Democracy Unlimited

May I enter a dissent from Joshua Muravchik’s critique of my friend Fareed Zakaria’s new book, The Future of Freedom? The core of Zakaria’s book is a warning – while democracy is gaining ground around the world, liberty is not. From Serbia to Indonesia, Nigeria to Kyrgyzstan, democracy is often simply an enabling device for executive tyranny, religious fanaticism, and ethnic animosity: what Zakaria calls “illiberal democracy.” Elections are important, Zakaria says, but even more important are human rights, free markets, and local autonomy. In the end, Zakaria concludes, the highest expression of the political culture of the west is not the ballot box: It is the impartial judge.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, and indeed that is how Muravchik treats it. But it is in fact a distinction that makes a very big difference – not least for our mission in Iraq. If our priority in Iraq is elections first and foremost, it will be possible for the US to quit Iraq very soon. But if we are concerned to try to build a more open, more liberal society in Iraq, the United States will be obliged to oversee the regime there – directly or indirectly – for many years to come.

Zakaria, a native of India and the son of an activist in the struggle for Indian independence, is no apologist for imperialism, British or American. But the great question raised by his book is whether there does not need to be a larger foreign role in much of the globe. Many African governments are elected in reasonably fair elections – South Africa’s, for example, and Nigeria’s to name two of the most important. But nobody would describe Nigeria as a state governed by the rule of law, and South Africa is progressing pretty rapidly down the familiar African road to executive tyranny, corruption, and ethnic turmoil. Back in the 1990s, the Clinton adminstration hailed the arrival of a supposed new generation of African leadership – but they are rapidly imitating their vicious old predecessors. And meanwhile, the heart of the continent, the Congo, has plunged into a protracted civil war that has killed maybe 3 million people …

There is nothing pessimistic or declinist about Zakaria’s book. On the contrary, the goals he sets for American policy – the promotion of market economies and liberal polities – are if possible even more ambitious than the democratizing goal that Muravchik would set. Zakaria’s is an important message that deserves careful attention as Americans put the illusions and delusions of the Clinton years behind them – and a message that friends of liberty should welcome, not condemn.

Boo Ducks

Myself I cannot get seriously interested in a Stanley Cup final from which the Maple Leafs have been eliminated, but my New York born, Washington-bred son is fiercely cheering for the New Jersey Devils, a team in which he’s never before shown the slightest interest. When I asked him why he felt so strongly, he explained that nobody would ever take his beloved game seriously again if the championship was won by a team with such a stupid name as the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.

The Ducks are of course owned by the Disney Corporation, and named after a mites-league hockey team in one of Disney’s movies. It’s notorious that Disney does a much better job of marketing to girls than to boys – think Little Mermaid, think Beauty and the Beast, think (shudder) of Pocohantas and Mulan – but it takes a special kind of obtuseness to compete for the allegiance of 9-year-old boys nationwide with a team named after a waddling, paddling, quacking bird.

Speaking of Books

I have just pulled off my shelf, where it has languished for two decades ever since I put it away unfinished in 1980, Leo Strauss’ “Thoughts on Machiavelli.” Since everybody tells me that those of us who advocate a vigorous response to terrorism are members of a secret cabal imbued with the old prof’s mystic doctrines, I figured I’d better acquaint myself with the work of the man who supposedly controls my mental processes …

And I was then overwhelmed by this irony. If Strauss is known for anything, it is his teaching that philosophers cannot afford to speak candidly, that they must hide their true meanings in deceptive phrases that mislead the unwary into over-estimating their conventionality. And yet, punch “Leo Strauss” into Google, and what pops up? Your choice, for starters of and, both of which will bring the esoteric teachings of the philosopher to your very computer! One of Fareed Zakaria’s dislikes is the American insistence on democratizing everything – and Leo Strauss is no exception to the mighty rule.

Liberal Civility

Bill O’Reilly debated Al Franken and Molly Ivins in an event broadcast on C-Span on Sunday afternoon, and he made this great joke that cracked up the conservatives in the audience:

“These HMOs are getting so arrogant that men who want to beat their wives have to get the hospital bills pre-cleared.”

No, no, no – of course he didn’t say that. O’Reilly can be a pretty outrageous guy, but he knows perfectly well that a joke about wife-beating is a career-ender.

The joke actually was made by Molly Ivins, and it really went like this: “The price of gas is riz so high” – yes she said “riz”: if you’re a Texan who wants to advocate gun control and lesbian marriage, you have to sprinkle your speech with hick phrases so that nobody gets the idea you’re just another of them Yankee liberals – “the price of gas is riz so high that women who want to run over their husbands have to carpool.” Pat Schroeder, the former congresswomen, in a fine display of the liberals’ notion of “fairness” and “balance,” served as a very immoderate moderator.”

Now there are is a very obvious point to be made about this little humorous gem, and I’m sure it has already occurred to you. (Actually there are two: the other being that it’s not very funny, but then none of Molly Ivins’ work has been very funny since she quit repackaging Florence King’s writing as her own.)

Let me venture instead this possibly slightly less obvious point – Molly Ivins went on to deliver a passionate little speech about her commitment to civilizing American discourse! Apparently, American discourse is being rendered viciously uncivil by Rush Limbaugh’s habit of explaining dynamic scoring over the airwaves – and the liberal way to elevate the vulgar tone of right-wing debate is to make jokes about killing people.