Thursday, December 14, 2006

Counting the fillings in the crocodile's jaws

"We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward.

"Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the latest new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature."

-- C. S. Lewis, sermon, Oxford, 1939

Not being an Israeli, and not being Jewish, I have a hard time catching the spirit of that plucky little nation. Simple acts of defiance, like keeping a lunch date at a cafe during Hezbollah's rocket attack, those I get. Astounding, hi-contrast acts of decency, like delivering a Palestinian woman's baby in a military ambulance, while under fire from Palestinian terrorists, those I get.

But sometimes the Israelis sang-froid and irreducible civilized-ness are just jaw-dropping. Here's an article in an Israeli big-think magazine, Azure. I've never seen it before, but it looks roughly analogous to The Atlantic or Harper's or some such--in style and (virtual) heft, not necessarily content.

Anyway, here's a piece from the journal, by one Uriya Shavit, called The Road to Democracy in the Arab World. It's a sensitive and informed exploration of the prospects of democracy taking root in the Arab world, along with a mostly sympathetic and revealing account of why Arab thinkers are mistrustful of democracy's Western exemplars. I disagree with most of it. The writer asserts,

In truth, there is nothing unique to Arab societies that results in a preference for despotic regimes. Arab society does not possess an inborn aversion to freely elected governments, and particularly ones that uphold the basic freedoms of the individual; on the contrary, there is abundant evidence that liberal democracy can exist in the Arab world.

But the traditionally clannish and tribal nature of arab societies is a high hurdle to overcome, surely. And if democracy is so on-the-brink-of-happening in the Arab world, it seems that it would have come about naturally, before now. The examples of outwardly democratic institutions in 19th century Egypt he presents would seem to count against, not for, the viability of democracy. Same with the post-WWI democrat-ish regimes set up by Britain and France--they collapsed and were replaced with dictatorships after the Great Powers left. Democracy survived as an appealing idea to the Arab upper-middle class. Clearly, that's not enough to sustain a government based on demos, the people.

But the point of this post isn't to fence with this Israeli pundit, but to marvel at him, and by extension at the rest of the Israeli educated classes. Just consider what's happened in the past year alone:

*Iran has threatened to wipe tiny Israel off the map, and is rapidly acquiring the means to do so.

*Israel fought a dangerously inconclusive war with Hezbollah, in which Israel could not protect her citizens, could not close off Hezbollah's supply of rockets, did not rescue those kidnapped soldiers, and lost even more support from the international community.

*Palestinian killbots continue to seek the lives of Israelis, any Israelis, all Israelis, whether by rockets, guns, or bomb belts.

And so much more that doesn't even make it into our newspapers. Aggression against Israel is gathering for an awful onslaught, and Israel's former friends are increasingly allowing themselves to entertain the idea that Israel's very existence is a mistake. A rectifiable mistake.

But here is this writer, parsing the ifs and buts of Arab democracy as if he were writing somewhere safe, like here in America:

In the end, political reform cannot be viewed as an insurance policy taken out by the West against the possibility of democracy sustaining some blows. Liberal reform may bring to power irresponsible regimes. It may even bring to power tyrants worse than the previous ones. But if we take the long view, we must conclude that regional processes of democratization, despite the inevitable setbacks, can only contribute to the struggle against fanaticism and violence.

"If we take the long view"... God. You've just gotta raise your beverage of choice and toast the courage, optimism and generosity of spirit behind a sentiment like that, at this stage of the game. Scroll back up and read that C. S. Lewis quote again. What a country; may God preserve them...

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