“No more election after today,” the crowd chanted in response.
After a night of deadly clashes at Cairo University that accompanied the takeover, some ultraconservative Islamists gathered there said their experiment in electoral politics — a deviation from God’s law to begin with — had come to a bad end.
“Didn’t we do what they asked,” asked Mahmoud Taha, 40, a merchant. “We don’t believe in democracy to begin with; it’s not part of our ideology. But we accepted it. We followed them, and then this is what they do?” [Source: Todays's NYT, "For Islamists, Dire Lessons on Politics and Power"]
More often than not I'll side with Sirota if he's in a spat with Brooks, but this time I find myself siding with Brooks. Maybe I'm missing something--is there some neocon subtext that Sirota is responding to?--but I see Sirota's position in his Salon piece today as that of a Democratic absolutist, and he is, IMO, doing a silly pc police thing in his takedown of this morning's David Brooks's column. In doing so he's painting himself in a corner in which he is forced to support anti-democratic, political religious fanaticism exemplified in the quote above. Here are the grafs in the Brooks column that Sirota finds offensive:
Right now, as Walter Russell Mead of Bard College put it, there are large populations across the Middle East who feel intense rage and comprehensive dissatisfaction with the status quo but who have no practical idea how to make things better…
It’s not that Egypt doesn’t have a recipe for a democratic transition. It seems to lack even the basic mental ingredients.
Brooks also says the paragraphs that precede the above quote, but that Sirota does not quote:
Those who emphasize substance [as opposed to democratic process], on the other hand, argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood are defined by certain beliefs. They reject pluralism, secular democracy and, to some degree, modernity. When you elect fanatics, they continue, you have not advanced democracy. You have empowered people who are going to wind up subverting democracy. The important thing is to get people like that out of power, even if it takes a coup. The goal is to weaken political Islam, by nearly any means.
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. “Dying for the sake of God is more sublime than anything,”declared one speaker at a pro-Morsi rally in Cairo on Tuesday. . .
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. . . .
Once elected, the Brotherhood subverted judicial review, cracked down on civil society, arrested opposition activists, perverted the constitution-writing process, concentrated power and made democratic deliberations impossible.
What part of this does Sirota disagree with? But here's how Sirota responds:
Yes, that’s right, according to Brooks, a country and culture of 82 million is having a difficult time transitioning to democracy not because it has been repressed for decades, and not because it has few well-established democratic institutions, but instead because the people inherently don’t possess the cognitive (“mental”) capacity for self-governance.
To know this is some hardcore bigotry, just imagine saying the same thing about another demographic subgroup. Imagine, for instance, if Brooks said cities with large minority populations in the United States were facing corruption problems and blight because those minorities “lack even the basic mental ingredients” for better governance. It would be universally — and rightly — denounced as wildly racist by everyone other than white supremacists.
But he's not saying 82 million Egyptians don't have sufficient mental capacity for democratic self-governance, but that the Egyptians who elected Islamists in the Morsi-led Islamic Brotherhood don't. It's not just an Egyptian thing. Majorities often show that they don't have the mental capacity or maturity to govern. I'd say that would be an accurate description of the white Christians in the South who supported and lived comfortably with Jim Crow laws. Doesn't mean that they aren't nice people in many ways, but I'd argue that they don't have the mental capacity or political maturity to elect people who are partisans of sanity and decency. I have Republican friends and family members, whom I love dearly, but who lose all credibility with me for political sanity when they start defending Limbaugh, Bachman or Palin. A grown-up political conversation is simply not possible with people who take these people and what they say seriously.
Here's a thought experiment for Sirota: What if the Christian fundamentalists in Mississippi completely dominated the state Republican Party in the next election cycle, win in a landslide, and ram through the substitution of Biblical Law for its state constitution? Would that be ok just because a majority supported it in a democratic process? Or would it be a sign that most Mississipians lacked the mental capacity to govern in the modern world? Why is it different in Egypt, and why is it wrong to question the mental capacity of any country, state, or party that allows itself to be governed by religious fanatics?
If Brooks and I are mischaracterizing the fundamental agenda of the Islamist political program, make that argument, and I'm convinced, I'll back down. But regardless, the basic argument stands: Democracy is not an end it itself; it is a means to an end, namely to deliver within the framework of a contemporary, pluralistic society a basic level of sanity and decency. If I live in a society in which power resides with an entrenched faction dominated by actors who are not sane and decent, even if they are democratically elected, then democracy has failed. If insanity and indecency have clotted the system with majority approval, then the decent, sane people in the minority cannot be blamed for looking for other than democratic means to fix the problem.
If 'sane' and 'decent' seem too vague, I define them in comments to my post the other day, "Egypt and the Problem of Democratic Legitimacy." I'm happy to discuss further in comments here or there.