Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, January 24, 2005

I want to quibble with in this article on “The dangers of exporting democracy.” Hobsbawm attacks “the dangerous belief that its propagation by armies might actually be feasible.” This reminds me of Mark Twain’s response when asked if he believed in baptism: “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it!” Democracy was propagated to Germany, Japan and Italy by armies. That’s historical fact. Hobsbawm has failed to mention that this “dangerous” belief is also true. However, Hobsbawm is always worth reading, and his problematization of the problem of spreading democracy is valid. I have made similar arguments here:

when Woodrow Wilson made national self-determination part of this Fourteen Points for peace, thus establishing it central to a new conception of legitimate sovereignty, he sowed a field of dragon’s teeth for the 20th century. Yet he had little choice. The American creed was democracy. He could not become a partisan of the Hapsburgs. Democracy was “rule by the people,” so there had to be a “people.” And a people is a nation. Nationalism is democracy’s unfortunate prerequisite, its necessary but sometimes vicious companion. Wilsonian national self-determination, in the decades after World War I, dissolved all the world’s empires, first the ancient autocracies of Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Russia (though Russia soon re-emerged in a new form); then, after World War II, the colonial empires; then the Soviet Union. Leaders of these “new nations” had to hammer national consciousness into their people, often through crude propaganda that debased the culture, and at the expense of minorities who came to be seen as “foreign.” Indeed, none of these phases of imperial dissolution took place without large-scale displacement of peoples and genocide in its wake.

And three cheers for Harvard President Larry Summers, whom Will Saletan defends here. (Summers got in trouble for suggested that differences in achievement between men and women in science may have a basis in genetics.) I have no idea whether or not Summers is right. But the reaction of outrage that the possibility was raised­—outrage, not critique—is brilliantly revealing. We should be able to question any conventional wisdom. Harvard cannot carry both the message of freedom of thought and the baggage of political correctness.


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