Books, culture, fishing, and other games

April 08, 2004

Does Iraq Deserve to be Free?

I've been watching the news and reading books pertaining to the Iraq situation. The most recent was What Went Wrong? : The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, by Bernard Lewis. I wish I could say it was illuminating, but, while it was well-written and a useful history, I didn't come away with much new in understanding of how Islamic cultures have ended up where they are today. That is not to say that I don't recommend the book to those with litle historical knowledge of the expansion and retraction of Islam as a political movement and as a cultural foundation. One thing the book makes clear is that the two are not inectricably linked. Turkey has been fairly successful as a secular government while remaining mostly culturally Islamic. Of course, the extreme Islamic regimes would argue this point.

But I keep coming back to one basic question about Iraq, and similar cultures and/or countries. Do they deserve democracy?

For various and complicated reasons, we, as a coalition of countries, are seeking to "gift" Iraq with the opportunity to practice democracy by removing a tyranny they accepted. We seem to implicitly assume that the Iraqis, in fact, that everyone, deserve their own representative government. Yet a significant (how large it is hard to determine) portion of the Iraqi "people" (Iraqi isn't exactly one people) are not even a little grateful.

Growing up in the Amazon in the midst of poverty (which made me feel rich, though by American standards we were barely into middle class) I learned the lesson that people do not appreciate things they do not somehow earn. Or, at least, they very rarely do. That is not to say that we should not practice charity because it is not appreciated. We should, however, practice wisdom combined with charity. Instead of just giving that sick person the medicine they needed to cure their illness, my Dad would insist they make some sort of payment. He began this policy when he learned that if he just gave them the medicine they didn't take it. Their thinking seemed to be that if he could just give it away it must have no value. Perhaps this was a cultural thing, or a cross-cultural issue, or perhaps it's something so basic in our natures that we don't really see the extent to which it operates in our own lives. Why do we value the come-from-behind victory against impossible odds more than the blow out where one sports team simply out matches the other by orders of magnitude? I know, speaking for myself, when I feel I earned something it has more value to me. It gains an intangible preciousness that goes beyond any intrinsic value of the thing as event or object. When I move and shed possessions, the things that are never left behind are those I earned with the most pain and effort. Far more objectively valuable things are casually dismissed.

If we accept this as a truth of human nature, what does it say about "gifting" another culture with democracy? America, and other countries with long histories of democracy (long as the history of democracy goes), earned their freedoms and their representative governments mostly through their own expended lives, whether through living to promote their choice of government or through dying to prevent tyranny.

When Patrick Henry said "Give me liberty or give me death," he didn't exactly mean, "free me or kill me," what he meant was "I will be free or I will die trying to live free." His was not an invitation to martyrdom; it was a warning exemplified by the snake that flew on an early flag, "Don't tread on me:" I will bite, I will die fighting before yielding to a foot on my face.

Thomas Jefferson said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure." He did not say only with the blood of patriots, he said with the blood of tyrants too. And that is where Iraq, as a country, failed. It shed the blood of patriots, but it failed to shed the blood of its tyrants. Perhaps it did not have enough patriots to ensure the tyrants' blood was shed. If that is the case from where will come the patriots needed to keep the Liberty Tree healthy in Iraq?

When Jefferson says "blood," I believe he means it. He isn't making a metaphor at that level, he means violence is necessary on occasion, and that some are going to die. I also suspect that he means that tyrants must die, not be expelled, imprisoned or otherwise shoved aside. Tyrants have a nasty way of returning if they are not neutralized permanently. This is a pragmatic position, not one based on revenge or retaliation. Where there is life there is hope, and this applies equally, and perhaps especially since they are so driven to power, to tyrants. Look to France and Napoleon's return for a capital example.

The gift of the coalition, a gift a least some are spurning, or are finding to have no value was a relatively bloodly removal of tyrants. Perhaps, because it was relatively bloodless, the Tree will not have the "manure" it needs to flourish.

The motives of the United States and the coalition in making the gift are not the issue here. They are certainly more complicated than a simple desire to see Iraq become a freer place with a better government, though many of us would love to see that come about.

The question is: does Iraq deserve this gift? Has it done enough to deserve it so that it can accept it and profit from it, or will it be set on a shelf? Will the medicine that might cure Iraq's long illness sit untaken because Iraqis, as a body, cannot accept that it has any value since it was given by another whose motives they suspect?

Iraq needs to prove to itself that it deserves the gift, not to the world. The way it can do this is by sacrificing patriots and tyrants to the tree of liberty. A few tyrants have been removed, more remain. There are Iraqi patriots too, but are there enough? And are they willing to sacrifice, if need be, so that their fellow citizens can live in a better Iraq, or are they more worried about survival?

Posted by dan at April 8, 2004 10:14 AM | TrackBack

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