Commenter after sage commenter, reminding us that things in Egypt could go wrong, urge caution: how do we know, really, what the "will of the people" here is? What if the demonstrations are staged? Could we be missing part of the picture? Suppose Mubarak resigned and--well, something worse took his place? And so we have the sages warning us to balance ideals with realism; he may be a bad guy, but he's been our bad guy. At least he's not the Muslim Brotherhood. And we certainly wouldn't call him a dictator.
This is politics within the limits of prudence alone. We are reminded, in case we'd forgotten, that there have been some revolutions that sort of turned out badly. Better to wait, in the name of supporting "stability in the region," to see which way the wind is blowing. And then, when the headlines announce the winner, we will declare (with due reference to a carefully-crafted selection of our previous comments) that this is who we were for all along, and offer congratulations to The Egyptian People.
Such a policy is being consciously pursued at this very moment, doubtless spun this way and that by a thousand scrambled cables (which in due time we will read on Wikileaks) pressing for restraint, for respect for human rights, for maneuvering the right (Israel-friendly and "moderate") parties into position. The public face of it is equivocation and what Joe at The Disorder of Things calls
the dark art of evasive support, leaving no doubt that he’s all for Egyptian democracy that doesn’t change too much, too fast, and, most importantly, doesn’t compromise the key strategic interests of the US.This art is shrugged off as realpolitik, a regrettable necessity, and those who object to it are mocked for being Utopians or at the very least naïve.
The studied ambiguity of the Obama administration on Egypt reminds me of nothing so much as the cautious, step-by-step articulation of a position of maximum maneuverability by Tariq Ramadan, whose grandfather Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. Ramadan has been roundly, scurrilously criticized by opponents for sly, weaselly, shifty taking-back-with-one-hand-what-he-gives-with-the-other. His call for a moratorium on stoning (rather than simply declaring the practice an abomination), his "saying different things to different audiences," has been and remains the occasion for the most defamatory spite I have encountered in the intellectual press. (I've written about this before.) Most problematic for Westerners is Ramadan's not-distant-enough relation with his family's legacy, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed in Egypt during most of Mubarak's rule and which is the object of a lot of worried speculation about what might "come next." (In fact, Ramadan recently declared that the scale of Egyptian uprising took the Muslim Brotherhood by surprise.)
I went last Saturday to listen to Ramadan speak at an event hosted by Seattle University. A thronged auditorium filled mainly, but not entirely, by academics. I sat next to a woman who had listened to Ramadan the night before in his address to a local mosque, and I asked her closely about that talk. "If anything," she said, "he was a bit hard on Muslims. He urged us to be at our best in American society. He said, 'I am not so interested in how you can integrate into American society. I am interested in how you can contribute.'"
Since Ramadan is often accused of saying different things to different audiences, I was especially attentive to any difference between this report and what I heard him say. Would he just "play the crowd"?
It would be very easy to say yes, though my neighbor thought his talk was fairly consonant with what she had heard the previous night. Little I heard Ramadan say would have raised an eyebrow in any liberal, educated academic. I was, in fact, somewhat disappointed. He got some applause and some appreciative "Mmmm"s from the audience, but always for saying more or less what the crowd already thought, or would have thought on its own. "Sometimes it is important to question the way in which we ask the questions," he said, meaning that there is not a monolithic entity called "Islam" confronting a monolithic "West." Mmmmm. "Yes, Muslims need to think through their conceptions of women and of gender. But don't we think that the West needs to do this too?" Mmmmm. For a "controversial intellectual," Ramadan gave about the most uncontroversial lecture (in that context) he could have. (About the only exception: he did eventually mention Egypt and said "we must not support dictatorship, anywhere." It was still pretty safe, but it was at least an explicit position. He's said so again, here.)
Ramadan's call for a modernization of Islam is (I believe) sincere and potentially powerful; he is learned and has a wide appreciation of the tradition of the Western philosophical and artistic tradition as well as that of Islam, and bringing these into dialogue is desperately needed. Insofar as this is the case Ramadan may indeed be an "important intellectual;" but this breadth is not depth. Breadth is, among other things, a degree of comfort with ambiguity. Depth is a not being satisfied with comfort. He may in fact not be satisfied, but nothing he said that day led me to feel he was challenging us not to be.
However, this relative lack of depth is not Ramadan's alone; it is ours (mine, that of the Western liberal intellectual). In listening to him, I realized he was articulating the common moral intuitions of modern, conflicted, liberal individualism-- pressing some of those intuitions far enough to be stated in a way that pleased his audience with a kind of clarity, but never really challenging them, never revolutionizing them, nor pressing the contradictions inherent in them to a point at which insight might spark. (I hasten to add: this is an impression based on listening to one lecture, as well as reading a number of Ramadan's writings. Maybe things are different studying with him in person. He was certainly affable enough face to face, and I can well imagine his charisma working well in a seminar.)
It is very striking that most of the snide attacks on Ramadan come from the political quarters which find the Obama administration's waffling over Egypt perfectly understandable. Egypt is a situation in which we have to be careful. The President may be an equivocator, but he's our equivocator. And this is because, in our hearts, we are equivocators. Ramadan's strength, like Obama's, is the strength of contemporary liberalism, and his weaknesses are likewise the weaknesses of liberalism.
I am thinking, as I write this, of one of the most insightful articles I have read about Obama, this one by Esquire's Tom Junod, from a little over a year ago. Junod sees Obama in terms of "positive discipline," a philosophy of child-rearing for Heaven's sake, but exactly the right place to look.
the principles of positive discipline are virtually identical to the principles of community organization, which is what started him in politics — positive discipline is community organization writ small. Indeed, I have heard the principles of positive discipline espoused from the pulpits of leftish churches and also at a support group I attended to learn how to deal with a relative who is mentally ill. They have currency everywhere, especially among the class of educated people who hand out dried fruit for Halloween instead of candy, as the Obamas did. We are in the middle of a profound social experiment in which our assumptions about power are being challenged in the most fundamental way — that is, in our own families. Barack Obama, then, is not the agent of change; he's the fulfillment of a change that is already occurring culture-wide, in every place but politics. That's why the Republicans fear him so much; why, while waiting for him to fail, they just come off as the political party for people who want to hit their kids.This tolerant-to-a-fault culture, to which I belong and which I will champion as the right way to do things, has nonetheless more than a touch of ambiguity to it. We run smack into this troubled conscience when we try to think about "tolerance of intolerance," when someone raises the spectre of those who "cannot be modernized," when we worry about clashes of civilizations or the suicide of reason. But we also meet it in unexpected places, as when we see an essay like Amy Chua's in the WSJ, or Jennifer Senior's in New York magazine, go viral. The web firestorm which made Chua briefly (in)famous over strict parenting (and, if there is justice in the world, will get her publicist many, many more clients), the weird argument/sigh-of-relief over Senior's essay illustrating Daniel Gilbert's passing observation (in Stumbling on Happiness that a number of studies show that parents are less happy than nonparents, and, significantly, less happy than they think they are themselves-- these are little blips on a cultural barometer that ought to tell us that our relationship to the most fundamental aspect of culture--having children--is very conflicted. And if you're wondering what on Earth this has to do with whether or how to support a revolution in Egypt, I want to say it has everything to do with it. Our liberalism and individualism, our espousal of self-realization, of the "ethics of authenticity" in Charles Taylor's phrase, has--we know in our hearts-- its blind spots, and when these are pointed out, we stammer. Sometimes for 5,000 comments at a time. Maybe there's a point to hitting your kids after all? Or am I just mad at them for getting in my way?
I find that something about the Mubarak regime and the U.S.' foot-dragging over it, comes into focus when one asks the question of whether there is a point to hitting your kids. Or at least forcing them to practice the piano for seven hours, or making damn sure they do not watch one. more. second. of T.V. before they finish their homework. How willing are we to sacrifice democracy in the name of Israeli stability, or keeping oil flowing, or getting the Egyptian trains to run on time? Maybe there's a point to Mubarak hitting his people?
Barack Obama is well described by Tom Junod:
He is the first truly modern president, because he is the first president to govern as if there is no evil, only lost opportunities for good. He is the first post-evil president.He's a symptom of our cultural moment, of one trend that has been growing and will continue to grow if larger considerations don't crush it. But the tolerant liberalism he represents has a troubled conscience, and a lack of concepts for this conscience, precisely because the language of conscience involves words like "evil." This is precisely where the breadth of contemporary thinking founders on its own lack of depth.
This is where a thinker like Tariq Ramadan equivocates--he cannot quite come out and say of anything (say, the stoning of women) that it is evil, but simultaneously, his thinking needs this dimension. Moreover--and here Ramadan is superior to many of his critics, and many of his friends as well--he has access to a tradition which gives him this vocabulary; but making a close fit of that vocabulary with the liberal vocabulary is almost completely neglected. It is, in fact, an incredibly difficult challenge; I do not fault Ramadan for having made little headway in it. But I think he understates the challenge, and insofar as he does this consciously, this is an intellectual (and a moral) lapse.
At the risk of getting some Mmmm's of my own, though: this is a fault I share; this is where liberalism in general equivocates. The reason Obama looks so awkward when he tries to do prudence instead of vision is because he lacks--or has rejected--a vocabulary for the limits of liberalism. We don't want to seem unliberal, but we are--if we can admit it--scared. (How we envy, so much we try to emulate it, the sentiment heard repeatedly from interviewed Egyptian demonstrators: "All of a sudden, nobody is afraid anymore." And yet, we're a little afraid of that, too.)
Andrew Bard Schmookler contends that the loss of a viable notion of moral evaluation--of good and evil--is what has crippled the left, while the misuse of this notion has twisted the right. Thus the left is perfectly comfortable with Tariq Ramadan's equivocation (it hardly sees it as such), but is ever-more impatient with Obama's hedging his bets with regards to Mubarak; meanwhile (and, need I add, on a very different scale) it is critics on the right (relatively speaking) who lambaste Ramadan for "doublespeak," but who shake their heads over the naïveté of the left in its calls for an explicit declaration of support for the protesters in Tahrir Square. (Please note, I am talking about general positions here, and don't have particular commentators in mind. In fact, I would love to have counter-examples pointed out.)
The people of Egypt are not America's children. America does not get to tell them to finish their homework before they watch T.V., and it doesn't get to tell them that they cannot have elections unless they promise not to vote in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The head-shaking over Utopian naïveté (no matter how condescending) has a point. Political upheaval is scary and downright dangerous. There is no question that things could "go wrong" in a dozen or more ways. But what is naïve is to think that one could be safely on the right side of history. Breadth, here, is prudence. Depth is courage.