Posted on | February 3, 2011 | 54 Comments
“We Are All Egyptians,” Nicholas Kristof declares in a New York Times column with a Cairo dateline.
Except we aren’t Egyptians, and the vast majority of us will never set foot in Cairo. For those of us who aren’t traveling the world on an expense account, the Atlantic‘s Clive Crook offers this helpful reminder:
This is very important to remember. Whatever is happening in Egypt — and frankly, I’m not sure that it’s a “revolution” — it isn’t likely to be influenced by anything I write about it, or Rush Limbaugh says about it.
In fact, there appear to be limits even to Barack Obama’s ability to influence events in Egypt, contrary to rumors that the president is planning to walk to Cairo and feed the protesters with five loaves of bread and two fishes.
Despite our apparent impotence, however, there are a lot of people who seem obsessed with the idea that we must watch what we say about Egypt. They seem to believe that only certain thoughts are permissible about Egypt. If we say the wrong thing, or even think the wrong thing, we might somehow influence the situation in Egypt for the worse.
This is a type of psychotic delusion called “magical thinking”: If we think good thoughts about Egypt, good things will happen in Egypt. If only we believe in peace — with all our hearts! — there will be peace.
According to the Magical Thinking School of Foreign Policy, the root cause of Egypt’s miseries is American wickedness. It is the evil in our own hearts — our ignorance, our prejudice — that has caused these tragic events. Therefore, say the magic thinkers, if we will purify our minds, renounce our xenophobic bigotry, cross our fingers and hope for democracy in Egypt, then democracy in Egypt will happen.
Also, you’ll finally get a pony for Christmas.
This has been the underlying theme of a lot of commentary the past couple of days. Thursday afternoon, I watched Shepard Smith on Fox News recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence — “. . . all men are created equal,” etc. — as if this were a magical incantation that would miraculously vanquish the oppression in Tahrir Square.
Of course, Smith doesn’t believe any such thing. No, what he was doing with his Thursday cable-news sermonette was exhibiting his moral superiority. He’s better than you or me or anyone else who saw the Cairo crackdown and cynically shrugged at the bloody spectacle.
The desired impact of Shep Smith’s sermon was to make his viewers feel ashamed of themselves when they turn on the TV and see a bunch of thugs brutalizing civilians in a backward foreign country on the other side of the world.
The essence of Smith’s lecture was: How dare you?
Shep Smith wants his viewers to feel responsible for that mess, to become emotionally involved with the drama, to sympathize with the afflicted and share his indignation toward the villainous oppressors in Cairo.
And to Shepard Smith, I reply: How dare you?
How dare you, Mister $8 Million a Year, sit there in your New York studio and lecture the rest of us about the abuses of the Mubarak regime, as if it were in our power to do anything about it?
If you want to be a missionary and go save the world, then do so. But don’t get up on your high horse and start reciting the Declaration of Independence at us as if we were third-graders in need of your tutoring.
The fellow who shrugs at the wretched scenes in Cairo — or who nudges his buddy at work and says, “Hey, did you see that? Riding camels!” — is not your moral inferior, Shep.
The difference between you and him is that he is sufficiently rational to recognize that nothing he says or does will make one whit of difference to the fate of Egyptians.
It isn’t that the Ordinary American lacks your keen sensitivities and sympathy for the suffering Egyptians, Shep. Rather, he realizes that he is powerless to affect events on the Nile. Hell’s bells, he can barely influence events in his own hometown! The school board and the county commissioners won’t even listen to him, so why should he imagine he can tell Hosni Mubarak what to do?
Something else, Shep: The guy who watches all this stuff on TV doesn’t get to sit in front of a camera every day and share his feelings about what’s going on in the world. He’s got bills to pay, and work to do, and problems you don’t even know about, and he doesn’t have any assistant producers and interns scurrying around to do his bidding.
And if he were to try to run over a woman in a parking lot, he might face serious consequences.
So spare us your Sunday School sermons, Shepard Smith. If we wanted to be lectured by a pompous douchebag, we’d be petitioning Fox News to hire Keith Olbermann.
There is also now a Memeorandum thread, where we see that Daniel Larison naturally disdains Kristof’s nonsensical “We Are All Egyptians”:
Certainly, Kristof must assume that the protesters represent the broad majority, and that the supporters of the regime are unrepresentative, but he can’t possibly know that. When both sides in the struggle are Egyptian and they are divided by political goals and interests, it doesn’t tell us very much to declare solidarity with Egyptians.
Larison preserves the paleoconservative critique of universalism, a critique that too often results in accusations that paleocons are bigoted or xenophobic. But it is no evidence that one hates or fears or is prejudiced against Egyptians to say that Egyptians are different people than ourselves, with a history and culture different from our own, and to then cite these distinctions to say — as I assume Larison means to say — that we are ill-qualified to tell them how to run their country.
Going back at least to the time of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, however, Americans have been told that we ought to be doing just that: Dictating to other nations how to conduct their internal political affairs.
But do we really “make the world safe for democracy” by insisting that all nations must be governed democratically? We ought to think a bit harder about such questions, yet many people who call themselves conservative are so busy trying to push GOP talking points that they forget the ancient verities of conservatism. It is too easy for people to nod in agreement when Shep Smith starts reciting the Declaration of Independence, using this rhetoric as a star-spangled patriotic cloak with which to smuggle his own prejudices into the argument, rather than to risk the accusation of being “un-American” by calling him out.
To believe in American exceptionalism, I would think, should require us to begin by recognizing those particular qualities of America that distinguish us from other nations. Whatever we imagine those qualities to be, they cannot be transposed onto other peoples in other nations through the wishful methodology encouraged by the Magical Thinking School of Foreign Policy.