America and Democray: 1850 and 2010

The last week of listening to the popular uprisings in Egypt has been deeply stirring for me. As a very uneducated but passionate historian of sorts, revolution has always drawn me to it: the Russian, the French, the American, the Haitian, even the English Civil War, in a different sort of way. There is something to a people being stirred up into something that rash that makes me feel a sort of clumsy kinship.

I've also been listening to a very intriguing book: Clotel, or The President's Daughter. Published before the Civil War in London, Clotel is usually considered the first novel by an African American, and as one would expect for it's time, it's an abolitionist polemic, following the life of a woman and her two daughters (and eventual granddaughter), whom were sired by Thomas Jefferson (just the daughters. This isn't THAT kind of book). And reading this book has made me very troubled, because it tells a great deal about America. 

Thomas Jefferson, in particular is a man of deep and powerful contradictions. On the one hand he was a slave owner who did, in fact, sire children with his chattel mistress. On the other hand he not only codified the idealistic "all men are created equal", he also gave a number of very stirring speeches denouncing slavery as a crime against liberty.

It is perhaps Jefferson's most famous quote on slavery, however, that really shows where these contradictions come from. In discussing slavery, he said:
"But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
In essence, said Jefferson, we cannot let the slaves go, because we need them to be slaves, even if that's wrong. The tragedy of this statement, of course, is that it is so easy to say when you live in a home where your luxury is made possible by the hands that you keep enslaved beneath you. Perhaps, Jefferson would argue, he was a good master and treated his slaves as best he could, but then if one had told him that George had meant to be a virtuous king this would have made nary a different in whether he was a tyrant. Keeping slavery extant for another 80 years after the Revolution - and turning a blind eye to what amounted often to de facto slavery for African American through much of the rest of American history - is not morally justifiable, it's simply politically and economically expedient.

Take a look, now, at our situation today. The biggest recipients of American foreign aid (at least the last time I heard the statistics) are: Israel, and Egypt. Egypt, in large part, because it maintains an alliance with Israel. This is a debatable policy, in and of itself, but even more troubling when one considers that through most of the time in which we gave this aid, we gave it to the government of a despotic dictator. A few years ago, when we went to war in Iraq, there were three basic purposes floated for the war: to prevent Saddam Hussein from getting weapons of mass destruction, to destroy a base for Al Qaida and other militant terrorist groups, and to spread democracy in the Middle East. The first two of these reasons have been more or less debunked - Hussein didn't have any real weapons development anymore, and being a secularist, Al-Qaida was none too fond of Hussein. The third... is a trickier wicket. If we WERE, then, fighting an entire war to spread democracy, assert that human beings have an inalienable right to self-determination, then why is our response to Egypt so muted as a government? Shouldn't this be a moment for celebration, and for assisting our like-minded brothers and sisters? For using the ENORMOUS levers we have in Egypt - our foreign aid, for instance - to help those who are fighting for the cause of liberty?

Instead, our government is troubled, because when democracy DOES emerge, it's almost guaranteed that a considerable mass of the Egyptian people will vote for an Islamist party, changing the chemistry of our relationships in the region. Islamist parties are, generally, not terrifically fond of the United States, or of our ally, Israel. And after all, we have every right to look after our own interests. We cannot continue to work for good in the world if we lose the position we have in the world, now, can we?

Take a step back, for a moment, to the abolitionists. There was considerable breadth and variety in the abolitionist movement, but a significant portion of the movement was directly inspired by a fiery, fundamentalist Christian doctrine, one which, quite frankly, made government uncomfortable. Abolitionists, in fact, were not only frequently seen as terrorists, but did, in fact, commit acts that we would now consider terrorism: John Brown's raid, for instance, or the fighting funded in Bloody Kansas. Do I think this was right? I don't know. I cannot say. I can't damn them for it. Violence is awful, bloody, horrible stuff. But then, so was the violence being enacted on 6 million black men women and children. Was the plight of those people less cause for revolt than the plight of the Americans in 1776, who suffered from being overtaxed? I don't mean to trivialize the Revolutionary war, but not being able to send a representative to the parliament isn't quite the same as being a slave.

Which brings one back to today. Are the people of Egypt influenced by Islam? Certainly. Is the Muslim Brotherhood and it's Islamist agenda one of the inspirations for these protests. More than likely. But to argue that the people of Egypt should keep their dictator, or change on his timetable, is to argue that government is best when it is 'of the people, by the people, for the people, unless the people do not want what we think we should', which isn't a terribly moral high ground to take. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, could very bad things happen? Perhaps - although I think that this is partly just xenophobia. One is reminded of the French Revolution, when an angry and miserable French people let themselves be let into the monstrosities of the Reign of Terror. At the same time, it's worth mentioning that the French were isolated by all of the rest of the nations of Europe, an action that probably had a good deal to do with why the people were willing to turn to such savage shepherds.


Trapunto said...

Just feel compelled to admit that I keep checking back here to see if someone *else* has left the first comment yet, and what they said.

Jason Gignac said...

Clearly this is what I get for talking about politics, Ms Trapunto :D