David Brooks' Liberal List

Tel Aviv, Summer 2011
David Brooks has a point, but isn't he forgetting something?

If you are a political theorist, or a political columnist with a head on your shoulders, events in Egypt are a kind of pedagogic gift. How better to explain the distinction between democratic process, culminating in free elections, majority rule, and the peaceful transfer of power, and, democratic values--more precisely, the classically liberal values usually associated with Western democracy--the separation of religion and state, civil protections for conscience, freedom of the press, the freedom of enterprise, an independent judiciary, etc.? Yesterday's killings of Morsi demonstrators suggest how the distinction can become a fatal contradiction.

Brooks is eager to explain, not without evidence, that repression of this kind has been the other way around. Especially in the Middle East, real liberals, the people advocating for what he calls democratic "substance," have suffered from the people claiming to be the victors of mere democratic "process." In Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza, "and elsewhere" (I suppose Brooks means Iraq), we have seen the election of populist, religio-nationalist movements, whose leaders, often demagogues, claim to be overturning the corruptions of an entrenched elite; and once elected--Brooks doesn't quite say, but implies well enough--these leaders have have turned around and stifled secular conceptions of citizenship.

Thus, they've used state power to extend their precious ideas of holiness, sought control of public media, and threatened academic freedom in universities. They've privileged religious law and inserted judges and courts to interfere even with such civil rights as marriage. They've turned from normalizing the state apparatus to defend all, and pursued an agenda aggressive and inflammatory toward minorities, thus regional neighbors, that put liberals into a kind of internal exile. They've infiltrated the officer corps of the armed forces. They reject "modernity." Brooks writes:

World events of the past few months have vindicated those who take the substance side of the argument. It has become clear — in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza and elsewhere — that radical Islamists are incapable of running a modern government. Many have absolutist, apocalyptic mind-sets. They have a strange fascination with a culture of death...  Islamists might be determined enough to run effective opposition movements and committed enough to provide street-level social services. But they lack the mental equipment to govern. Once in office, they are always going to centralize power and undermine the democracy that elevated them.

And so: Middle Eastern societies where democracies are half-completed; countries that have experienced the debasement of democratic values by a majority in the thrall of an absolutist, apocalyptic, death-shadowed "mindset"--a majority of undereducated urban poor, swayed by economic resentments, and corrupted liberal "substance." Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Gaza, Iraq. Oh, and isn't there one more for the list?

What makes Brooks' column so infuriating is the smug presumption that Israel is the embattled model while there is some kind of Islamic failing (some lack of "mental equipment") that makes Egypt and all Arab states peculiarly susceptible to fanatic majoritarian tyrannies. He has made an important point about developing countries and the uses of democratic process, which is not discredited because Egyptian generals have debased it, or more likely, simply proved unable to appoint junior officers who don't get spooked by hostile crowds. But if Brooks lived in West Jerusalem, instead of in the "higher Jerusalem" of his Talmud class, I suspect he'd also be day-dreaming about a coup against Israel's Likud organized, say, by the leaders of the hundreds of thousands mainly liberal citizens who marched down Rothschild Blvd. two summers ago. Anyway, I do.

Look, I do not presume to know what Egypt needs. I assume, perhaps misguidedly, a hypothetical country of over 80 million people, whose only natural advantages are a shipping canal and tourism, a little gas, generation after generation of college graduates lacking entrepreneurial experience, and an army that owns 20% of the economy in various ways. I look at Asia, and assume that a country of this kind needs direct foreign investment--that is, foreign intellectual capital--more than anything else; that it would almost certainly see the army deeply involved, protecting its own stake, and aiming for stability above all. Whether or not this country was a democracy in the sense of majority parliamentary rule would seem a rather marginal question as compared to whether it is an open-enough society for serious economic development in a global system.

At the same time, I do presume to know what Israel needs; the last thing is influential foreign voices feeding the hubris of its demagogues. Really, if I believed there was an elite group that could, through the magic of martial law, do what Israeli liberals know we need: end the settlements, curtail the fetishization of Jerusalem, abolish the official Rabbinate, abolish all laws defining "who is a Jew," privatize public lands, end the semi-official role of old Zionist institutions like the JNF, transform the Law of Return into a proper immigration law (one entailing naturalization), institute civil marriage, create a single secular secondary school system for Jews and Arabs alike, end grants to religious parties, end draft exemptions for ultra-orthodox, end the politicization of public TV and radio, reduce defense spending and expand education--in short, turn democratic "substance" against democratic "process," I can't say I would oppose it. I would settle for Israel adopting whatever constitution Mohamed El-Baradei settles for.

Alas, however, I don't believe in magic. So it would be reassuring to know that, in its absence, people as smart and internationally well-positioned as Brooks would write what would help us change things in Israel over time--yes, through mere democratic process--instead of implicitly cheer-leading our purveyors of cultural superiority: Likudniks and theocrats in their persistent majority who conceive of Muslims as unusually despotic and a "state of its citizens" as something vaguely seditious.

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.