Saturday, February 05, 2011

Freedom Is Hard (UPDATE)

As I write this, Pres. Hosni Mubarak has left the leadership of the National Democratic Party in Egypt, I'm listening to a discussion from a couple days ago on Al Jazeera with Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Zizek on the possibility of popular democracy in Egypt, and in the back of my mind is this interview I heard a couple days ago on Here and Now on the wider post-colonial revolution in the Arab world. Here in the US, there is so much fear-mongering regarding events in Egypt - Media Matters for America, to cite just one example, has a rundown of snake oil salesman Glen Beck offering the oddest collection of conspiracies responsible for the unrest in the Middle East - that the birthing of democracy in Egypt is raising all sorts of questions regarding its health here in the US. In particular, the key to our freedom, the freedom to speak one's mind without fear, has become the most hated freedom we have. The reaction to those who find distasteful Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity on the one hand and Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, and Glenn Greenwald on the other hand - their ideological opponents want them silenced as a danger to the Republic - is, perhaps, the most insidious, anti-democratic, anti-American idea imaginable.

It is clear enough, at least to those who have been following the story in Egypt on Al Jazeera, that conspiracy theories are not only an American phenomenon. The Egyptian people are eager to express fears of all kinds of conspiracies. It isn't the content of these expressions that worries me, any more than the content of FOXNews, or Rush Limbaugh's radio show, or even the occasionally sloppy, lazy mainstream journalism one finds too often here in the US. What worries me is the refusal to accept that, yes, there are people who think differently than we do. There are people who are fundamentalist Christians, and Muslims, and Mormon and Marxist, and libertarians who have political beliefs and want to have their voice heard. In Egypt, moving forward, we have the prospect of secular political views, of leftist views, of moderately sectarian Muslim views, and others - all of whom will want a voice in the governance of a new, emergent democratic Egypt. The key to a healthy polity isn't silencing those voices we don't like.

The key to a healthy polity is, first and foremost, accepting that there are all sorts of people, including people who have ideas very different from one's own. One does not have to accept the legitimacy of those ideas. The other part of this equation is the willingness to treat the ideas of others - yes, even the kooky ideas of Glenn Beck - with enough seriousness, at the very least, to laugh at them. More serious views should be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

All this occurred to me with regard to the fear-mongering in this country regarding The Muslim Brotherhood, which is little more than a moderately conservative Islamic party with deep roots in the history of Egypt. It is, in fact, little different from the current ruling party in Turkey, which we were told was going to go the way of Iran, but is as committed to Turkey's history of secular governance as any other party. It is little different from various conservative Christian groups in the US who seek to voice their views in the public sphere of the US. I may not agree with their view; I might not even like them. All the same, I am grateful for them, and would rather they were heard than shouted down by those who quite simply cannot tolerate views different from their own. Encouraging the development of this kind of social and civic infrastructure in Egypt means breathing life back in to it here in the United States.

UPDATE: This article is really, really good. It covers some of the same territory, not least the cluelessness of so many outsiders (including myself!) to the complex dynamics under way in Egypt.

Virtual Tin Cup

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