Democracy is always a work-in-progress

The Middle East does not get much media attention these days since the Arab Spring is no longer a movement and instead has become history.  Except for the civil war in Syria and suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan there is not enough violence to make the Middle East newsworthy.  The building that collapsed in Bangladesh killed enough people to make good copy for a day or so, but that is all.  The ongoing civil unrest in the region doesn’t have what it takes; demonstrations in Egypt, former “freedom-fighters” and their discontent in Libya or the closing of numerous TV channels in Iraq are not the material of good copy.  If those stories find their way into the news, they are back-pagers and space-fillers at best.  They are however instructive and they illustrate an important point made by Walter Lippmann a hundred years ago.

Writing in the 1914, Lippmann in his book Drift and Mastery, describes the causes of social unrest in the United States in very insightful terms.  He used the unemployment riots in early 1914 to set the stage for his theme – society is adrift and will need science and the masters of complicated knowledge to help back on course.  In his introduction he says that an immature democracy always struggles; democracy in Lippmann’s mind takes time, practice and has to be internalized by the citizens to be successful.   Lippmann said in the time immediately following the downfall of a tyranny that a democracy is really challenged; the leaders of the overthrow don’t know what they want only what they don’t want and the citizens have no practice at democracy and democratic thinking; when in doubt they default to the “old way” of thinking and behaving.   At that point, democracy is just an ideal, not a way living.   In the two years following the beginning of the Arab Spring Walter Lippmann might almost be considered a prophet.

In the post Arab Spring, Egypt is besieged with demonstrations one following another; students demonstrate because the universities don’t have good food, medical care or help in finding work post graduation; ordinary citizens demonstrate over government policy with the judiciary, freedom of speech and religious leanings.   Libya has also had a series of the demonstrations, most recently discontented former fighters want to purge governemnt of anyone with connections to the Gaddafi regime.  Those angry men are using weapons and violence to express their opinions – the same tactics and thinking the used to unseat Gaddafi.

Although not part of the Arab Spring except by coincidence of the timing, Iraq is experiencing its own version of social unrest.  The Iraqis are struggling with continual violence between the Shia and Sunni communities; now, the government is revoking the license of satellite TV channels for inciting violence, including the two major pan-Arabic channels, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.  The government like the demonstrators (and the governments) in other countries is using the tactics and thinking of previous eras to solve their problems.  No new democratic methods have evolved yet to assist either side.

It is easy to be judgmental about the progress of democracy around the region, but only if we forget how long it took us to get it right.  How many years did it take before we had universal suffrage – you know where people without property, black people and women could vote?  How long did it take us to get past the stage where the police and the army were no longer used by the government to restrain the citizens gathered in the street to express their discontent?   In fact, that last one we are still working on; and we are still trying to find a mechanism whereby the “will of the people” determines the law of the land.  We have a process that is meant to allow the will of the people to be expressed, but sometimes it appears to come up short; witness the “tea party” and “occupy” movements and the inability of congress to pass any legislation that requires compromise.

Democracy is indeed a challenge; we have been at it for over two hundred years and are still experimenting.  Maybe we should be more tolerant of other people’s struggles.  And in the case of Syria, we might want to reexamine our expectations.  It is certain that nothing resembling a mature, experienced democracy is going to result from a change in governemnt in Syria any more than it did in Egypt or Libya.


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