America is the land of freedom. It is the world’s standard for democracy; its ideals of personal freedom and civil rights are the envy of all enlightened citizens of the world.
If you grew up in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, as I did, this is what you learned at school.
The myth of American freedom is a strong one, and one reason it’s strong is that it contains a lot of truth. But the democracy of the United States is hardly perfect and it does not necessarily produce enlightened governments, leaders, and policies.
Paradoxically, the myth of American freedom is strongest today in two groups that see themselves as negations of the other—the neoconservatives and that slice of the American left that might be best defined as subscribers to Harpers and The New York Review of Books. The neocons believe that the way to make the world a better place is for America to export its democracy forcefully—and with force, if necessary. The leftists wouldn’t force anything on anyone, but they do think that if other peoples would just be reasonable and adopt the U.S. constitution, war, conflict, and unreason would give way to well-mannered societies much like those in America’s great suburbs.
There’s a textbook example of this on display in the current issue of Commentary, where that magazine’s assistant editor, David Billet, reviews Bernard Avishai’s new book, The Hebrew Republic: How Secular Democracy and Global Enterprise will Bring Israel Peace at Last.
I know Avishai; he’s a man with a warm, generous heart, and he writes a blog where he offers interesting insights. We agree on many things but, frankly, I don’t think he understands Israel at a very basic level. I haven’t read the new book, but I’ve read many things that he’s written, including his most recent column in The Jerusalem Report.
Avishai’s tacit assumption is that religious and national identities are superfluous and external to human consciousness. People hold on to them because they are blinded by ignorance or poverty. (Does this sound familiar? Yes, there’s a presidential candidate who just said something similar.) Peace and prosperity will come when people shed this dangerous, primitive stuff.
Billet shares this tacit assumption. Note that the argument between them is that Avishai thinks that Israel needs to adopt American-style democracy, whereas Billet claims that Israel already has. But they both agree on the standard.
Billet’s absolute faith in American democracy leads him to make some glaring errors. For example, he asserts that Israel’s Arabs make up ten percent of its population; the true figure is almost twice that. He was obviously an attentive pupil in civics class, for he assumes that the fact that Israel’s Arabs have the vote and parliamentary representation guarantees them civic and cultural equality. But Arab votes were manipulated during Israel’s early years and many of its representatives were tokens who did as they were told; Arab parliamentarians who dared speak against the government were shut out of the corridors of power.
This fundamental assumption leads inevitably to a one-state solution to the conflict. For Avishai, who believes religious and national identities are not only superfluous but in fact deleterious, why should we need two-nation states in such a small territory? For Billet, the assumption that Israel grants already full democracy and rights to its minorities leads to the presumption that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be eager to partake of the good fortune of their brethren who are Israeli citizens.
But they’re both wrong. In much of the world outside the United States of America, people see their national and religious identities as essential. These identities pervade their entire lives. So it’s not surprising that they want to live in polities that express and promote those identities.
This does not mean that they need not and should not be democratic states. It does not mean that they can deny rights to their minorities or impose their standards of religion and national culture on those who do not want them. But it does mean that their governments may promote the majority culture over the minority culture in ways that do not impose undue burdens on the minorities.
In fact, there are other models of democracies that are also nation-states—in Western Europe.
Does that make their democracies imperfect? On an absolute scale, yes. But a country that allows a second-place vote getter to become president and whose legislature has a powerful upper house elected on blatantly undemocratic principles should not sniff at other countries that maintain democracies with other imperfections.