Monday, December 27, 2004

Liberty and Democracy in the Middle East

In the first municipal elections in Palestine since 1976, the militant Hamas party scored gains against the more moderate (in a purely relative sense) Fatah movement. According to a report in The Age, "figures released by the Palestinian Authority's Supreme Council for Local Elections showed Hamas scored victories in nine councils against 16 for Fatah, with the two factions tied for control of one municipality." These results constitute a strong pro-militant message from the Palestinian people to their likely new leader, Abu Mazen (the nome de guerre (war name) of Mahmoud Abbas).

It is also a reminder to the us in the United States and the West that democracy is not sufficient in and of itself to secure peace and justice. As highlighted by political writers such as Bertrand de Jouvenal, democracy can become a legitimizing principle for the worst kinds of tyranny and injustice -- that is, majoritarian tyranny. When a lonely dictator consolidates power and tyrannizes his subjects, his legitimacy is automatically suspect and it is easy to rightly denounce his actions and rule. However, when a democratically elected majority gives its consent to the same kinds of tyranny and evil, it is much more difficult to denounce those actions because they are clothed with the will of the people. It is especially difficult for us, who live in a country that champions the will of the people, to denounce anything that is selected by a democratic process. In this way, democracy can become one of the most dangerous tools of evil.

Our founders understood this principle full well. Madison in the Federalist papers wrote much of the danger of majoritarian tyranny. His call for an expanded democratic polity such that the multiplicity of interests rendered impotent parochial factionalism was a call to guard against the very evil we see now in Palestine -- faction taking control of the state through democratic processes and fousting evils on its minority members and its neighbors by democratic consent. In a small democracy, or in a relatively homogenous larger democracy, if the majority believes in something objectively evil (like the legitimacy of suicide bombing as a tactic to achieve political ends, for instance) is justified, there is a greater possibility that the democracy will end up endorsing and strengthening that evil.

So it is clear that democracy will not be sufficient to bring peace to the Middle East. Liberals would use such a principle to argue that we ought not be fighting proactively in the Middle East at all. But this is not correct -- we are not fighting there simply for the promotion of democracy, but for a particular kind of democracy. We are fighting for freedom and liberty first and constitutional democracy second as a way to secure the former. Liberals often conflate the concept of liberty with that of democracy. But they are not at all the same -- liberty is a principle that respects man's personal autonomy and individual, inherent value. Democracy also relates to autonomy, but it is not centered on the individual. Rather, it rests on a judgment that government which takes into account individual judgments on matters of political and social importance will lead to more just outcomes. But in order for this judgment to be correct, the democracy must be limited and the shared values of the people must already conform to the Good and to justice. Otherwise, as in Palestine, they will simply use democracy to select evil.

So as we fight for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are also fighting for the ascendancy of the principles of personal autonomy, liberty, and, perhaps most importantly, the principle of religious freedom and toleration. These are values which will be (and must be) enshrined in the Iraqi and Afghan constitutions for our greater goal, establishing a freedom not unlike that we enjoy in the United States in the Middle East, to occur. These values limit democracy, they narrow the range of acceptable options the people may select through majoritarian processes. Some groups disagree with these fundamental principles of autonomy and religious tolerance. To the extent people disagree, those people are insurgents -- they are against the new Iraqi and Afghan order of liberty, peace and tolerance, a new order that will empower a very oppressed people and allow them the happiness and prosperity so long and so unjustly withheld.

Friday, December 17, 2004

China's Authoritarian Push for Hegemony

Chinese President Hu Jintao, former Vice President and before that extremely repressive Governor of the province of Tibet, seems to want Chinese regional, and perhaps eventually world, hegemony, and he seems to believe that such hegemony cannot be achieved without authoritarian, despotic government at home.

China recently arrested three political dissidents on trumped-up charges. Under China's code of criminal procedure, suspects of criminal activity can be detained indefinitely while the procuratorate 'investigates' charges (in China, the procuratorate and its organs, the body that investigates and prosecutes crimes, has power constitutionally equal to that of the Chinese courts. The highest organ of the procuratorate is equal to the Chinese Supreme Court). If a prisoner is designated political, as is the case here because there are charges of leaking state secrets, the judgments of the Chinese courts are given yet less deference and the Chinese Communist Party can intervene directly -- China's constitution is shadowed by the constitution of the CCP, which will always take precedence where a matter is 'political' (in the sense that it threatens Communist rule).

The arrests of these three intellectuals are part of a broader trend, signaling that President Hu intends to reign in the free speech and dissent that had been until recently beginning to flourish on college campuses and in internet cafes. Fearing political debate brewing in internet cafes, the Chinese government permanently closed 1,600 such cafes between February and November of this year. 18,000 more internet cafes have been temporarily closed for 'rectification.' Dissent is being stamped out in the country's state-run newspapers as well. In November, China banned all reporting on 'outspoken academics,' including all scholars who takes a public position on a political or social issue. Thus, today in China, Chinese citizens receive no news of political dissent or alternative ideas about the direction of Chinese policy, they are fed a steady stream of ideological propaganda through the state-run news and coordinated by the 'Publicity Department,' they cannot utilize the internet to discuss matters of public significance or gain news from foreign sources, and if they dare take public positions contrary to the government, they will be arrested and 'administratively detained.'

At the same time, China is increasing spending on its military and its space program. China is on the verge of fielding a new class of nuclear ballistic missile submarines carrying nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States from very long distances. The increased range makes it more difficult for our attack subs to prevent a sea-based nuclear strike as the Chinese need not venture too close to the United States in order to carry out an attack. And China is changing its tactics as well, pushing the envelope militarily vis-a-vis Japan and the U.S. Just last month, a Chinese Han-class nuclear-powered submarine penetrated Japanese seas and circled Guam as well.

Having lived in Beijing for a period of about six months, I can report that military and space program spending is a vital part of the Chinese propaganda machine. Newspapers read by subway-riders always tout the latest tanks, missiles, ships, and subs being fielded or tested by the Chinese military. Comparisons are made between these new technologies and U.S. military technologies in bold, threatening (at least in the eyes of an American reading over a Chinese reader's shoulder) headlines. These headlines inspire nationalistic pride in the Chinese populace and help them to forget their lack of certain basic liberties like speech and worship. It is even easier to make them forget when the government 'allows' the people to participate in greater economic freedoms that yield greater material wealth and comfort.

This is Hu Jintao and the CCP's new strategy for Chinese hegemony, and insofar as it has been successful up to now, it proves that economic liberties do not necessarily breed political liberties: Stamp out all dissent, deprive the people of forums where dissent can form, and feed the people a steady diet of propaganda, chiefly featuring military successes and expenditures. Having established firm ideological control, continue to encourage the free market and economic growth to increase the peoples' material comforts, tout the marked improvements in Chinese standards of living to win popular support for the regime, and all the while use that economic power to drive military production to achieve eventual parity with the United States. Eventually, the Chinese will test their strength by acting in some fashion with regard to Taiwan, and a new age of war might begin.

This seems to be the direction in which China is moving, and if successful, the China threat may prove more menacing to than the current threat of global terrorism. Luckily, the Bush administration is not blind to the China situation. President Bush's hard push for an anti-ballistic missile shield is a way to neturalize the Chinese nuclear threat, and the modernization of our military to fight the current war on terror will become an asset when and if we find ourselves in conflict with China. But we can do more to head off the conflict. We should be giving dissidents in China support, we should not blindly aid China's economic development. We must give more than moral support to Taiwan, for Taiwan is a vision for an alternative, democratic China.

A conflict with China would be an ideological one, pitting our conceptions of liberty against the Chinese conception of using citizens for the purposes of the state and its power. Taiwan is the proof that our vision can work within the context of Chinese culture and its historical traditions, and we would do well to be more friendly to that regime. We must counter the enemies of freedom and our shared values wherever we find them, be those enemies Islamist terrorists or Chinese communist totalitarians. History proves the adage again and again: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Christmas in New Ulm

Christmas -- A Child's birth, the greatest mystery and paradox of all time -- that the infinite complexity of the Divine could become the infinite simplicity of a child. Christmas -- that eternal reminder of our own humility in light of God's grace. We remember at Christman that no matter how complex we might believe our lives to be, if our omnipotent God can take on the simplicity of an infant, so can, and so should, we.

The call to simplicity, the call to the child-like ideal of Christmas, is anathema to much of modern society -- a society that exalts in the superficial and the material, that revels in its complexity and flouts all that which is cosmpolitan. But the real meaning of being is so complex that it is simple, and so simple that it is complex. And it cannot be comprehended by intellect alone. To comprehend paradox, by defitinion, requires faith.

That's why my visit to New Ulm, Minnesota, this past weekend was so refreshing. Strolling down the main street (Minnesota Street) of this town of about 13,000, I noticed the Christmas garlands strung overhead, garlands that included religious symbols -- not just Santa Claus and Reindeer. The town's Glockenspiel, a free-standing bell carrillon, played Christmas songs at noon as it opened a door to reveal a manger scene. Moved by this, I thought, "here is a city where people understand Christmas. Here is a city where the people know how religion can be celebrated, how it can coexist with the state." I think random thoughts like this all the time, but this one really had an impact. Hermann the German, the colloquial name for Arminius, the teutonic leader of the Cherusci tribe who in 9 A.D. drove back three Roman legions, stands more than 100 feet tall, perched on the river bluff overlooking the city. This is also a town that has a sense of its heritage and understands the meaning and value of history, I thought.

It was not presumptuous, not oppressive, not in-your-face; there was no commercialism, no pretense. There was just Christmas. In New Ulm, there was just the message about our call to have the simple faith of the child, to be simple, and to trust in the divine for our salvation -- to not be arrogant, to not mistake the cosmpolitan for the wise.

I thought of an experience in my travels abroad. In China, I met a very elderly man who likely had never left his province, and could only speak the native dialect of Su Zhou, a tongue I could make out only vaguely given my training in Mandarin. The man was a master of Chinese calligraphy, of "shu fa", and after we struggled through conversation for a while, he said he wanted to prepare me a gift. The gift was a scroll he handwrote, the message was aesthetically and intellectually beautiful: "Shu Ye Yan Jin Se" -- "The leaves of the tree from ancient times to modern are the same color." It struck me -- it did not matter that this man had never left China, that he was old, that he knew not of modern ways, his wisdom was wisdom just the same. Just as the leaves of the trees are the same colors throughout time and throughout the world, so too is the nature of wisdom. Worldly experience might make one saavy, but it won't make one wise. Wisdom is too simple and complex. The simple man of rural China could recognize wisdom better than the most cosmpolitan New York lawyer.

And that is the spirit I saw in New Ulm. It was not just the decorations. It was the people. Everywhere I went, the people smiled, were glad to see me, were genuinely glad I was visiting them and their town. From waitresses to tour guides to the wine expert at the local winery, they seemed to grasp innately what many who style themselves more cosmpolitan struggle to understand -- that life's childlike simplicity is its childlike beauty. They are more unknowingly (or knowingly for many, I would guess) complex in their outlook than most who claim to seek enlightenment. In larger cities, in Minneapolis for instance, I see glimpses of these "Christmas"-like attitudes, but they are fewer and farther between. The ACLU and other well-meaning groups divorce religion from the state, drive a wedge between the transcendent and the earthly, exalting the secular at the expense of the transcendent. Overly political churches lose the forest for the trees. Simplicity is demeaned as stupid -- as infantile. But then, we remember, Christ was an infant, and the most complex was the simple. We women and men should rejoice in being simple to the point of being 'useless' -- our highest virtue as humans is not our utility to any particular task, but our existence at the pleasure of God (see my earlier post on the value of uselessness and the nature of love here.

We who live in larger cities would do well to visit our more enlightened friends in cities like New Ulm, to get a dose of their realism, their much closer, actual claim to the meaning of life. I do not want to imply that there is division, city v. rural, us v. them, but I do want to emphasize that people who see the values and virtues of cities like New Ulm perhaps have a better grasp of what really matters than others.

So as the Holidays approach, remember the value of the simplicity of the child, the complexity of simplicity represented by God becoming an infant, and the value of humanity's uselessness. And be thankful for good places like New Ulm.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Religion in a 'Secular' State

We hear quite a bit these days about America as a 'secular' state. The ACLU and other groups committed to divorcing government from religion want to remove 'God' from our pledge, remove it from our coins, and Sandra Day O'Connor has written of 'not real religion' but 'cermonial religion' -- the religious-seeming ceremonial phrases that we don't 'really mean.' A friend of mine recently remarked that, if it is true that Bush won on the basis of evangelical Christians' support, then we are no better than Iran because religious fanatacism is driving the government here just as it is there.

Statements like these bely the infantile simplicity of the liberal's conception of the intersection of religion and politics: Either we are secular, tolerant, and free, or the government is oppressive and theocratic. But in America, religious freedom means exactly what its name implies: that we are free to exercise whatever religion we care to, and that the federal government will not establish any particular religion as the official true path to enlightenment or heaven or whereever you think religion leads us. It does not mean that religion and government are to be completely separated -- that is not possible, and attempts to effect such a state of existence have always led to horrible consequences.

One cannot divorce a government of laws from laws, one cannot divorce laws from morality, and one cannot divorce morality from religion. Thus, one cannot divorce a government of laws from religion, and attempting to do so debases that government, loosens it from its moorings and causes it to drift in a very dangerous manner. The first premise of the syllogism is self-evidenjt. The second is not. But it is true. Laws and morality both deal with 'oughts' in different ways. The laws of a society, from a speed limit to a health regulation to the criminal code, shape society in a particular way and proscribe certain conduct with the end of reaching what is the minimum acceptable situation in terms of the community's judgments about what ought to be. Those judgments about what ought to be stem from morality, either that of the King, the dictator, or the demos. We in America choose democracy principally because we believe it leads to the best moral outcomes. Put another way, we believe that the collective knowledge of the 'best' of us, our elected representatives, will be able to best approximate what actually should be in their judgments about what the law will be. The same theory holds for a properly philosophic King -- he guides the nation on a course to what he think is the most just and right situation. From the speed limit, with its consideration of the importance of saving human lives, to the prohibition against rape, with its concern for the sanctity and autonomy of each and every human person, every law concerns morality. If we forget why we have rape laws and speed limits, or if we contend that we only have them because the polis desires them, and not because thsoe laws reflect some higher value, they lose power and can be changed as soon as our opinions, or those of those in power, change.

Morality, then, cannot be divorced from religion. Without some metaphysical conception of our being and existence, and howe we came to be, we cannot say that our values and 'oughts' are set in stone -- we must allow for differentiation. And even if a different morality shocks our personal conscience, without some idea of our creation and purpose, we cannot say that that different morality is any less valid than our own. But if we have a conception of creation and divine purpose, those traits and aspirations humans are endowed with take on new meaning because they become part of a grander plan, part of a higher law. Only with some higher law, wheter it be written on our hearts at the moment of creation, or written on all creation in its patterns of development and flourishing, can we say that one thing is wrong and another is right, can we justify our laws at their very base. I am no supporter of the idea of Hugo Grotius, that natural law can be divorced from its creator or the notion of a God -- without those metaphysical underpinnings, upon what would such a law depend and who would its violation transgress? A law is no law if the violation of that law offends no one or no thing. Thus there must be a natural, divine law if our moral laws and values are laws at all.

So, taking the syllogism as a whole, government, without religion, is a loose, dangerous thing. If our only principle is democracy divorced from religion, than democracy is more dangerous than divine-right monarchy because whatever evil the demos endorses is no longer evil and has all the moral force it needs. That is a frightening thought, and one secular liberals would do well to contemplate a bit more deeply.