Are Americans Ready for Democracy?
Most of the nation's people identify themselves first by tribe or religion, and are all too ready to spit on the cultures of others, says Firouz Folani.
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
By Firouz Folani
Institute of Near-Western Studies
TEHRAN, Feb 24, 2011 -- As a wave of "people power" this month toppled dictators throughout the Americas, citizens of Africa and the Middle East—the world's prosperous democracies— felt joy and sympathy. Nowhere was this more true than here in Iran. But with the fall of the dictatorship in Washington, it's time for us, the world's one remaining superpower, to lay sentiment aside. We have to ask the tough questions: How can we be sure that the next American regime won't be even worse? How can we be sure, for that matter, that Americans are ready for democracy?
Officially, of course, Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, Cameroon, Nigeria, Turkey and other rich democracies support free speech, personal liberty, the rule of law and fair elections for every country on earth. But we have to balance our democratic ideals with a realistic assessment of our interests (and the world's) in resource-rich North America.
Why do I have my doubts? Because Americans lack our Judeo-Muslim traditions of brotherhood, peaceful assembly and debate. Far from thinking of the greater good of their society, most Americans embrace a tribal ethos of "what's in it for me and my clan?" Their loyalties tend to divide along tribal and regional lines. In recent years, for example, elected officials have mooted the idea that their state should (a) secede from the federal union (Texas), (b) create its own currency (South Carolina), and (c) enforce only those national laws with which its ruling warlords agree (Montana).
In this climate, many, if not most of the nation's people identify themselves first by tribe or religion (as in "Italian-American," "African-American," "Baptist" or "Red Stater"). Members of these tribes gather often throughout the year to celebrate themselves, and they're all too ready to spit on the cultures of others. When a national election is called, one-third to one-half of those eligible do not not bother to vote.
With their feeble sense of nationhood, Americans fall back on an individualism so extreme that their laws hold that even business corporations are people, with the same free-speech rights as a flesh-and-blood human being. Unfortunately, fully half the homes of these tribesmen are stocked with firearms. And Americans have been known to bring their weapons to ostensibly peaceful political rallies. In fact, political assassination has been a recurring problem in the United States for more than a century. Even in 2011, Federal officials who ventured into the untamed Western deserts have been threatened and even shot.
You might be tempted here to say that democracy is messy, and that the Americans should just be left to muddle along as best they can, and learn their lessons without our interference. Unfortunately, North America is a vital source of uranium, soybeans, situation comedies, inspirational speakers and other resources without which the global economy would collapse. Moreover, the country possesses a sizable cache of weapons of mass destruction. For both those reasons we and the other peace-loving nations of the world cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. If Americans are incapable of electing a sane and responsible government, the whole world will feel the consequences.
The heart of the problem, of course, is religion.
I disagree with some of my conservative friends who claim that Christianity is an inherently violent faith (we all know the litany: it has an instrument of torture for a symbol, the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc). Yes, if you read through their Holy Book you find a lot of alarming stuff, but I am satisfied that the vast majority of Christians read these passages metaphorically. For most, their religion is almost as peaceful and civilized as our own.
That said, the United States abounds in fanatics who don't share this view. They are all too eager to turn the democratic process to their own nefarious ends. Many will claim to have renounced the gun for the ballot box, but can we trust them? Consider one Sarah Palin, an imam from a wild northern region where the central government's hold is weak. Last year, her election literature contained images of targets on the territories of opponents, and she has said that the secular state should base its laws on a Christian version of Sharia. Obviously Iran, Nigeria and the rest of the G7 cannot tolerate such a person in charge of America's nuclear arsenal.
Some say not to worry, because Americans, now that they're free, will vote in a government of moderates, who will move toward a healthy secular society. Extremists, they say, have little support and cannot win. But I am not so sure.
Outside the large cities where foreigners are welcome, a majority of Americans don't "believe" in evolution and many are not shy about expressing distrust for any religion but their own. True, religious fanatics are not a majority, even here. But they're well organized and determined. Often, too, they run social-service organizations that feed, clothe and shelter people, performing the functions that the feeble secular government cannot. That impresses people who might not otherwise share their zealot values.
Given Americans' poor grasp of democratic principles, it is not inconceivable that one or more of these militants could win at the ballot box. And, of course, an election won by the Tea-liban would be the last election permitted. Equally obviously, the country would then have to be liberated by the international community, at great expense in blood and treasure.
For all these reasons, I believe we have to face the hard facts: Much as we aspire to a peaceful, democratic world, we know some peoples are not yet ready for democracy, and the Americans are one of these. Our policy, then, should aim for an authoritarian strongman of the sort Americans understand and respect—someone who can flatter their national pride and keep their well-armed warlords under control. This people needs a few decades of practice before they'll be mature enough to govern themselves. It may not be politically correct, but we have to accept that fact.
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