Struggling for Dignity

I never quite know what to make of David Brooks. He’s a fool, but sometimes he’s a very insightful fool. Today’s column in The New York Times is one of his more insightful ones as he compares what is happening in Egypt to other “democratic” revolutions that have happened over the last two decades:

I’ve covered some of these marches over the years in places like Russia, Ukraine and South Africa. While there are vast differences between nations, the marchers tend to echo certain themes — themes we are hearing once again in the interviews that reporters are doing in Cairo.

Protesters invariably say that their government has insulted their dignity by ignoring their views. They have a certain template of what a “normal” country looks like — with democracy and openness — and they feel humiliated that their nation doesn’t measure up.

Moreover, the protesters tend to feel enormous pride that they are finally speaking up, even in the face of danger. They feel a surge of patriotism as the people of their country make themselves heard.

This quest for dignity has produced a remarkable democratic wave. More than 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings over the past few decades. More than 85 authoritarian governments have fallen. Somewhere around 62 countries have become democracies, loosely defined.

He also notes this:

The other thing we’ve learned is that the United States usually gets everything wrong. There have been dozens of democratic uprisings over the years, but the government always reacts like it’s the first one. There seem to be no protocols for these situations, no preset questions to be asked.

Policy makers always underestimate the power of the bottom-up quest for dignity, so they are slow to understand what is happening. Last week, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the Egyptian regime was stable, just as it was falling apart.

Then their instinct is to comfort the fellow members of the club of those in power. The Obama administration was very solicitous of President Hosni Mubarak during the first days of the protests and of other dictators who fear their regime may be next.

The reason for this wrong-footedness on the part of the United States is fairly simple. We do not truly understand the quest for dignity (especially on the part of the world’s poor) and too often American policy makers are on the wrong side of this from the beginning — that we are the people robbing others of their dignity, and almost never empowering them. Egyptians are scraping and clawing their dignity back from a government that was entirely backed, supported and subsidized by Washington because American policy makers saw no choice. If anyone denied Egyptians their dignity, it was Americans.
The reason American elites (mostly) do not understand dignity is that it is not part of their materialistic worldview.  What matters is the material improvement of life, not a moral self-understanding. Americans also seek to organize the world to their benefit, and in doing so, they empower foreign elites who serve American interests over the interests of the people they govern. American elites are deeply self-centered, so much so that they cannot conceive that anyone would honestly and sincerely seek ends that aren’t in America’s interests.
Brooks could afford to push his thesis, though he won’t. When he says a government has ignored the wishes of the people they have governed, and that a normal country is democratic and open, he is also critiquing how politics and policy operate in the West — especially the United States. How long before Americans begin to ask such question and make such demands of their government. I believe the Tea Party is an inchoate expression of this anger, of this sense of powerlessness. It is a beginning of sorts. 
But aside from its exceptionally silly name, the Tea Party, however, is still far too willing to believe too much nonsense of the American narrative — such as exceptionalism, militarism and empire. As long as Americans and America thinks so highly of itself — indispensable nation and all that idiocy — and act upon that, we will never be a normal country and can never have a normal politics. Instead, all we will have are lies and more lies, words from the powerful that belie the reality of daily life. I’m not optimistic about the ability of Americans to peacefully change how our country is governed, especially our willingness to let go of our empire. I’m still convinced it will have to be pried from our cold dead hands, since too many people — liberals and conservatives — are too enamored our alleged power and goodness.