Sunday, April 10, 2005

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day...
And neither will a new Iraq. Remember that the next time you flip on the news and are bombarded with reports of Iraqi's protesting the U.S. occupation in the same place they pulled down Saddam's statue two years ago.

One of the overriding themes of this weekend's news coverage from Iraq seems to be aimed at asking a very important question; We've been here two years already, and the Iraqi's have had their elections. They're starting to get pissed off again, so why haven't we gone home already?"
The question does have it's merits. However, since it's being asked by members of the media, they are missing the real point.

Democracies are not built in a day. Just because Iraqis have had a democratic election, monitored and certified by every world monitor imnaginable, does not mean they have a democracy. Democracy is more than an election --- it's a state of mind. It's a culture. It is something that must evolve. Remember, Hitler was democratically elected, after all.

Our democratic republic didn't spring to life in a vacuum on July 4, 1776 and begin operating without problems. American democracy was, initially, the logical extention of a process that had began in ancient Greece, filtered through the Roman Republic, encouraged by the signing of the Magna Carta, and was tempered by the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. By the time Americans got around to deciding it was, as Churchill said, the "least, worst form of government yet invented", democracy had evolved through many forms, been changed by many ideas and been influenced by history and philosophy.

The election in Iraq merely looked democratic, which is not to say that it wasn't fair, but that it had the trappings that most modern Westerners shallowly associate with democratic process; people debated and then they voted.

However, the underlying motives and philosophy of democracy have yet to take root in Iraq. Mainly this is because Islam still rules nearly everything a Middle Easterner does. Islam has never had it's Reformation, it's Enlightenment or it's Magna Carta. The true measure of a democracy is not it's forms or methods, but it's cultural foundations. Those foundations include, but are not limited to, a respect for law, the respect of an individual, the belief that rights are inherrant, that life is not connected to the spiritual by an umbilical chord that is merely more of an impediment to free thought. Those characteristics are the true Western tradition of democracy. The best example I can think of in modern times of an evolving democracy would be Japan, circa 1850 to modern times.

When Commodore Perry entered Tokyo Bay to open trade and passage agreements with the Japanese they had been unknown entities for the better part of 300 years. Japan, isolated by choice, rigidly stratified by a feudal social system and tethered to the traditions of the past, was shocked by Perry's entry and by the obvious power he represented. One glance westward towards China convinced the Japanese that the only way they could beat the foreigner was to become the foreigner. Quickly.

And so, after the Meiji Reformation of the 1870's, Japan emerged with a facade of Westernism: it created a professional standing army and navy, It began to industrialize. It copied democratic forms and parties, it expanded out into Asia acquiring colonies, and became an economic powerhouse in it's own right. Right through the process, the Japanese adapted thier native genius to solve problems connected with the importation of foreign ways into an ancient culture.

However, fledgling, Western-style Japan did not make the great leap forward that Westernization seemed to represent. The reason was that Japanese society, as a whole, while welcoming the rise in the quality of life, the infant freedoms provided, the higher standards of living and production, never completely shed tradition. Japan might look western, but it truly was not. There was no free press. Individualism was seen as a sin. Creative expression was stifled if it deviated too far from accepted social norms. Emperor worship still existed, a religious anchor which operated very much in the same way that slavish devotion to Islam does in the modern Middle East.

In the end, it took a World War, nuclear holocaust, occupation and the untold suffering of millions, Japanese and others, to teach the Japanese a valuable lesson: it was not enough merely to mimic the outward signs of democracy and western-style life, they had to go all the way and become westerners in their thinking and outlook as well. Once freed of the militarists who used tradition and nationalism as a tool of looking western while avoiding true western freedom, Japan was well and truly on it's way to entering the modern world.

It's a process that is still going on. Yes, there are still traditions in Japan that reach back into it's ancient past, the geisha girl is to Japan what the pin-up is to Americans. Sumo is their baseball. Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and Christianity exist side-by-side in Japan just as peacefully as they do here. The state religion of Emperor worship was abolished. Business became Japan's new leap forward and they found that in order to compete and excel, they needed to emulate and adopt western idosyncracies; free debate, public audit, respect for the individual, the value of even contradictory opinions, empirical research unrestrained by religious or state interference.

It took Japan roughly 80 years to reach that realization. It's too much to expect Iraqis to get it in two.

It is, however, not too much to expect for the American media, and alas, it's people, to realize this. But then again, we are a people mostly ignorant of history, unless it invloves RBI's or Academy Awards. What one has to remember about the new American initiatives in the Middle East is that we are still in the very earliest stages and that there are bound to be growing pains. According to many of the reports I've seen regarding the recent unrest, Iraqis are genuinely glad to be rid of Saddam, hate the insurgants as much as we do, and most of the discord is linked to the apparent trickle of American largesee (i.e., we haven't shoveled enough money in to the local economy in order to give it a kick start). An Iraqi waiting two years for American money to rebuild his house or business is bound to be upset.

Bear in mind one thing when you watch anything on TV regarding Iraq, Afghanistan or the nascent democratic movements in Lebanon ; these are going to be particularly tricky, often nasty, sometimes comic attempts to come to terms with a culture and a lifestyle that is totally foreign to these people. It's not going to be easy. We're not just changing a government in Iraq, we're attempting to change a culture that stretches back a very long time.

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