Archive for June 5th, 2008

The Crusade

It was a slip of the tongue, perhaps a poor choice in wording, but early in the Iraq war President Bush referred to it as a “crusade,” unintentionally invoking the name of a series of wars fought in the middle ages wherein the Christians from Europe attacked the Islamic world and committed atrocities and massacres. In some ways, though, the word choice was accurate. While the crusade is no longer for the Christian God, it is for the current religion of the West – the ideology of liberal democracy. Back in the middle ages, the legitimacy of the crusades was clear. It was obvious to Europeans that the Christian God was the one true God, and it was honorable to free the holy land and given the Muslims a chance at salvation. The idea that Islam was simply a different religion that deserved respect didn’t occur to them, there is only one true God, after all!

In 2003 the American public met the idea of spreading democracy with the same uncritical response. Of course we want to spread democracy, equal rights for women, free speech, and markets! These things have created prosperity in the West, and seem to be self-evidently good. We are liberating people from a dictator, we aren’t imposing anything, we want to give them the freedom to define their own destiny. Yet that view is a bit of a delusion.

Democracy as a process does not guarantee anything. In the US the cost of competing in an election effectively limits the capacity of people to participate, and requires they adhere to certain “politically viable” views and histories to have a chance to win. Even if your pastor has said something embarrassing, it can haunt you. Thus there are strict limits on what actually becomes viable for democratic choice, limits shaped by both the culture and the elite. In third world countries the existence of democracy has usually not led to a true expansion of political rights and freedoms; corruption and cronyism remain.

More importantly, democracy as we understand it rests on a variety of assumptions about the nature of politics and indeed human nature. It assumes people are rational, self-interested, and can accept a democratic method of choosing between different perspectives and opinions. This requires a toleration of diverse perspectives and opinions, and an ability to compromise. Democracy, especially when combined with capitalism, is a western enlightenment invention, a rational way to try to implement enlightenment ideals without the negative effects caused by the French revolution or Marxism.

Simply, our notion of democracy is fundamentally western. Yet it is put forth as being universal, outside of a cultural context, something that all should have and want, and which one might even kill and die in order to bring it to another state or people. That belief is dangerous. Democracy is part of our culture, its ideology and assumptions are western. Fighting to spread democracy and markets is fighting to replace another culture’s approach to politics and life with ours. And, even if another culture is suffering under a dictatorship, removing the dictator and then working to try to build our kind of system is more a crusade than liberation. We see it as liberation because to us it would be, just like the Christians of the crusades saw conversion to Christianity as salvation.

This is hard to accept; most people say ‘of course it’s wrong to subjugate women or deny basic rights, or to have rule by a monarch.’ But, of course, we would say that, those are our deep culturally held beliefs. Does this mean, though, that we should all become moral relativists, whatever a culture does is OK? Since we can’t prove our beliefs right, at one level we have no choice but to be relativists — and the argument against moral relativism usually rests on emotional grounds. However, relativism does not imply equivalence. There are differences, and those differences can be traced, discussed and analyzed. Maybe treating women as equal to men isn’t something I can prove to be right, but I can show that the more equality of the sexes, the more prosperity, the less war, and the higher the standard of living.

However, even if we have no choice but to be relativist, we also have no choice but to make moral calls. We have to act on our ethical/moral understandings, even if we can’t prove we are right. This means we act politically, try to persuade others, and engage in debate and discussion. In other words, there is nothing wrong with defending our beliefs, even as we tolerate others. Finally, most atrocities we see come not from the way other cultures understand the world, but the way in which the state and modern life have made it difficult for cultures to deal with complex issues, allowing power to centralize or colonialism to destroy old cultures. Stalin, Pol Pot, and many others cannot be protected by claims to doing what their culture accepted; they clearly stepped beyond that.

Perhaps the best thing is to simply avoid crusades. Live by our values, let them guide us, and perhaps work to persuade others that our approach makes sense (but learn from others in areas where we may be weak — we are a very materialist culture, that could be a weakness). Engage and consider the ethics of each situation, even if we lack certainty about what ethical principles should guide our action. The war in Iraq, however, shows the folly of making it a crusade. We can’t impose our cultural creations wherever we want, the problems in Iraq stem not from bad execution of policy to not truly understanding the political culture and history of the region. They need to make their own choices, and we need to accept that, and realize that a crusade for democracy simply won’t work.