Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Western 'Freedom'

In an article titled "Middle East 'Democracy'", Thomas Sowell makes the argument that the Arab Spring might have brought the early rituals of democracy in the Middle East, but this shouldn't be confused with freedom in the region. Sowell clearly delineates freedom and democracy, something that has eluded many in the Middle East. But, then he jumps to a conclusion that: "Democracy in the Middle East context means majority selection of which individuals get the power to oppress", for example, "Nazis were free to be Nazis under Hitler and Communists were free to be Communists under Stalin and Mao. But nobody else was free." Sowell's main point, I believe, is that freedom needs to come before democracy, the other way doesn't work.

Women rights in Western countries, is picked by Sowell, as an example of his argument, he says: "Most Western nations had freedom long before they had democracy. Women have been voting in the United States less than a century. But, even before women could vote in England or America, they had freedoms that women in many Middle Eastern countries can only dream about today." This struck me as a gross over-simplification of the long struggle of women for freedoms during the 19th and 20th century in America. At the time women didn't have many basic rights like education and property, some authors go to the extent of saying women at the time were treated as objects owned by men! Even spending a few minutes reviewing the history of Women's suffrage in the United States immediately puts in perspective how 'unfree' women were before participating in democracy in America.

Sowell further makes the point that in unfree democracies (i.e Nazi Germany, Mao's China and post-Arab Spring Middle East) the ruling majorities would use their position to oppress the unrepresented--something that wouldn't happen in free democracies. It's hard for me to buy into this argument. Sticking with women rights for a moment, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified giving women the right to vote in America. This amendment was submitted to the congress almost half a century before to an overwhelmingly male-dominated Congress and was shelved. This is not an ObamaCare-like piece of legislation with thousands of specifics that needs to be studied, this is literally a one-liner that reads: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." To me this is a stark example of men, much like Nazis, being free under the American democracy, to oppress women, who clearly weren't free.

Finally, as someone who grew-up under an authoritarian regime, I've heard this argument made before in many shapes and forms: we are not ready for democracy, we don't have the institutions for it, we have a high percentage of illiterate people who could be manipulated, etc, etc, etc. While I fully agree that having a democracy in a country, like Egypt, is far from ideal and comes with a wide array of problems, the reality is: there is no alternative. The moment we collectively agree that some countries are ready for democracy and others aren't, we are implicitly creating an incentive for a dictator to step in in those countries and keep them "not ready for democracy" for as long as possible. The military junta that carried out the 1952 coupe in Egypt has done exactly that for almost 60 years. I'll take democracy in an unfree country anyday over the promise of democracy-only-after-freedom. 

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