Fisking Kristof on Arab Capacity for Democracy

I have watched Nicholas Kristof go from brave denouncer of Darfurian genocide and defender of women the globe over, into a politically correct useful idiot. It’s hard to find a better poster boy for the bizarre way in which intelligent, courageous people can end up spouting drivel as a result of LCE-itis (not). But today’s column is more than I can bear, so here’s a fisking of today’s most valuable idiot of the day (heavy competition).

Unfit for Democracy?
February 26, 2011

Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people — Arabs, Chinese and Africans — are incompatible with democracy. Many around the world fret that “people power” will likely result in Somalia-style chaos, Iraq-style civil war or Iran-style oppression.

That narrative has been nourished by Westerners and, more sadly, by some Arab, Chinese and African leaders. So with much of the Middle East in an uproar today, let’s tackle a politically incorrect question head-on: Are Arabs too politically immature to handle democracy?

This issue is politically incorrect, but – surprise! – the answer will be hopelessly politically correct. So before we go into Kristof’s breathless (and superficial) analysis, let’s briefly review the basic elements necessary for a successful democratic experiment. Imnsho, there are at least four critical issues that are necessary cultural changes that must precede a democratic experiment in order for it to work:

1) the principle of equality before the law: unless there is a strong and independent judiciary, based on a widespread cultural commitment to the idea that everyone is “equal before the law” (i.e., everyone should be subject to the same laws and penalties and have the same protection from abuse of the law).

2) the capacity for self-criticism: it’s one thing to demand freedom of speech for yourself, it’s quite another to grant that freedom to people who say things you don’t like. The ability to allow others freedom of speech, to be willing to admit public criticism, to even admit mistakes and wrongdoing publicly, is a critical dimension of any kind of “transparency” in the exercise of power.

3) the ability to allow women freedom: honor-killings, clitoridectomies, banishing of women from public space, insistence on the veil/burka/niqab, all of these reflect a male-chavinist control mania that is both symptom and factor in the inability to sustain a society committed to freedom.

4) positive-sum instincts: these include such things as an ability to trust others as well as to be trustworthy, to avoid conspiracy theories unless the evidence is very strong, to view another’s success as a good thing, rather than as a loss for oneself.

This concern is the subtext for much anxiety today, from Washington to Riyadh. And there’s no question that there are perils: the overthrow of the shah in Iran, of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, of Tito in Yugoslavia, all led to new oppression and bloodshed.

Congolese celebrated the eviction of their longtime dictator in 1997, but the civil war since has been the most lethal conflict since World War II. If Libya becomes another Congo, if Bahrain becomes an Iranian satellite, if Egypt becomes controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood — well, in those circumstances ordinary citizens might end up pining for former oppressors.

And, of course, all that I’ve outlined above apply to each of these places. But ask Kristof and I’ll bet he thinks the odds are long that these unpleasant outcomes will occur, when my guess is, the odds are highest that they will.

“Before the revolution, we were slaves, and now we are the slaves of former slaves,” Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer, declared after the toppling of the Qing dynasty. Is that the future of the Middle East?

After this brief and superficial acknowledgment of a possible “problem” with thinking that revolution leads directly to democracy, Kristof will now dive headlong into his optimism.

I don’t think so. Moreover, this line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world.

This is the classic trope of LCE political correctness: how dare “we” think badly of “them.” I’ve run into this phenomenon in working on apocalyptic prophecies, which always fail. To claim, for example, that the generation of 1000 thought it was the end of the world, is  “unjust, indeed an outrage to human dignity.” (Plaine, “Les prétendues terreurs de l’an mille,” Revue des questions historiques 13 (1873): 164).

In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted. How can we say that these people are unready for a democracy that they are prepared to die for?

It is hard to top this for not understanding the issues. Being prepared to die, even for what you believe is democracy, has little to do with whether democracy will result. There were lots of secular Iranians ready to die for their revolution till they found out it wasn’t theirs. And there were plenty of Hamas and Fatah suicide bombers ready to die for the destruction of a democracy.

And while I agree with Kristof that we Americans tend to take their democracy for granted and don’t realize how fragile it is, and may not have the courage to sustain our democracy, much of this derives from our failure to understand how hard it is to launch and sustain a real democracy, a failure that Kristof himself illustrates.

If you want to consult with people who a) have a democracy, b) a citizen army of young and middle aged men who give years of their life to that army, c) citizens who understand that at any time they may die for that democracy, and d) people who know the region well… you might consult the Israelis about your euphoria. Or do you prefer to cling to your absurd obsession with Israel as the source of all the Middle East’s misfortunes, like so many of the Arab oppressors you dislike.

We Americans spout bromides about freedom.

Speak for yourself and your hopelessly superficial profession, journalists and pollsters who come back from the Arab world assuring us the vast majority want democracy without having asked whether they’re ready to make the necessary sacrifices for that democracy.

Democracy campaigners in the Middle East have been enduring unimaginable tortures as the price of their struggle — at the hands of dictators who are our allies —

Allies like Qadafi, Asad, Hamas, Hizbullah? Is there any aspect of this issue that Kristof can’t find a reason to shame us with?

yet they persist. In Bahrain, former political prisoners have said that their wives were taken into the jail in front of them. And then the men were told that unless they confessed, their wives would promptly be raped. That, or more conventional tortures, usually elicited temporary confessions, yet for years or decades those activists persisted in struggling for democracy. And we ask if they’re mature enough to handle it?

I cannot imagine how Kristof reasons here. He can cite some brave men and women who are ready to risk everything to get rid of the current regime. But we have no idea what their idea of democracy consists of, nor whether they have any chance of directing the revolution towards “democracy” once it is set in motion. This is not only wild LCE, projected not only on the cases he knows, but on the entire people.

The common thread of this year’s democracy movement from Tunisia to Iran, from Yemen to Libya, has been undaunted courage. I’ll never forget a double-amputee I met in Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak’s thugs were attacking with rocks, clubs and Molotov cocktails. This young man rolled his wheelchair to the frontlines. And we doubt his understanding of what democracy means?

I have no idea, and neither do you, even if you actually talked with him. Did you ask him how he feels about stoning adulteresses, or honor-killings, or apostasy from Islam? Or were you too thrilled by his undaunted courage to spoil the moment?

Where was your brave man when Lara Logan was getting whipped and gang raped and pinched violently in the groin to cries of “JEW! JEW! JEW!” the night of celebration at democracy? And if he wasn’t cheering them on, how many anti-Semitic rapists and their admirers are there for every man of “undaunted courage.” How many more “common threads” are there to these “democracy movements” that we are unaware of, partly because people like Kristof won’t disturb their brave illusions – or ours – with such troubling information.

In Bahrain, I watched a column of men and women march unarmed toward security forces when, a day earlier, the troops had opened fire with live ammunition. Anyone dare say that such people are too immature to handle democracy?

This is no longer even an argument. It’s just rhetoric, and fairly empty at that. (Rhetoric is, after all, supposed to persuade. And repetition, as I tell my students, is a sure sign that you don’t have a lot to say).

Look, there’ll be bumps ahead. It took Americans six years after the Revolutionary War to elect a president, and we almost came apart at the seams again in the 1860s.

Let’s not forget the French, who went from “democracy” to Terror to imperialism back to monarchy, and took over a century to finally reach an enduring republic. Or the Russians, Chinese, Cubans, Cambodians, Iranians, Gazans, and so many others who never got out of the terrors.

When Eastern Europe became democratic after the 1989 revolutions, Poland and the Czech Republic adjusted well, but Romania and Albania endured chaos for years.

Wait a minute. Is this Kristof’s way of characterizing the mass rapes and massacres of Kosovo (and other unnamed parts of the Balkans): “chaos”? Is what happened in Romania somehow parallel to what happened in Kosovo? How would the Copts of Egypt feel if their women were systematically raped and they slaughtered on the “bumpy” way to democracy?

After the 1998 people power revolution in Indonesia, I came across mobs in eastern Java who were beheading people and carrying their heads on pikes.

The record is that after some missteps, countries usually pull through.

Some read the record exactly the other way: most revolutions lead to tyranny, often worse tyranny. And of course, in the Arab world, the record is quite consistent: revolution leads to such wonderful regimes as the Asad family in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – both products of the radical “leftist” Ba’ath party.

Education, wealth, international connections and civil society institutions help. And, on balance, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain are better positioned today for democracy than Mongolia or Indonesia seemed in the 1990s — and Mongolia and Indonesia today are successes.

I think Kristof is far to eager to hand out badges of success. He himself admits that it was decades (at least) before American democracy was secure. But two decades of a very bumpy ride hardly places Mongolia securely in the democratic column. After all, 90 years of “democracy” has not insulated Turkey (which Kristof probably considers a “success” too).

As for Indonesia, by the standards that consider Israel an apartheid state, it’s kind of hard to find even harsher words to describe Indonesian attitudes towards Chinese, Papuans, and non-Muslims. But hey, with a major dollop of affirmative action, their deeds are an improvement over the norm, so why not give them democratic brownie points?

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain visited the Middle East a few days ago (arms dealers in tow), and he forthrightly acknowledged that for too long Britain had backed authoritarian regimes to achieve stability. He acknowledged that his country had bought into the bigoted notion “that Arabs or Muslims can’t do democracy.” And he added: “For me, that’s a prejudice that borders on racism. It’s offensive and wrong, and it’s simply not true.”

So Cameron is part of the politically correct crowd. Does that indicate anything but how high the problem goes? Is this how Kristof proposes to “tackle a politically incorrect issue”?

It’s still a view peddled by Arab dictatorships, particularly Saudi Arabia — and, of course, by China’s leaders and just about any African despot. It’s unfortunate when Westerners are bigoted in this way, but it’s even sadder when leaders in the developing world voice such prejudices about their own people.

Well it’s obvious why they would do so. Does Kristof somehow think that he can shame these leaders into being more “trusting” of their peoples’ capacities for democracy by deploring how “sad” it is?

In the 21st century, there’s no realistic alternative to siding with people power.

Another piece of cognitive egocentrism: the idea that the 21st century is somehow remorselessly on the way to democracy constitutes perhaps one of the most astonishing follies of the “intellectuals” of our age. Not only are the fledgling democracies in danger, so are the older ones… partly because of the kind of thinking Kristof engages in here.

Prof. William Easterly of New York University proposes a standard of reciprocity: “I don’t support autocracy in your society if I don’t want it in my society.”

There are lots of reciprocities needed here: Am “I” (and here by “I” mean a member of an Arab Muslim society) willing to grant to others – to women! – the same freedoms I myself want? Am I willing to grant to non-Muslims what I demand non-Muslims in democracies grant to my fellow Muslims? Am I willing to grant Jews the right to their own sovereignty as I want to exercise sovereignty?

Or is that just too much to ask? So better we think of more “reciprocities” for ourselves and not trouble our admirably courageous, fledgling democrats.

That should be our new starting point. I’m awed by the courage I see, and it’s condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren’t ready for it.

I think it’s condescending to fantasize that these cultures are ready for democracy, and not submit them to the kind of scrutiny that Kristof would readily apply to his own country, or, say, Israel. Is reverse prejudice – not applying basic standards to “minorities” and other subalterns because they couldn’t live up to them – a form of racism?

As for the folly of it all… n’en parlons pas. If we don’t want autocracy in our own societies, we’d better start confronting the radical asymmetries of our relationship to the Muslim world. I don’t think Kristof is quite ready for so serious an endeavor.

UPDATE: Elder has his own (similar) take: Kristof doesn’t get it.

31 Responses to Fisking Kristof on Arab Capacity for Democracy

  1. Cynic says:

    Just a few quick thoughts.
    Kristof is ignorant of the tribal clan culture that rules till today in the Islamic “kindoms” of Arabia. A case in point are these articles:
    In Jordan, King Abdullah II getting earful from tribal leaders

    At the heart of the discontent is Jordan’s growing Palestinian population, which threatens to erode the tribes’ hold on money and power. The king also faces pressure to end corruption and his grip on political power.

    blockquote>Abdullah, who is immune to prosecution and criticism in accordance with the law is being pressured by east banker tribes to trim growing influence of Queen Rania and to give-in state concessions in the form of senior jobs in the civil sector and other privileges, say observers.

    He has no idea of the political machinations of the clans and their interaction with the theocracy to which they are beholden.

    and as this post points out the institutions needed for a democracy are sorely lacking. Maybe it would have been advisable for Kristof to have brushed up on Nathan Sharansky’s “The Case for Democracy” before rushing to get his punditry into print.

    • oao says:

      I don’t think these people have ANY serious knowledge about Arabs/Islam and their ability to reason or think independently and critically is nil. That’s why I can’t bring myself to fisk them.

  2. Observer says:


    Well you might be right, but wouldn’t it be an interesting intellectual experiment to see how these uprisings shake out before declaring ahead of time what will happen?

    Bear in mind, the folks taking the tear gas and bullets are young people in their teens and twenties who have employment as high as 50%, have watched their parents endure as much, and have begun to wonder what the hell it was all about.

    Unlike their parents they were not raised in a complete state-controlled vacuum.

    They are on the internet, play games and network with kids their age across the world, then when comparing their lives realize how badly their parents have passively sold them out.

    We look at Hamas kindergarten videos and think there is no way those young people could ever escape the hate of their elders, but just like teenagers here when they are exposed to more information they break away from the status quo.

    This is not so different than what happened in Europe and the USA during the 1960s. The French riots then are instructive.

    Again, not to be pollyanna but I think you might want to let things play out more before driving yourself into a hard position.

  3. Arye Ben Harav says:

    Thanks for posting this outstanding article. One need only to view the BBC reports from Benghazzi, Lifya ( link below). The BBC reporter is talking about freedom and the brotherhood of the citizenry and the army while the protesters are yelling the battle cry of “Allahu Akbar” in the background. This is not merely excited demonstrators expressing enthusiasm. This is the direction. Muslim Arabs find Western Democracy and values humiliating and they deeply revere, respect and trust the rule of Islam and Sharia Law.

    • oao says:

      Read Bernard Lewis’ interview in the Jpost. The idiotic west talks of freedom past the arabs who talk of justice. The western notion of freedom is incomprehensible to arabs except for a very thin layer of westernized arabs who have no status in their countries.

  4. Tex Ritter says:

    Good stuff – and beyond Kristoff, these are the kinds of points that need to be taken to heart, especially when facing those who wonder why you aren’t jumping for joy over the “wave of democracy” washing “peacefully” across the Middle East. The Kristoffs of the world believe that once these autocratic bad guys leave town, there will be some sort of Wizard of Oz color scheme that melts over the streets of Tripoli or Cairo….What they fail to take into account is the corrosive effect these leaders have left behind, lingering in their wake. It is one that can indeed turn slaves into slaves of slaves, and reflects and almost Freudian outpouring of the same abuse the recently-“liberated” masses were treated to. You can’t live under Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi for 30 + years without absorbing at least a little bit of their toxic methods of operation….

    • oao says:

      The arabs have over and over demonstrated to the west that they are not “like us”, yet the west persists in its delusions. As I keep arguing, this indicates to me 2 main things: that the west has stopped relying on knowledge and reason; and that it’s become so scared of islamism (which it cannot bring itself to combat) that it disregards and refuses to interpret correctly any evidence that defies its denial.

      That’s why the western era has practically ended. It’s the fate of all dominant empires. And it’s irreversible.

    • oao says:

      Here’s BTW Barry Rubin:

      It makes me want to paraphrase an ancient Greek saying in this way: Those whom the gods would destroy they first make define their enemies as well-intentioned moderates.

  5. Ben says:

    But for its publication in the NYT, Kristof’s pedantic drivel warrants no serious attention. All he really tells us can be summed up as follows:
    I know a little bit of history. I have been places that were in uphieval. “Freedom” means “Democracy”. “Ready” means “compatible”. A man’s courage signals his understanding of and commitment to Democracy. The Arab world is “mature” enough for democracy because so many in the Arab World are courageous enough to die for freedom. Saying otherwise is insulting (to someone, apparently).
    *For Kristof, it is the courage of Arabs to die that signals the Arab world’s maturity, not, apparently, the hair-trigger readiness of Arabs to riot and kill…over cartoons, books, and the like. (And the fact that such psychotic behavior was at the urging of those who are intimately involved in the present day struggle for freedom is irrelevant.)
    *For Kristof, the struggle for freedom is a path with one destination – democracy – even if the struggle is for freedom from the oppression intended to keep at bay those with the least democratic ideals.
    *For Kristof, “people power” is Hamas and Hizbullah (whose courageous fighters, we are told, want to die as much as the Israelis want to live, and have already participated in “democracy”) against whom there is no “realistic alternative” to side.

    • oao says:

      Kristof writes what his audience wants to hear. And NYT’s financial state indicates that those who do not want to hear it left it.

  6. Speedy says:

    I think you are too hard on Kristoff. After all he is merely mimicking NPR, the Washington Post, the LA Times, CNN, Amanpour and the band of glib misinformed cretins that believe they are able to interpret cultures that they do not understand. So wedded are they to the notion that ‘we all want the same things’ that they ignore the misogyny, antisemitism, hostility to western values, reilgious sensibilities, and conspiracy theories that lie at the core Arab apologetics. Their uncritical assumptions unfortunately infect US government spokespeople who often sound like they write for the New York Times.

    • Ben says:

      I think you are spot on. Which is precisely why we cannot be too hard on Kristof or any other huckster whose snake oil nourishes the Obama administration’s dangerously uninformed world view.

      • Cynic says:

        One has to come down hard on these imbeciles because some will be mislead by the tripe and follow the pundits over the edge. Assuming of course that it is not ideology and agenda making them follow the leader and that they are open to factual discourse.

        • Ben says:

          I quite agree. By “cannot be too hard” I did not mean “should not be too hard.” I meant that no amount of “hardness” is too much for the likes of Kristof. I also think hard punches are in order even if the writing is ideology or agenda based.

          • Richard Landes says:

            Speedy is correct in his ironic contempt (almost worthy of oao). The sad thing is that it’s not just LCE amateurs like Kristof who get the ME wrong, it’s also our “trained” post-colonial academics.

    • Cynic says:

      Could it be that the likes of Kristof are so wedded to their group that they cannot imagine foregoing the “Journolist” opinion and think out something for themselves?
      Are they so beholden to the group? Fear of being declared an apostate?

  7. Sérgio says:

    Great fisking of yet another moron. Frankly, it´s just amazing how western educational system is producing droves of people like this guy, that don´t even have a clue of how stupid he is; or those eternal self-loathing mendacious type, that have a perverse pleasure to spread lies and are eager waiting that their own moral misery reaches the rest of his society.

    It´s astonishing how the Western society still functions with this amount of dysfunctional chattering-class. Maybe because there´s inertia, some robustness and a lot of automatization so that very few smart people are really needed to maintain it.

    Who knows?

  8. Ronn says:

    Very interesting post! If Arab nations had a goal of economic freedom, all the democratic prerequisites you mention would be fulfilled in every respect.

    They would require:
    1) As fair a judicial system as possible to adjudicate problems arising between various parties. 2) The maximum economic output possible, with the entire employable workforce. 3) The principle of voluntary transactions between buyers and sellers. This is directly correlated with your ‘positive sum instincts’ article. 4) The personal freedoms of speech, criticism, and association. Without these, there is no check to Government force which is easily corruptible, such as taxation. (i.e. power corrupts. absolute power…)

    Warm Regards,

  9. Cynic says:

    Pity Kristof doesn’t read Thomas Sowell for better understanding of a problem, portrayed lucidly and in plain English to which he could then attempt to argue against. Maybe a bit too succinct for the NYT readers?
    Is Democracy Viable?

    But it has happened too often for us to blithely assume that overthrowing a dictator means a movement toward freedom and democracy.

    The fact that Egyptians or others in the Middle East and elsewhere want freedom does not mean that they are ready for freedom. Everyone wants freedom for himself. Even the Nazis wanted to be free to be Nazis. They just didn’t want anybody else to be free.
    It is easy to export the outward symbols of democracy– constitutions, elections, parliaments and the like– but you cannot export the centuries of experience and development that made those institutions work.
    Bare literacy is just one of the things needed to make democracy viable. Without a sense of responsible citizenship, voters can elect leaders who are not merely incompetent or corrupt, but even leaders with contempt for the Constitutional limitations on government power that preserve the people’s freedom.

    We already have such a leader in the White House– and a succession of such leaders may demonstrate that the viability of freedom and democracy can by no means be taken for granted here.

    Sowell doesn’t use the term COGNITIVE EGOCENTRISM (too strong for Kristof’s ability?) but his article implies it.

  10. Eliyahu says:

    Here’s a good article showing the same sort of mentalite as Kristof displays for us in all his stupidity. Here Anthony Giddens, former head of the LSE is shown up a Qaddafi groupie. Qaddafi is sincerely in favor of social progress or whatever, Giddens exults. The only problem is that the author of this article is one Todd Gitlin, another academic idiot. But read about Giddens for a warm feeling.

  11. Cynic says:

    Here’s another piece worth reading and maybe something Kristof should come to grips with
    The Lawless Middle East

    For all the flags being waved in the air, the Arab nations have tribal identities, not national identities. There is no such thing as Egyptian or Tunisian exceptionalism. And no national principles of law and government. The Arab world has plenty of legal traditions, but they are not married to any institutions. The nations of the Arab world are orphans of colonialism. Fictional entities trumped up to fill a void. Arabs will passionately champion them the way they do soccer teams, but it is a collective identification with a thing that has no identity. There are peculiar national jokes and antipathy toward citizens of Arab nations, but this is only tribal identity. And tribal governments are personal, not lawful.

    In a government of men, day to day decisions may be made by following the rules, which provides a veneer of lawfulness, but any larger conflict is resolved through personal allegiance.

  12. Ben says:

    In today’s Wash Post, Richard Cohen discusses Arab anti-Semitism, something completely ignored by Kristof and most other columnists in current discourse about that part of the world. (Alas, having called attention to Arab anti-Semitism, Cohen in an abrupt digression as gratuitous as it is demented states that “Israel’s critics have a case” and that by “settling” with the Palestinians” now – by allowing for the creation of a Palestinian state and lifting all those “onerous restrictions on Palestinian movement” – Israel might improve its “deteriorating moral standing” in Europe, an issue unto itself.)

  13. oao says:

    Taranto on Kristof:

    Two Columnists in One!

    * “Paradoxically, a more democratic Iraq may also be a more repressive one; it may well be that a majority of Iraqis favor more curbs on professional women and on religious minorities. . . . Women did relatively well under Saddam Hussein. . . . Iraq won’t follow the theocratic model of Iran, but it could end up as Iran Lite: an Islamic state, but ruled by politicians rather than ayatollahs. I get the sense that’s the system many Iraqis seek. . . . We may just have to get used to the idea that we have been midwives to growing Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq.”–Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, June 24, 2003
    * “Is the Arab world unready for freedom? A crude stereotype lingers that some people–Arabs, Chinese and Africans–are incompatible with democracy. . . . This line of thinking seems to me insulting to the unfree world. . . . It’s condescending and foolish to suggest that people dying for democracy aren’t ready for it.”–Kristof, Times, Feb. 27, 2011

    • Cynic says:

      Taranto wrote :

      It’s hard to see how Israel would be better off today if it had entrusted its security to the Arab dictators whose own people have suddenly made them an endangered species.

      A pity he didn’t have the quotes of some of the Egyptian “masses” saying the the “peace treaty” between Egypt and Israel was not that of the Egyptian people but of Mubarak.

  14. […] Mind you, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of my generation with their soft-headed unconscious millennialism and their aggressive cognitive egocentrism.  Your job is to refuse the terms of the debate and start thinking clearly about equity and honesty, not about how to appease people with no sense of or desire for reciprocity. […]

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