party official named Ma Ying-jeou, glimpsed the future and began to reinvent themselves as democratic politicians. The epilogue: Mr. Ma took office this week as the newly elected president of a democratic Taiwan.
May 21, 2008
China’s Class Divide
By DANIEL A. BELL
AS tragic as the Sichuan earthquake has been, perhaps it can do some good by helping dispel a widespread myth: that the new generation of Chinese students are materialistic and selfish.
I’ve been teaching political theory at Tsinghua University here since 2004 and I’ve found that almost all of my students are driven to do good for society. So I wasn’t surprised when, as word of the disaster came out, hundreds of Tsinghua students lined up overnight at a Red Cross station to donate blood and supplies. Others went to the earthquake zone, more than 1,000 miles away, to distribute aid.
Now I’m hoping events can dispel another false impression: that young Chinese are xenophobic nationalists who cheer for their country, good or bad.
Tsinghua is one of China’s most prestigious universities and it is known for its politically conservative orientation. President Hu Jintao is an alumnus, and most of my colleagues are Communist Party members, as are many of my students.
Yet the atmosphere is anything but conservative. The most popular lecturers tend to be the ones who openly criticize contemporary China. In private, students are quick to express frustration at Internet censorship and official propaganda. In class, student questions are often critical to the point that I need to introduce some “pro-government” views for balance.
Shortly after the uprisings in Tibet in March, I happened to lecture on Locke’s idea of constitutional democracy. A student asked if the “right to rebel” would justify the use of violence by Tibetans fighting for independence. In the interest of class time, I had to shut off the discussion. The next week we discussed Isaiah Berlin’s concept of freedom, and a student mentioned the cover illustration of a German magazine that depicted the Olympic rings in barbed wire. Once again, I was forced into the strange position of cutting off debate before it got out of hand.
After the Sichuan earthquake, one student told me the disaster was a punishment from heaven and that the government would have to make amends. Another accused the local government of suppressing news predicting an earthquake because it might have disrupted the “harmonious environment” for the Olympics.
A few days later, I was due to lecture on John Rawls’s theory of justice. By then, the huge toll of the earthquake had become apparent and the national mood had turned grim. Before the class, four students came to my office, raising doubts about the relevance of the “abstract” theories I was teaching and urging me to use more concrete examples. So I tried hard to think of an example that the students could grapple with.
Finally I came up with a good one (or so I thought). According to Rawls, the state should give first consideration to the worst-off members of the community. But which “community” matters? Do the state’s obligations extend outside national boundaries? For example, the cyclone in Burma caused more deaths than the Chinese earthquake. Should China help the victims of the Burmese cyclone, even if it means less aid for the rescue mission in China?
When I finished, the class went unexpectedly silent, to the point that I could feel a certain amount of hostility. Finally a student said that of course the Chinese government should help the Chinese first. But why, I said? Another student said, it’s obvious, the victims are Chinese. “But why, why?” I asked, somewhat impatiently. Give me some reasons.
Some students spoke up. There is no global institution that could distribute aid in accordance with Rawls’s principles of justice. The Chinese people pay taxes to the Chinese state, so the state has special obligations to them. The Chinese state couldn’t do much for the Burmese people even if it wanted to.
I responded that the Burmese government is truly awful, blocking aid to its own people, and that the Chinese government could have some influence on it. A student commented that liberal theories may not be appropriate in China. I wanted to reply that Confucian theories can also justify intervention to help oppressed foreigners, but the bell rang. In the past, the ever-polite students would clap in appreciation before leaving. This time, there was no applause
When I got home, I realized that I had trodden on sensitive territory. Chinese TV has been filled with scenes of death and devastation, of Chinese soldiers wading through mud and gore to help the victims. Every conversation is prefaced with concern about the victims. I sent an e-mail message to the class apologizing for the “wrong-headed” example, adding, “It is very admirable what students at Tsinghua are doing to support the earthquake victims and I didn’t mean to imply that we must choose between two tragedies.”
A student wrote back saying, “It is not a wrong-headed example; we just have clear and strong identification.” That seems to go to the heart of what went wrong. It’s perfectly natural to care about people closer to home, especially in times of disaster. I think I have a soft spot for the Chinese, but I still wasn’t sufficiently sensitive to their point of view.
Or maybe it’s just a matter of timing. Imagine a professor in New York, just after the 9/11 attacks, asking students to argue about whether donations are best spent aiding relatives of the victims of those attacks or victims of war abroad. He might well have been shouted out of the room. But a year later, say, it could have been a subject of discussion. The question, I guess, is whether my students and I will be able to debate China’s global obligations a year from now.
Daniel A. Bell is the author of “China’s New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.”
May 21, 2008
Imbalances of Power
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
There has been much debate in this campaign about which of our enemies the next U.S. president should deign to talk to. The real story, the next president may discover, though, is how few countries are waiting around for us to call. It is hard to remember a time when more shifts in the global balance of power are happening at once — with so few in America’s favor.
Let’s start with the most profound one: More and more, I am convinced that the big foreign policy failure that will be pinned on this administration is not the failure to make Iraq work, as devastating as that has been. It will be one with much broader balance-of-power implications — the failure after 9/11 to put in place an effective energy policy.
It baffles me that President Bush would rather go to Saudi Arabia twice in four months and beg the Saudi king for an oil price break than ask the American people to drive 55 miles an hour, buy more fuel-efficient cars or accept a carbon tax or gasoline tax that might actually help free us from what he called our “addiction to oil.”
The failure of Mr. Bush to fully mobilize the most powerful innovation engine in the world — the U.S. economy — to produce a scalable alternative to oil has helped to fuel the rise of a collection of petro-authoritarian states — from Russia to Venezuela to Iran — that are reshaping global politics in their own image.
If this huge transfer of wealth to the petro-authoritarians continues, power will follow. According to Congressional testimony Wednesday by the energy expert Gal Luft, with oil at $200 a barrel, OPEC could “potentially buy Bank of America in one month worth of production, Apple computers in a week and General Motors in just three days.”
But that’s not all. Two compelling new books have just been published that describe two other big power shifts: “The Post-American World,” by Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, and “Superclass” by David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment.
Mr. Zakaria’s central thesis is that while the U.S. still has many unique assets, “the rise of the rest” — the Chinas, the Indias, the Brazils and even smaller nonstate actors — is creating a world where many other countries are slowly moving up to America’s level of economic clout and self-assertion, in every realm. “Today, India has 18 all-news channels of its own,” notes Zakaria. “And the perspectives they provide are very different from those you will get in the Western media. The rest now has the confidence to present its own narrative, where it is at the center.”
For too long, argues Zakaria, America has taken its many natural assets — its research universities, free markets and diversity of human talent — and assumed that they will always compensate for our low savings rate or absence of a health care system or any strategic plan to improve our competitiveness.
“That was fine in a world when a lot of other countries were not performing,” argues Zakaria, but now the best of the rest are running fast, working hard, saving well and thinking long term. “They have adopted our lessons and are playing our game,” he said. If we don’t fix our political system and start thinking strategically about how to improve our competitiveness, he added, “the U.S. risks having its unique and advantageous position in the world erode as other countries rise.”
Mr. Rothkopf’s book argues that on many of the most critical issues of our time, the influence of all nation-states is waning, the system for addressing global issues among nation-states is more ineffective than ever, and therefore a power void is being created. This void is often being filled by a small group of players — “the superclass” — a new global elite, who are much better suited to operating on the global stage and influencing global outcomes than the vast majority of national political leaders.
Some of this new elite “are from business and finance,” says Rothkopf. “Some are members of a kind of shadow elite — criminals and terrorists. Some are masters of new or traditional media; some are religious leaders, and a few are top officials of those governments that do have the ability to project their influence globally.”
The next president will have to manage these new rising states and these new rising individuals and networks, while wearing the straightjacket left in the Oval Office by Mr. Bush.
“Call it the triple deficit,” said Mr. Rothkopf. “A fiscal deficit that will soon have us choosing between rationed health care, sufficient education, adequate infrastructure and traditional levels of defense spending, a trade deficit that has us borrowing from our rivals to the point of real vulnerability, and a geopolitical deficit that is a legacy of Iraq, which may result in hesitancy to take strong stands where we must.”
The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.
June 7, 2008
Savor the Moment
By BOB HERBERT
Friday was the 40th anniversary of the death of Robert F. Kennedy. Had he lived, he would be 82 now.
It’s impossible to gauge the what-ifs of history. But nevertheless, I wonder what Kennedy, a complicated man with a profound sense of the moral issues at play in politics, would have made of the idea that Barack Obama has captured the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
He might not have been surprised. Kennedy had been accused of dreaming when he said in the early 1960s that a black person could get elected president in the next 40 years.
The fact that even a dreamer could imagine nothing shorter than a 40-year timeline gives us a glimpse of the nightmarish depths of racial oppression that people of goodwill have had to fight.
The United States in 1968 (the same year in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated) was a stunningly different place from the country we know now, so different that most of today’s young people would have trouble imagining it. The notion in ’68 that a black person — or a woman — might have a serious shot at the presidency would have been widely viewed as lunacy.
Thurston Clarke, in his new book about R.F.K., “The Last Campaign,” tells of the time that Kennedy was touring a Ford plant in Indiana. A white assembly-line worker refused to shake the presidential candidate’s hand, telling Kennedy, “Get your [expletive] nigger-loving presence out of here.”
George Wallace also ran for president in ’68. He was famous for “standing in the schoolhouse door” to block the court-ordered admission of black students to the University of Alabama. Wallace’s views on racial matters were unequivocal. His mantra was: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”
The winner of the election was Richard Nixon, riding the G.O.P.’s soon-to-be infamous, racially polarizing and remarkably successful Southern strategy.
A black man president? You must be joking.
Women in 1968 were mired in depths of misogyny that were as soul-destroying as racism. Discrimination on the basis of gender was so pervasive as to barely attract notice. Many retail stores refused to issue credit cards to married women in their own names. Employers could fire women with virtual impunity if they got married or pregnant or weren’t attractive enough or turned 30.
According to the National Organization for Women, in a statement of purpose issued in 1966, fewer than 1 percent of all federal judges were women, fewer than 4 percent of all lawyers, and fewer than 7 percent of doctors.
Racism and sexism have not taken their leave. But the fact that Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, and that the two finalists for that prize were a black man and a white woman, are historical events of the highest importance. We should not allow ourselves to overlook the wonder of this moment.
I was stopped on the street the other day by a woman who was holding the hand of a little girl, a toddler. After talking politics for a couple of minutes, the woman smiled and said: “Watch this.” She then looked at her daughter and, referring to a certain presidential candidate, asked: “What’s her name?”
The little girl beamed and said: “Hil-la-ry!”
That same night a middle-aged black man came to my apartment door with a food delivery. I’d seen him before, but he’d never said much, just sort of grunted a hello and a thank you. This time, after handing me the package and counting out change, he asked, shyly: “Did Mr. Obama win the nomination?”
“Yes,” I said. “He won.”
I said yes, and suddenly the widest grin spread across the delivery man’s face. It was as though he’d been holding that grin in some hidden depth of emotional reserve for the entire campaign.
This election year has been a testament to the many long decades of work and sacrifice by men and women — some famous, most not; some still alive, many gone — to build a more equitable and just American society.
When the night riders were fitted for their robes, when Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, when lowlifes mocked and humiliated those who were fighting for women’s rights, they were trying to forestall the realization of this type of moment in history.
We’ll see whether Senator Obama gets elected president. But whether he does or not, this is a moment of which Americans can be proud, a moment the society can build upon.
So a victory lap is in order. Not for Senator Obama (he still has a way to go), but for all those in every station in life who ever refused to submit quietly to hatred and oppression. They led us to a better place.
June 9, 2008
It’s a Different Country
By Paul Krugman
Fervent supporters of Barack Obama like to say that putting him in the White House would transform America. With all due respect to the candidate, that gets it backward. Mr. Obama is an impressive speaker who has run a brilliant campaign — but if he wins in November, it will be because our country has already been transformed.
Mr. Obama’s nomination wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago. It’s possible today only because racial division, which has driven U.S. politics rightward for more than four decades, has lost much of its sting.
And the de-racialization of U.S. politics has implications that go far beyond the possibility that we’re about to elect an African-American president. Without racial division, the conservative message — which has long dominated the political scene — loses most of its effectiveness.
Take, for example, that old standby of conservatives: denouncing Big Government. Last week John McCain’s economic spokesman claimed that Barack Obama is President Bush’s true fiscal heir, because he’s “dedicated to the recent Bush tradition of spending money on everything.”
Now, the truth is that the Bush administration’s big-spending impulses have been largely limited to defense contractors. But more to the point, the McCain campaign is deluding itself if it thinks this issue will resonate with the public.
For Americans have never disliked Big Government in general. In fact, they love Social Security and Medicare, and strongly approve of Medicaid — which means that the three big programs that dominate domestic spending have overwhelming public support.
If Ronald Reagan and other politicians succeeded, for a time, in convincing voters that government spending was bad, it was by suggesting that bureaucrats were taking away workers’ hard-earned money and giving it to you-know-who: the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks, the welfare queen driving her Cadillac. Take away the racial element, and Americans like government spending just fine.
But why has racial division become so much less important in American politics?
Part of the credit surely goes to Bill Clinton, who ended welfare as we knew it. I’m not saying that the end of Aid to Families With Dependent Children was an unalloyed good thing; it created a great deal of hardship. But the “bums on welfare” played a role in political discourse vastly disproportionate to the actual expense of A.F.D.C., and welfare reform took that issue off the table.
Another large factor has been the decline in urban violence.
As the historian Rick Perlstein documents in his terrific new book “Nixonland,” America’s hard right turn really began in 1966, when the Democrats suffered a severe setback in Congress — and Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California.
The cause of that right turn, as Mr. Perlstein shows, was white fear of urban disorder — and the associated fear that fair housing laws would let dangerous blacks move into white neighborhoods. “Law and order” became the rallying cry of right-wing politicians, above all Richard Nixon, who rode that fear right into the White House.
But during the Clinton years, for reasons nobody fully understands, the wave of urban violence receded, and with it the ability of politicians to exploit Americans’ fear.
It’s true that 9/11 gave the fear factor a second wind: Karl Rove accusing liberals of being soft on terrorism sounded just like Spiro Agnew accusing liberals of being soft on crime. But the G.O.P.’s credibility as America’s defender has leaked away into the sands of Iraq.
Let me add one more hypothesis: although everyone makes fun of political correctness, I’d argue that decades of pressure on public figures and the media have helped drive both overt and strongly implied racism out of our national discourse. For example, I don’t think a politician today could get away with running the infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad.
Unfortunately, the campaign against misogyny hasn’t been equally successful.
By the way, it was during the heyday of the baby boom generation that crude racism became unacceptable. Mr. Obama, who has been dismissive of the boomers’ “psychodrama,” might want to give the generation that brought about this change, fought for civil rights and protested the Vietnam War a bit more credit.
Anyway, none of this guarantees an Obama victory in November. Racial division has lost much of its sting, but not all: you can be sure that we’ll be hearing a lot more about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and all that. Moreover, despite Hillary Clinton’s gracious, eloquent concession speech, some of her supporters may yet refuse to support the Democratic nominee.
But if Mr. Obama does win, it will symbolize the great change that has taken place in America. Racial polarization used to be a dominating force in our politics — but we’re now a different, and better, country.
Could western society be getting bored by its success?
If one would see how people value freedom, try taking it away
For The Calgary Herald
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Could it really be that we are bored with our own success?
Last week, roughly 9,000 academics gathered in Vancouver for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and discussed the abstractions of society.
I have often wondered if the social sciences were more social than scientific, and one clue is so many people coming together to hear (among other things) a paper reporting a correlation between names and criminality, and another suggesting men avoid fatherhood because they feel they can't afford houses.
Marriage maybe. Fatherhood, not so much.
Still one paper was really intriguing. A Michigan professor, William A. Gorton, raises the astonishing possibility that too much freedom may make you miserable. Overwhelmed by choices in so many vital areas of our lives, we may freeze, choose nothing, and become depressed.
That sounded like something somebody on a human rights commission would believe, and for which they might propose less freedom, and less choice, for our betterment. As my friend and colleague Lorne Gunter pointed out, we may have an awe-inspiring choice of big-screen televisions, but be no longer free "to speak our minds without fear that crusading government agents will seek to punish and silence us."
So, I had to ask: "Professor, what in heaven's name are you really trying to say?"
Contacted in his Alma, Mich., office, a horrified Gorton quickly disabused me of any anti-liberty sentiments.
"I've been misunderstood. Autonomy and freedom and individualism are all valuable in their own right, regardless of whether they make people happy. I don't want to appoint a panel of Platonic guardians to make good choices for us."
But sir, did you not say that in liberal democracies with the highest levels of personal and political freedom, levels of happiness have stalled in recent decades, or even begun to decline -- all on account of "core values of liberalism, namely freedom of choice, autonomy and individualism ."
Does that not give aid and comfort to those who would do good to us against our will?
Yes, and no.
Yes, in the sense that there is what the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper -- upon whom Gorton is an authority -- called the strain of civilization, and which social controllers might bend to their use if they could.
For an individual to be confronted with complete freedom about where he is to live, earn a living, who to marry and so many other things is wonderful, but can leave him fed up on the other side of the country with all the toys, but no life, few friends, all his family somewhere else.
What is to be done, then?
Gorton suggests as society is structured anyway, we try and structure things so they tip people in the direction of being happy. For instance, a pension is a good thing, so if new employees are automatically enrolled and must choose to bale out, more people will have pensions, ergo more people will be happy in old age.
Fair enough. One might suggest a few more examples in the field of family tax policy.
But, structuring societies to promote "happy" outcomes is a dilemma Gorton's discipline can only address so far. The truth is in this country, we have had some experience of structuring societies -- social engineering -- and it hasn't always worked out well.
When Ottawa plays with EI, for instance, so that people are incented to live in parts of the country where there is little work, are they really any happier for it? Several months ago, the Nova Scotia government produced (and quickly canned in embarrassment) a hilarious come-home ad, about a family intervention to retrieve a Maritime son adrift in Calgary.
It was exactly the situation where exercising too many personal choices had left somebody depressed.
But, would he have been happier if EI had been structured so it would never have made sense to try something new, somewhere else?
As it was, the guy still had one more choice. He could cash out, and go home.
Or, he could stay here. That's freedom.
Gorton points to a spike in the number of people diagnosed with depression.
Fair enough. Measuring the size of a phenomenon is something social science can do.
I'm not so sure about the structuring prescription, though. In my unscientific view, societal malaise stems not from an excess of freedom, or a surfeit of choice. What is harder to find in a comfortable world, is a meaningful test of self, or sense of purpose.
Thus, what would be far worse than the severing of social bonds, misery-making as that might ultimately prove to be, would be to be denied the opportunity to ever make those choices in the first place.
Perhaps we just need to think more about the consequences of their choices -- the answer is more in the social than the science, as it were.
Of one thing I am certain, though. People may complain, but if one would see how much they value freedom, just try taking away their choice. Happily, that wasn't the plan.
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