The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Flipping the Democracy Switch 

I really haven't talked specifically about the Danish cartoon controversy... except vaguely in a post of blind rage, and another describing my formula for acceptable offense. Let's not kid ourselves with this particular issue. It's really just the "outrage of the day", where everyone is taking their standard predictable sides.

The same people who were calling for fast food restaurants to change the name of "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries" are now upset that Iran wants to rename Danish pastries to Mohammedan pastries. The same people who were upset that Europe quickly got over the feeling of "We're all Americans now" after 9/11, are now declaring that "We're all Danish". We're not all Danish now... and I have a feeling that our sentimentality will fade just as quickly as Europe's did.

What gets me the most in regards to this whole controversy is the growing idea that this somehow proves that Muslims are incapable of governing themselves democratically. The idea that Muslims have invented the concept of "Freedom for Me, and Not for Thee" is frankly laughable on its very face. For as long as there has been democracy in this country, there have been those who feel that Freedom of Speech should only go so far. Anyone who doesn't believe should go talk to The Dixie Chicks, or the artists who enjoy putting crosses in glasses of urine, or defecating on images of The Virgin Mary. Don't even get me started on campaign advertising limitations, or the lack of free discourse that seems to occur on many college campuses on a regular basis. Muslims didn't invent these things. Anytime you espouse the freedom to do something however you want, there will always be someone who thinks that's a bad idea, and who honestly and wholeheartedly believes their restrictions are reasonable, and for the common good.

But this controversy is definitely more than just restricting the free exchange of ideas. This is about people's reactions to those ideas, and how they're trying to enforce their views. This is about violent riots, death threats, and vile hatred spread with reckless disregard. And that is why some believe that Muslims are incapable of democracy. For while we in America may disagree with each others views, we argue with words, not violent actions (abortion clinic bombings aside). But to simply look at the rioting by Muslims, without looking at the broader context would be short sighted. To highlight this, I'll share one of my favorite engineering jokes with you:

Is the glass half full, or half empty?
The optimist says its half full.
The pessimist says its half empty.
The engineer asks, "Did the glass start completely full, or start completely empty? If the glass started full, and you took out half, then its half empty. If it started empty, and you filled it half way, then its half full."

I think we have to look at the reaction to these cartoons in the same way. Violent rioting in the middle east is the norm, not the exception. Even in Europe where many of these riots are occurring now, the majority of rioters are immigrants coming from oppressive middle eastern countries. Rioting is how you get stuff done there. To think that people in Gaza or the West Bank would have an election, and then instantly give up everything they had known about getting things done previously is beyond absurd. If you don't believe me, then look at our own history.

Not long after the Revolutionary War, there was a significant uprising in Massachusetts over excessive taxation in the newly formed United States known as Shays' Rebellion. While only a handful of people died as a result, the fact is that a group formed a militia of around 2000 men eventually had to be subdued by an army twice that size, because they were upset at taxation, and the state of elections. Can you imagine that happening today in the Wisconsin over an increase in state property taxes? Could you imagine people in Florida taking up arms after the Bush-Gore debacle in 2000? Of course not. But its also not very surprising that the rebellion occurred only 5 years after the defeat of the British army at Yorktown is it? In fact, Daniel Shays was a Captain during the war. At the time, after what had just happened in this country, that response seemed perfectly reasonable to a lot of people.

My point here is not to excuse the actions of those rioting today. It's fairly simple to look at what they're doing, and be disgusted and appalled by their actions. But I think its also wrong to draw the wider conclusion that this is a group of people who can't eventually find democracy. Democracy is hard, especially if you've never really known it. You can't just simply walk into a country and flip a switch, and then expect everyone to joyfully participate in elections, and then abide by the results when they lose, or handle people saying whatever they damn well please. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes patience. The middle east's democracy glass is empty right now. It takes time to fill it.


Excellent post, Nick. You've expressed exactly what I've been feeling about the whole situation.

  Posted at February 08, 2006 11:33 AM by Blogger Be  
Deep thinking.

I've been posting a lot about this from the free-speech angle, but it's nice to see a completely different take.

I have to ask, though, I haven't really seen anyone saying this proves Muslims can't handle democracy. Where have you been seeing that?

  Posted at February 08, 2006 1:24 PM by Anonymous elliot  
I included two links in the post that talk about that very idea. One was from NRO, and one was VodkaPundit who was expounding on that idea more.

  Posted at February 08, 2006 1:26 PM by Blogger Nick  
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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.

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