Understanding the Democracy Problem President Bush argued that toppling Saddam Hussein would enable democracy to take root in the Middle East. But that has not happened. Anthropologist Robin Fox talks to Liane Hansen about some of the reasons why.
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Understanding the Democracy Problem

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Understanding the Democracy Problem

Understanding the Democracy Problem

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Approximately 305 detainees remain in the American facility at Guantanamo Bay. The prison has become something of a symbol for what the Bush administration calls a global war on terror. The administration says another symbol of that war is the current conflict in Iraq. In a run-up to the Iraq War, President Bush argued that toppling Saddam Hussein's regime would enable democracy to take root in the Middle East. But democracy hasn't had an easy time of it there.

Robin Fox is a professor of social theory at Rutgers University, and in an article in last month's Harper's Magazine, he took a stab at explaining why.

Professor Fox is in the studios of member station WGCU in Fort Myers, Florida. Welcome to the program.

Professor ROBIN FOX (Social Theory, Rutgers University): Hello, nice to be here.

HANSEN: It's nice to have you. You argued in your article that democracy is not human nature. What do you mean by that?

Prof. FOX: We tend to assume that what is human nature is what we take for granted and the most used to. And we're used to a system whereby we count heads, and the one who gets the most votes takes office.

This is remarkably recent in human history. It's a product, really, of the last few hundred years of very peculiar evolution in Northwestern Europe. And the vast majority of the world hasn't learned to live this way. It's still living with a tribal mentality. But things then turn, basically over the year of the advantage of a family that's to be gained and the honor that can be brought to the family.

This is happening in Anbar province right now. The sheiks there will align themselves with the Americans if it suits them. This is not because of a great love of democracy of a central unity government. It's because it's to their tribal advantage to do so.

HANSEN: You give an interesting illustration about what a tribe means. You cite a scene from "Lawrence of Arabia."

Prof. FOX: Oh, yes. That was Auda, wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn, if you remember that scene. Lawrence and his lieutenant there were trying to persuade Auda to attack the Turks. Then Lawrence, his right-hand man, says, well, you know, you must do it for your fellow Arabs.

And Auda is astonished, he said, who are these Arabs that you're speaking, what tribe is that? And he names all the tribes he knows, you know, the Beni this and the Beni that. He could understand the English, they were a tribe. You could ally with English, they give you guns and money if you attack the Turks, made sense. But who were these Arabs that I should ally with them?

And it's a little, I think, the same in Iraq. You ask the Iraqis, you know, you must do this, you must make these sacrifices for the Iraqis or for the Iraqi national, or for the Iraqi people, and I think they have no - except maybe when it comes to their soccer, no real notion of an Iraqi people. They have a notion of having to feed their families, of having to bring honor to their lineages, but there is no sense as we understand it of an Iraqi nation.

HANSEN: I was surprised to read that the United States didn't achieve true democracy until the 20th century.

Prof. FOX: Well, universal democracy in the sense that what we like to think of, the true liberal democracy is one man, one vote - one person, one vote, if you like. That was not fully achieved until in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. We've learned the extremely important thing that they never have learned in the Middle East, for example, and that is that when the majority gets the vote, you must hand over power to it.

This voluntary relinquishment of power, this is saying, if you get more votes than I do, I will hand over the power to you, which seems to us the essence of democracy. How could it work otherwise? It just seems like insanity and madness to a great many people in the still tribal world. Why would you hand over power to your major enemies, to these incompetents, these villains? Listen to the rhetoric of campaigns. Most people would think it is criminal malfeasance to let this people rule, and yet, we do it, and we take it for granted.

HANSEN: You're right, it's very easy for countries to slip back into a state of tribalism. And I'm quoting, we've seen this in Germany, in Italy and in Spain, how fragile democracy really is.

Prof. FOX: Yes.

HANSEN: Is it really on the knife's edge?

Prof. FOX: Oh, I think so. I mean, we struggle all the time. Again, what I was arguing in this article was against the idea that it's the natural love of freedom that leads to democracy. And as long as you make people free, they'll choose to be democratic. This is, in fact, rarely the case. We have to work very, very hard at democracy. It's not natural to us.

Auda loved freedom; he loved freedom more than anything in the world. But it was freedom for his tribe. It was freedom for his kinsfolk. It was freedom for his lineage to better itself in the world as against all others. That's how he saw freedom.

HANSEN: So do you think democracy can or actually should take root in countries such as Iraq?

Prof. FOX: We have to do it for ourselves. And we have to do it a lot of practice over a lot of time on the very particular circumstances. And the same sort of thing will have to happen to Iraq even if they want it to happen.

Again, we're wishing this onto them. We're assuming democracy, as we understand it, is the end product of a normal evolution and that they should aspire to this. This is where they should be going. And we've got to understand I think that our idea of freedom, which we so cherished, may not be other people's, not because they're backward and stupid, or because they haven't been given the necessary material advantages so that they can make it, but because they simply do not see the world this way, and they prefer to see it another way.

HANSEN: Robin Fox is a professor of social theory at Rutgers University. His article, "The Kindness of Strangers," appeared in the November issue of Harper's Magazine.

Thank you so much.

Prof. FOX: Thank you.

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