Sunday, June 26, 2005

Who Do We Have To Be?

A rather long, but thought-provoking piece by Michael Ignatieff that asks, "Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?" An excerpt:

The problem here is that while no one wants imperialism to win, no one in his right mind can want liberty to fail either. If the American project of encouraging freedom fails, there may be no one else available with the resourcefulness and energy, even the self-deception, necessary for the task. Very few countries can achieve and maintain freedom without outside help. Big imperial allies are often necessary to the establishment of liberty. As the Harvard ethicist Arthur Applbaum likes to put it, ''All foundings are forced.'' Just remember how much America itself needed the assistance of France to free itself of the British. Who else is available to sponsor liberty in the Middle East but America? Certainly the Europeans themselves have not done a very distinguished job defending freedom close to home.
During the cold war, while most Western Europeans tacitly accepted the division of their continent, American presidents stood up and called for the walls to come tumbling down. When an anonymous graffiti artist in Berlin sprayed the wall with a message -- ''This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality'' -- it was President Reagan, not a European politician, who seized on those words and declared that the wall ''cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.''
This is why much of the European support for Bush in Iraq came from the people who had grown up behind that wall. It wasn't just the promise of bases and money and strategic partnerships that tipped Poles, Romanians, Czechs and Hungarians into sending troops; it was the memory that when the chips were down, in the dying years of Soviet tyranny, American presidents were there, and Western European politicians looked the other way.
It is true that Western Europe has had a democracy-promotion project of its own since the wall came down: bringing the fledgling regimes of Eastern Europe into the brave new world of the European Union. This very real achievement has now been delayed by the ''no'' votes in France and the Netherlands. Sponsoring the promotion of democracy in the East and preparing an Islamic giant, Turkey, for a later entry is precisely what the referendum votes want to stop. So who will be there to prevent Islamic fundamentalism or military authoritarianism breaking through in Turkey now that the Europeans have told the Turks to remain in the waiting room forever? If democracy within requires patrons without, the only patron left is the United States.

Of course, the answer to that question is, "who do we have to be to think Freedom is ours to spread?" If we have to be absolutely perfect, as Ignatieff sort of suggests in this paragraph:

It's impossible to untangle the contradictions of American freedom without thinking about Jefferson and the spiritual abyss that separates his pronouncement that ''all men are created equal'' from the reality of the human beings he owned, slept with and never imagined as fellow citizens. American freedom aspires to be universal, but it has always been exceptional because America is the only modern democratic experiment that began in slavery. From the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it took a century for the promise of American freedom to even begin to be kept.

...then no person or country in human history has the perogative to promote Liberty, simply because no person or country in human history has ever been perfect.

But the Jeffersonian ideal has never been a utopian ideal. Far from it, in fact. Freedom is messy. Freedom is irritating. People who are free make mistakes all the time. Freedom encourages individualism. Individuals are not perfect. Individuals make mistakes. In other words, the very concept of Freedom has a virtual built-in non-perfection clause.

By promoting Liberty, America is encouraging that which is the best within each individual human being on this planet. Just because people are free does not mean that they somehow, magically have become "perfect"-- and have escapes that "spiritual abyss" which often lies between their desires and their behaviors. Unlike totalitarian ideologies which want to reshape humans into a preconceived "perfect" state, Freedom actually celebrates our humanity and our free will.

No, Liberty is our birthright, whether we are perfect or not.

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