The tumult in Egypt and throughout the Middle East is a generational conflagration between different conceptions of thumos — old and modern, Muslim and nationalist, collective and individual. In the long run, I’m not too worried about liberal democracy’s prospects in the Middle East. Modernity brings prosperity, and prosperity fuels an insatiable appetite for respect, and that demand for respect is what topples tyrannies.
I’m more concerned about what is happening here. Thumos continues to evolve in Western democracies, which is not the same thing as saying it continues to improve.
Our current fiscal woes — not to mention the riot of dysfunction that often goes by the name “political correctness” and the thumos-on-the-cheap that we call the self-esteem industry — are in no small part attributable to the perversion of our sense of self-worth. For millions of Americans, it seems that respect must be paid in the form of cash tribute. How else to explain the inviolable sanctity of our aptly named “entitlement” system?
Great civilizations die when the people believe their personal dignity demands more than the society can possibly provide. Sadly, that conversation has barely begun.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.