Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Plant The Seed. Forget To Water

Each morning, now that the weather is nice, I walk about a mile and a half to a nearby train station to commute to work. It's really a very pleasant walk (altho wearing a suit each day, now that the weather is getting more sultry, makes for some unpleasant aftereffects).

I pass plenty of schools, bright young faces, happy for the moment's freedom in the sunshine. I pass a few convenience stores, the inner city version of a "7-11", bustling with laborers picking up a coffee and donut for the morning.

And I pass relics and remnants of a past age. Among these, I stroll past three buildings that, within my adult lifetime, were movie theatres. Now, they are warehouses or retail strips with apartments overhead, but at one time, they were minipalaces dedicated to showing movies and entertaining audiences.

There aren't many of these left in the world today. One or two in Manhattan and of course, the famous (Grau)Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Other than that, they've been divvied up into minitheatres, or sold and converted to other uses.

People's tastes change. Their habits change. Their opinions change. For lack of a blockbuster, gotta-go-see movie, most people are content to wait for the DVD, or worse, for cable to show the film. They won't make the effort to go and do something unless there's more bang for the buck.

I say all this, because in Time Magazine this week is a fascinating piece about democracy. Entitled Is Freedom Failing?, author Peter Beinart makes the case that the spread of democracy that we saw in the late 80s and early 90s, due in large part to the fall of the Soviet Union, is contracting quicker than Bush's legacy. An example:
In 1999 Nigerians did something remarkable: they elected a President. After 16 years of military rule and four decades of political and economic failure, Africa's most populous country held a free election. "Globally, things are going democratically," a Lagos slum dweller told the New York Times. "We want to join the globe."

It was a good time to get on board. The percentage of democracies in the world had doubled since the 1970s, to more than 60%. Many of the remaining autocracies--pariah states like North Korea, Burma and Iran--seemed to be living on borrowed time. In ideological terms, as Francis Fukuyama famously declared, history was ending--and Nigeria didn't want to be left behind.

That was then. But when Nigerians went to the polls again last month, democracy lost. In an orgy of ballot-box stuffing and violence, punctuated by an attempted truck bombing of the electoral-commission headquarters, the ruling party won what some observers thought was the most fraudulent election ever in Nigeria--which is saying something. Once again, Nigeria is catching a wave. From Bangladesh to Thailand to Russia, political freedom is in retreat. In a book due out this fall, Hoover Institution political scientist Larry Diamond notes that "we have entered a period of global democratic recession."

Several reasons, of course. Nigeria, like Russia and Iran, is heavily dependent on oil revenues. When oil prices are low, dictators have less power to control their populace and freedom can take root. When oil prices rise, more money means more oppression.

The biggest reason democracies are failing now is the one thing you might expect, and ironically, shouldn't have expected: Iraq. The failure of the United States to establish a democracy in a country that has long lived with tyranny is a glaring one, and does not give comfort to freedom fighters in other parts of the region.

Indeed, we rely heavily on autocracies and tyrannies to keep the Middle East as a whole from devolving into chaos. Look at Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Even Syria and Iran are buffers against the collapse of the Middle East.

But the overarching reason? People change. The fruits of democracy are hard to fight for, and seeing the example of the chaos in Iraq does not help others, like the Nigerians, like the Burmese, to keep on keeping on. Moreover, the fruits of democracy are fleeting in countries: no nation is more than three meals from a revolution, not even America.

You can't just drop seeds and hope they'll take root. You have to nurture them along until the roots are so strong that the tree stands on its own merits. Fighting a war for democracy in some other country is insanity at its most basic level. If we want to create a democratic tradition, if we want people around the world to be truly free, we have to offer assistance that keeps them free.

Troops aren't the answer, and in this case, I agree with Barack Obama: we ought to be doubling our foreign aid, taking away from our war efforts and investing in countries where democracy has already taken root but is in danger of collapsing.

We could start here in the US, of course.

Rather than spreading hatred for our ideals and our nation, we ought to be showing folks how democracies work. And we ought to be taking the time to make sure ours works, too. September 11 was a golden opportunity to show that a free nation can take a body blow like that, and not come up punching, but ready to punch, ready to fight for our rights and our beliefs and our freedoms.

Ironically, the attempt to spread freedom has revealed a powerful flaw in our own freedoms: when people stop caring because they're afraid, they won't make the effort anymore.

Unfortunately, you can't TiVo freedom.