The dark side of western humility

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In the West, calls in other parts of the world for freedom and democracy are always a chance for us to congratulate ourselves.

Media commentary on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are liberally scattered with references to popular demands in those countries for ‘Jeffersonian democracy’, the implicit idea being that citizens of Middle Eastern countries have finally ‘caught the America bug’; inspired by the U.S. invention of a free society, they now want to take their place by our side in the family of the civilised. Set the debate up this way and smug superiority can easily pass for humility. J.H. Ramsay demonstrated this rather well in the last issue of The Saint.

The beauty of these Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries, Ramsay argues, is that “America is letting them do all of the thinking and curing themselves”. Ramsay happily contrasts this with Iraq, where America “pushed too hard for democracy,” the point being that “[n]ot every nation and culture should be democratic [or] have rights for its people.” If other cultures are inspired by us, great; if not, who are we to argue against them? Ramsay’s argument perpetuates a rather ridiculous and false debate, between ‘isolationists’ like himself and ‘democracy-promoters’.

The real world, unfortunately, doesn’t support the framework of this debate at all, either at home or overseas. It’s revealing that Jefferson is the Founding Father most often held up by Americans as a beacon to the world.

Arch-capitalist and ‘pro-American’ Richard Salsman recently wrote in Forbes that Jefferson was the exception; the rest of the Founders “rightly feared and despised democracy as fundamentally inimical to liberty and rights” – by which he means the property rights of those economic interests who actually owned America and continue to do so.

Perhaps this helps to explain why the U.S., through dipl omatic support and military aid, consistently propped up President Mubarak throughout his reign, even as protests began last month.

As President Obama recently noted, “the United States and Egypt have been a partner [sic] for a long time,” most recently in ‘counter-terrorism efforts’ (read: rendition & torture). Vice-President Biden even refused to call Mubarak a dictator.

The tear gas and rifles, tanks and fighter planes, used against demonstrators in Egypt were largely funded and built by the Pentagon and American corporations. The U.S. has by no means been standing idly by in the face of Egyptian unrest.

There’s also a deeper point here regarding Ramsay’s discussion of freedom. Ramsay wants to claim that for there to be true freedom in the world, values ostensibly held by us cannot be considered universal.
Against the democracy-pushers, he maintains that standards such as ‘killing is murder’ “don’t, and shouldn’t, apply to every other culture…[W]e have”, he says, “left the imperialist age behind.”

This is surprising since Ramsay’s attitude towards ‘non-Western cultures’ has remarkably colonial undertones. He argues that hanging a woman for infidelity isn’t murder in all cultures. Another way of putting this is that the lives of all the world’s women should not be considered equal.

He says not every culture should be democratic. Another way of putting this is that not all cultures are suitably civilised for democracy.

The fact is that Middle Eastern populations living under dictators have a rich conception of democracy and how to attain it. Far from being the result of spontaneous enlightenment, the Egyptian uprising was the culmination of political and independent labour organising since at least the 1990s, in the face of a brutal security apparatus. In Iran, a country where infidelity is punished fatally, minority and women’s rights activists have campaigned alongside trade unionists for years.

Ramsay essentialises ‘non-Western cultures’ in order to maintain Western superiority. Let me be rather blunt in unseating him from this comfortable position. The West; including both ancient Athens and modern day USA; did not invent democracy. Nor does the West practice democracy; not at home, where people are rarely involved in decisions affecting them, and not abroad, certainly not in Iraq.

We have a lot more to learn from Egyptians and Tunisians than they ever had from us.

Oliver Kearns

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