December 08, 2004

Define Your Terms

Apropos the below post, and especially apropos Ian Buruma's essay on the prospects for Islamic democracy, a few questions. First, what exactly do we mean by "democracy"? Obviously an Athenian-style demokratia differs from a U.S.-style representative republic. Philosophers will find these questions painfully basic, but hair-splitting like this really doesn't come up all that much in politics when we're talking about "spreading democracy" 'round the world. The White House, for instance, didn't seem to give all that much thought to the structure of the Iraqi legislature, and in part that was because Ali Sistani blindsided the CPA, but in part it was because no one seems to have parsed the concept of democracy very well.

This sort of semantic cloud, I think, makes a fetish out of "democracy" and especially "freedom", without asking what these things are actually good for. Are they ends in themselves? In Iraq, obviously not—from our view "freedom", et al, is meant only to create stability and temper radical Islam. That's our yardstick for whether it's working. For a good many Iraqis, though, the success of democracy may depend on whether it furthers or strengthens certain Islamic values. That's quite another yardstick. The dangerous temptation is for a person to split the difference and use "freedom" or "legitimacy" itself as a yardstick—which Bush tends to do, and pundits like Krauthammer sometimes do—but that degenerates into incoherence pretty quickly.
-- Brad Plumer 11:09 PM || ||