Saturday, January 3, 2009

Giving Democracy a Bad Name

Whenever I see a book like James Traub's The Freedom Agenda (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008), the first thing I do is check the index to see what it has to say about East Timor. When I did that with Samantha Power's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A problem from hell" : America and the age of genocide (Basic Books, 2002), I found these now-notorious words:
In 1975, when its ally, the oil-producing, anti-Communist Indonesia, invaded East Timor, killing between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians, the United States looked away [146-7].
That was all she had to say, and I don't think it's going too far to call it a lie. The United States did not look away; it okayed the invasion in advance, supplied weapons and training to the Indonesian troops, and blocked any UN action against the slaughter, right up until the 1999 referendum in which the Timorese were allowed to vote for independence from Indonesia.

But enough about Power. I checked the index of The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way Bush Did It), which, like Power's book, I happened on at the public library. Traub, a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, is just as sparse in his coverage of East Timor as Power. Here are both references listed in the book's index:
In Bosnia and Kosovo, and in East Timor, sovereignty rested with the international forces, as it had not in Haiti; but the effort to create an effective and trusted police force, an independent judiciary, a responsive civil service, and the like proved maddeningly difficult. East Timor, like Haiti, relapsed into violence when the occupying force went home. The arc of democratic development, it seemed, was vastly longer than the arc of international attention [87f].

In mid-February [2003], barely a month before the invasion of Iraq, Rumsfeld gave a speech in New York in which he extolled the “light footprint” in Afghanistan, and criticized the nation-building exercises in Kosovo and East Timor for distorting local economies and creating a culture of dependency [120].
If Traub were writing only about the Bush years, he might be able to justify this treatment, which focuses only on "nation-building" in East Timor after 1999. But The Freedom Agenda is a sort of historical panorama of American democracy-spreading, starting with the Spanish-American War. In that holy conflict against the Popish antichrist, the United States liberated the Philippines from Spanish rule, but then decided we should keep them -- for their own good, of course. They just weren't ready for freedom and democracy. The Filipinos had different ideas, however, having been trying for years to get rid of the Spanish themselves, so they rebelled. Against us, the light of the world, the beacon of freedom! So we squashed them. In a typical application of today's journalistic balance, Traub puts it this way: "More than 220,000 Filipinos are thought to have died in battle, as well as more than 4,000 American troops. … Each side routinely tortured the other."

Right, the destruction was mutual. What Traub doesn't mention is that the Filipino casualties didn't all occur "in battle": American forces moved through the countryside, massacring everybody they encountered. No one knows how many were slaughtered, since no records were kept, and estimates range widely, with 220,000 nearer the low end, but we'll never know.

Traub goes on to describe U.S. "nation-building" (I'm not quite sure why that term sets my teeth on edge) in the Philippines, which mainly involved winning the hearts and minds of local elites: "neither could we offer [the Filipinos] the American principle of universal suffrage" (page 17).
What’s more, as in Cuba, a strict control over the franchise was to curb the excesses of popular democracy. Only males twenty-three or older who had either served in the Spanish local government, paid taxes, or could demonstrate literacy in English or Spanish would be allowed to vote. This constituted less than 3 percent of the population [22].
In 1900, a strict control over the franchise also obtained in the United States: women and various other lesser groups were not allowed to vote here, and literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other restrictions were widespread. Curbing the excesses of popular democracy had always been a concern of our rulers, so it's hardly surprising that they extended it to our new possessions. But for Traub, this hardly registers. He's too busy beating the drums for our benevolence to the lowly Filipino, even while reporting some of the milder racism of the Americans who determined US policy, and lamenting that, doggone it, the Filipinos just wouldn't take responsibility for their own democracy:
The idea of inalienable individual rights had come naturally to the yeoman farmer and the tradesman of colonial America, who stood on their own two feet. But in the Philippines, almost everyone depended on the favor of powerful clans. The habits of deference were deeply ingrained. Filipinos considered the relationship of patron and client every bit as rooted in the nature of things as Americans did the bonds of equality among citizens. Politics depended far more on kinship and on personal friendship than it did on abstract principle or belief. Politicians gained office with the support of their actual and metaphorical kin, and then offered recompense with jobs, contracts, and the like. The Americans called this corruption, but for the Filipinos it was simply an extension of the family system....

Some leading members of the elite absorbed the ethos of self-reliance and equality; others learned how to parrot it back to their gullible masters [28-29].
Damn! We Americans, especially our wise leaders, are so trusting! Even in those days we couldn't believe that the dusky races might not be telling us the truth, or that they weren't really constituted for a meritocracy. Given how corrupt the American system was in those days too, it's hard to believe that Traub is deaf to the irony in what he's writing, but he is. Consider this choice bit in which Traub quotes Larry Diamond, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and "
professor by courtesy of political science and sociology" at Stanford, contrasting two styles of democracy.
In a liberal democracy, he wrote, "the military is subordinated, the constitution is supreme, due process is respected, civil society is autonomous and free, citizens are politically equal, women and minorities have access to power, and individuals have real freedom to speak and publish and organize and protest." An electoral democracy just had elections.
It clearly doesn't occur to Traub (or, presumably, to Diamond), that by these criteria the United States has not been a liberal democracy for most of its history, down to at least the 1960s when the franchise was guaranteed to racial minorities and they began to be elected to political office in significant numbers. It's laughable to say that "the constitution is supreme" in this century, but one may doubt how supreme it was even before the accession of George W. Bush. (Who, remember, was not actually elected to the Presidency in 2000.)

Traub's summary of American democracy promotion is just this selective throughout. To point out all his careful omissions of inconvenient fact would take a lot more space than I feel like devoting to it now, so let's jump ahead to the Bush years. Traub is critical of Dubya, as the title of the book implies, but he's so habituated to whitewashing US history that he can't stop doing it. Here's Traub's take on the aftermath of the September 11 attacks:
Some of the left … argued that the problem lay in American policies toward the Middle East. But whatever truth this claim may have had, Americans were in no mood to hear it. A more popular, and maybe more plausible, suggestion was that the problem lay inside Arab states. V. S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize-winning author, said that the angry young men of the Arab street really wanted an American green card; furious at the reactionary and paralytic states in which they lived, they lashed out at the world of prosperity and freedom that they desperately envied but could not enjoy. Conservatives agreed, of course, but this was no mere ideological hobbyhorse. In a cover story in the October 15, 2001, issue of Newsweek bluntly titled "Why Do They Hate Us?" Fareed Zakaria located the answer in "the sense of humiliation, decline and despair that sweeps the Arab world." … The U.S. must also "help Islam enter the modern world" [104].
Leave aside the question of whether the correctness of an argument lies in whether Americans (or anyone else) are in a mood to hear it. Certainly Naipaul's "suggestion" was popular in the U.S.; its flaw is that it doesn't really trump the argument of "the left." "The left", as far as I'm aware, would agree that people around the world would like some of that "prosperity and freedom that they desperately envied but could not enjoy." The question immediately arises: Why can't they enjoy these things? Despite all our naïve and gullible democracy promotion, the US consistently supports the most corrupt, reactionary regimes in the Arab world. ($2 billion a year to Mubarak's Egypt, for example.) We have also employed Islamic fundamentalists to further our aims, which, as is well known by now, led to the rise of Al-Qaeda and to the September 11 attacks as well as much more terrorist violence around the globe which doesn't count unless it hurts some Americans along with the brown people. (This was true, for example, of the Mumbai attacks in November. I happened to pass a TV set at the student union which was showing a CNN reporter on the scene, coiffed and made-up as if she were standing on the streets of Manhattan. An explosion went off behind her, and she ducked and cringed, as well she might. But would you see a similar reporter's-eye view of US bombing in, say, Iraq? Of course not; it would make America look bad. The point of showing this clip was to demonstrate the viciousness of the Mumbai terrorists, so disdainful of human life that they mussed a CNN reporter's hair. And got debris in it. Animals.)

Traub isn't totally unaware of this, I think. The best part of The Freedom Agenda are the chapters in which he talks to people in Egypt and Mali. His condescension to the Malians ("It wasn't very much, but it seemed to matter to them" [204]) is annoying, to put it gently, but the presence in the book of ordinary people who are struggling to get some real democracy in their lives is a breath of fresh air after so much of Traub's posturing. For his coverage of the 2005 Egyptian elections Traub even talks to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, though he deplores their unwillingness to accept "Israel's right to exist as a matter of principle" or to oppose "terrorist attacks against it" [182]. Still, as Mubarak reestablishes his stranglehold on even the most rudimentary political organizing, Traub can only shake his head in world-weary dismay. It's very convenient -- the US supports ($2 billion a year!) the suppression of political institutions that might foster democracy, and then if the oppressive regime is finally overthrown, people like Traub can claim that the people aren't ready for democracy because they have no democratic political institutions.

But back to Bush and his "passionate call for democracy" (162) -- unless elections are won by people the US doesn't like, as with Hamas' victory in 2006. No one could have predicted that democracy would lead to the wrong people winning an election! Condoleezza Rice "later admitted to an interviewer that she was so shocked by the news [of Hamas’ victory] that she climbed off her elliptical trainer to call her aides. Told that Hamas had in fact outpolled Fatah, she said to herself, 'Oh my goodness, Hamas won?' This was scarcely what she had imagined in 2002 when she took on both Colin Powell and Dick Cheney to argue for democracy promotion in the Palestinian Territories" [135f]. Granted that Rice was a member of an administration that took great pains to ensure that the Right People won elections in the United States, her surprise may make sense, but still -- someone this stupid was a Professor of Political Science at Stanford? Traub seems to share her surprise, though:
As Dennis Ross says, "[Rice] does have a kind of view that elections are a built-in self-correcting mechanism. You may bring in people you don’t like, but accountability will bring changes over time." That certainly wasn’t true here: the White House was not about to do business with an organization that openly avowed terrorism. The Bush administration, along with its European allies, took the position that it would not recognize the new government unless Hamas renounced the use of violence – which of course it would not do.
Um -- has the US, or Israel, ever renounced the use of violence? Once again Traub shows his tin ear for irony.

The easiest way to deal with such issues, of course, is to ignore inconvenient facts. Traub mentions briefly the famous "purple-dyed index finger [which] was to become, if briefly, the icon of a Middle East liberated from tyranny" [128], but not that Bush never wanted the Iraqi elections and tried to block them; having failed to do so, he simply ignored the results (which would have meant a prompt withdrawal of US forces, for one thing) and installed the government he wanted. That goes a long way toward explaining why, "By the end of 2005, the euphoria of the purple index finger in Iraq had faded to a dim memory. The sovereign Iraqi government barely functioned. Rather than stemming Iraq’s terrifying violence, the election had, if anything, deepened sectarian rivalry by installing the Shias in power" [134]. This was only surprising to American corporate media; those actually paying attention to Iraqi (and American) reality had known better all along.

And so on. Traub garbles everything else he touches -- Haiti, Nicaragua, Chile ("Pinochet was not a crook, like Marcos" [66]; the echo of Nixon eludes him, of course), the breakup of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, you name it -- and always with the same bias: it's not our fault, we did our best, our intentions were good, but we are gullible and blundering and naive and misunderstood. (Oh Lord! please don't let us be misunderstood.) "In each of these countries, of course, we will continue to face hard choices between advancing our strategic and economic interests on the one hand and protesting human rights abuses on the other" (233). We could begin by cutting back on our own support for and perpetration of human rights abuses, but such things do not register on Traub's awareness, which wouldn't matter if he were the only person with such a view of the world. For example:
In a speech delivered in Washington in August 2007, [Obama] observed that United States senators typically see the "desperate faces" of Darfur or Baghdad from the height of a helicopter. He added: "And it makes you stop and wonder: when those faces look up at an American helicopter, do they feel hope or do they feel hate?" [227]
False antithesis. Maybe they feel fear, which would be a totally realistic reaction. But for Obama to admit that would mean accepting that reactions to America might have something to do with what we've done, rather than what others feel about us for no evident reasons. "Hope," meaning they're good, willing to come under the shelter of our helicopters; or "hate," meaning they're bad, blindly irrational.

As Traub puts it: "The issue, in many ways, was the pathology of the Arab world, which expressed itself in unreasoning contempt for the United States, and which was, in turn, compounded by American behavior and policies" (113), which means that the contempt, if that's what it is, isn't unreasoning. He also mentions with dismay that we live in a time "when much of the world is recoiling from what it sees as an American crusade" [230], forgetting that Bush himself called his wars a crusade.) Why do they hate us? What have we done to them? That so many Americans can say such things and ask such questions with a straight face, at most willing only to blame everything on George W. Bush, does not inspire hope in me.

I don't think democracy can be "exported," nor do I think it needs to be "promoted", even if the US had a better record in either department than it does. Exporting it implies that democracy is a product, possibly a high-tech gadget, best made in American factories and shipped at "a high price, but we think the price is worth it" to the downtrodden masses of the world. Nor does democracy need to be promoted: I think history shows that democracy is more like cannabis -- a hardy weed that keeps sprouting up in all kinds of soil despite the best efforts of Those Who Know What's Best For You to eliminate it. Raymond Williams wrote in Keywords (Oxford, 1985, p. 94) that "democracy, in the records that we have, was until [the 19th century] a strongly unfavourable term," used in elite discourse as "anarchy" is used today, to imply mob rule and chaos, apocalypse. (You'll learn more from Williams's brief article on democracy in Keywords than from all the authorities Traub quotes so fawningly in The Freedom Agenda.)

I also don't think that anyone knows what sort of conditions are necessary for the growth of democracy. Looking at historical cases as Traub does won't help unless you're willing to look more carefully at the pressures involved, such as the 19th-century American eagerness to sell American products in the vast Asian markets; or take more seriously the racism that underlay the programs even of those who thought the Filipinos (or the Haitians, or the Vietnamese, or the Timorese, or the Iraqis) could be taught democracy, like children, by their betters. To criticize the democracy promoters is not to deny that people of certain other countries are capable of democracy, but to insist that the promoters are not qualified (or even interested) to impose it on them, whether by the carrot or the stick.