Monday, June 4, 2007

Democratic capitalism, dual citizenship, and a new Cold War: some random thoughts


I’ve met a few people with dual citizenship over the years, in various academic and media (movies) fields. One was born in London and is dual US and Britain. Another was born in Toronto and is dual US and Canada. Still another was born in Leipzig when it was in East Germany, and had the opportunity to grow up in Britain (through graduate school) before returning to Germany after the Wall fell. Various other people I have met were born in Islamic countries and lived free and professional lives in both Europe and the US, sometimes converting out of Islam, sometimes simply practicing it quietly like any faith.

After 9/11 we would hear a lot about the essential paradigm of “democratic capitalism.” There was a lot of talk about how most Muslim societies had not tried it, but recently there has been a lot of talk that the West must tread carefully in expecting the Muslim world to accept anything like our values of democracy, individualism and rationalism. (The book by Robert W. Merry, Sands of Empire: Missionary Zeal, American Foreign Policy, and the Hazards of Global Ambition, comes to mind). A free society seems to be one that, whatever the details of some of its political and social quirks, still, after all is said and done, encourages the individual to grow up and be himself or herself, and think for himself or herself.

Generally, we do find this in the West, regardless of government format (constitutional monarchy or republic) and regardless of the tricky politics of social entitlements. We bicker over how free we should be to speak our minds (Suzanne Fields has a telling op-ed today (June 4, 2007) in The Washington Times, “Peanut butter and free speech: How robust debate is diagnosed as disease.” But in western society, there is a growing understanding that the flow of information to an individual should be under his/her control and not depend on the “permission” of those above them in a social, political, or especially religious hierarchy. The same could be said of what someone does with his life. Rational thought, most of all, belongs to the person. This has emerged from older patterns of thought where biological and social loyalty defined how one is allowed to experience life and faith, as appears to be the case in much of the Muslim world today (look at the recent case in Malaysia over whether a convert out of Islam is free of Sharia law, May 28 blog entry). Western society seems to appreciate the personal value of the individual's exploring his or her own abstract thoughts and sense of aesthetics, outside of the sphere of physical familial and religious relationships.

There is a lot of talk over whether the tenets of faith in Islam require such a psychological stricture. There have been films and claiming that it does (and is aggressive), but then look at Muslim leadership in the arts and culture over a millennium ago, as centered in Cordoba, Spain--even if this culture was far from perfect with respect to the rights of dhimmis.

History has indeed left western societies with tragic divisions that plague citizens: slavery and segregation in the U.S., and the complex colonial history (and “crusades”) that has isolated and radicalized Muslim immigrants in much of Europe (as in Bruce Bawer’s recent book While Europe Slept). But the basic structure for freedom is in place in the West and in relatively few countries in the Muslim world (besides Turkey).

All of this comes to mind as recent uproar from Russia’s president Putin over NATO plans to deploy missile defense batteries in Poland and the Czech Republic – arguably a defense against “rogue nations” like Iran – threaten to bring back the Cold War. I remember the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 all too well, as I traveled to class at George Washington University on pass from my phony psychiatric treatment at NIH. Those were not good days for me.

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