Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Surviving Deconstruction

Egypt is an interesting lithmus test in politics; The Washington Post remarks that neoconservatives break with Israel over the topic, and likewise many liberals and conservatives in our politics are finding themselves on opposite sides of the issue from their usual allies.

As a quick aside, a reminder that "Neoconservative" is not a spit word, nor a generic term for "extreme republicans". It is a faction of the Republican party (with a complicated intellectual lineage including prominent ex-trotskyites), best understood as having a belief in a particular formula of weak democracy, an open society, a distrust of nonpolitical academia, pragmatic notions of truth, and strong markets. It is universalist; it believes all humanity naturally wants and will embrace their formula if given a chance, and sees its mission to do so as saving/liberating the world.

Conservatives as whole in the United States have in recent times been strongly pro-Israel. I attribute this to a mix of things, each with some appeal to a different part of the William F Buckley consensus:

  • A tendency to classify nations as friends and enemies, and to side unabashedly with friends
  • A preference to do business with Israel
  • An (ill-founded) idea that Judaism is theologically compatible with Christianity (not entirely false — Judaism is much closer to Islam in most regards, but Christianity began as a heresy within Judaism and has already rationalised itself as a successor, while it is explicitly and visibly incompatible with Islam)
  • General Islamophobia and perceptions of harmlessness of Judaism (perceptions of "harm" here include a heavy fear of having all one's flock converted away).
  • A broad cultural preference for a western-ish nation over what they imagine its neighbours to be. This might or might not be based on accurate understandings of relative press freedom, relative disinformation, etc.
These ties have not been universal; there are conservatives that either are anti-semitic (such as Billy Graham) or who are wary of a pro-Israel stance. Now that we have an issue topical to Israeli security and conservatives in a contrarian mood, normally-quiet divisions are becoming visible. The other side of the matter is how "belief in our system" compares with strategic concerns and awareness of history combine. The Neoconservatives see a revolution with some democratic rhetoric and see the chance for a budding democracy to "join the club" and be like us. Less idealist conservatives see the end of a friendly-and-somewhat-western regime and worry about what might come next. Israel itself tends towards the pragmatic; its leadership may lack the political will to contribute towards a long-term peace with the Palestinians, but its public statements on this matter are rooted in a gritty and accurate understanding of facts. The Neoconservatives don't see their stance as a betrayal of Israel because they believe every democratic revolution in the world will go their way and that (as per Fukuyama's 「End of History」) democracies don't make war; to them, Israel is being shortsighted for worrying.

On the liberal side of things, there is a similar divide between pragmatists and idealists, albeit with fewer well-defined ideological divides to identify. Neoconservatives being an anomaly, the liberal and conservative base probably split on the matter depending on how educated (particularly in history) they are and whether they think directly in terms of values, in terms of cause-effects, or using some other habits.

I claim that the Neoconservatives, alongside any who have a deep commitment to democracy who believe unseating Mubarak to be unequivocally correct, are not thinking carefully enough; it may be reasonable to support the removal of Mubarak, but it is not obviously correct and one might reasonably conclude the opposite.

Two relevant episodes of history:

  • The Russian Revolution — After the royal family was removed, a moderate government formed under the leadership of Aleksandr Kerensky that attempted to introduce social democracy to the the Russian Empire. As Prime Minister, he introduced numerous reforms, but proved too politically inept to maintain power; his party (the Trudoviks) found that calls for moderation are difficult to sustain during revolutionary times and that broad coalitions to upseat an existing order often fall apart once the enemies of those coalitions are defeated and the prospect of absolute victory is attainable; like the Mensheviks he and his party were no longer necessary and the Bolsheviks took complete power 8 months later. I see ElBaradei (the current "leader" of the anti-Mubarak movement) as likely being a modern Kerensky - useful for a coalition and perhaps a first government afterwards, but incapable of holding things together long after that.
  • The Islamic Revolution in Iran — Also began as a broad movement, drawing significant support from those who had supported Mosssadeqh, socialists, liberal capitalists, and of course the religious establishment in Qom. Unsurprisingly, the coalition progressively narrowed when it was no longer necessary, outlawing the allies that had aided its ascendancy (such as Tudeh, the Communist Party of Iran).
Are things different now? Perhaps — we are in an age of digital mass movements, and the cost of stifling dissent is giving up on the internet. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood has factions; while the old guard is old-school Islamist and prone to stifle dissent with batons and jail, many of the youth of the party are very active on the internet and wish to experiment with pluralism and legitimate democracy, persuading society to adopt Islamic principles through debate and being willing to accept partial or complete defeats at the ballot box.

As a whole, I cannot support the efforts to remove Mubarak; I believe more in liberal freedoms than liberal democracy, and I am not keen to allow the Muslim Brotherhood a shot at power. I am not interested in Israel as "an ally" so much as a worldwide hotspot/concern, full of real people that we should care about in the same way Egypt is. As I weigh the situation, extending Mubarak's rule long enough to either ensure a continuation of an autocracy with roughly western freedoms or find a way to have those freedoms with some degree of democracy is a better path than unseating the state. Mubarak is acting shamefully in this conflict, and in maintaining his rule he has had to act roughly; I still hold that his rule is preferable to a democracy that would be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the latter is likely should be be removed right now.

At this point, the Rubicon has probably been crossed; it is unlikely that the stability of Egypt can be maintained and we'll have to see, whether Mubarak leaves soon or at the end of this term, whether things move towards Sharia rule or not.

In the meantime, it's interesting to see which voices in American (and world) politics push for what. Just as the current US Administration has to walk a careful line between political reality and its stated ideals (Obama prided himself on being much more pragmatic than the Neoconservative-influenced last administration, which was anti-Mubarak; compare this to the also-pragmatic BushSr administration), individual voices are telling us how they really view the world in a surprisingly honest way. We rarely get such clear discussions on foundational philosophy.

On the title of the entry:I find it irritating when people deconstruct the notion of "society" or "the public good" in political debate. I can generally defend these terms, either:

  • By noting that it is usual/meaningful for people to think in terms of groups or societies and judge them by what they offer (possible bonus: I can catch them in inconsistency if they believe "freedom is good for people" -- "what people?")
  • By defending the notion of the public good as actually distributing over the most vulnerable or majority of people.
I would like to develop a standard response, ideally one that undercuts the centrality of liberty or autonomy underlying most perspectives I've heard using that deconstruction. (I think Margaret Thatcher or one of her speechwriters brought this particular attack into vogue)

A few neat games:


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