Friday, February 4, 2011


The media drumbeat for revolution in Egypt continues – its intensity, if anything, increasing as the disorder escalates. Before we were able to watch revolutions “in real time,” we were better able to maintain the distance necessary for making intelligent judgments about their consequences. In our globalized world of instantaneous communication, we have all become “excitement junkies,” eagerly following the latest developments and – wittingly or unwittingly – encouraging them along. (So it’s no accident that demonstrators display signs in English).

The Founders and – for much of American history – most Americans at least most of the time had an appreciation for the fit between America’s distinctive political institutions and American political culture. While not unopposed in principle to the spread of American-style democracy to other places, they intuitively understood that not every society works the same way and that what fits well in one setting might not automatically translate to another. During the Cold War, calling oneself “anti-Communist” was virtually sufficient to make one a good guy in American eyes. Nowadays, being for “democracy” (whatever that might mean) seems to suffice.

Personally, I hope the Egyptian people (and all peoples everywhere) succeed in establishing a more humane society for themselves. Democratic institutions may contribute to that end, although they also may not. I am reminded of Edmund Burke’s caution (in his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France) that we ought first to see what it will please people to do with their liberty before we risk congratulating them on its acquisition!

A workable “democracy” may admit of many cultural variations and adaptations, but at least any form of it that most Americans would recognize as such presupposes a political culture in which citizens are not only able and willing to engage each other in a political process (a more exacting demand than it sounds) but also can tolerate not getting their way all the time, that is to say are able and willing to live within some fundamental constitutional restraints (for example, elections at set times, as opposed to a change in government every time a mob takes to the streets). Those who are eager to promote “democracy” in foreign countries would do well I think, to promote, encourage, and facilitate the factors that make such minimal pre-conditions for “democracy” authentic local realities.

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