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Monday, June 16, 2008

The role of identity in Democracies

Former Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky has an important article in Monday's Wall Street Journal that ought to be required reading for Americans and Europeans (Hat Tip: Hot Air). It should be required for Americans because it will make you feel good and proud and it should be required for Europeans because it should give you hope that the continent is turning in the right direction (and hopefully not too late).
The trans-Atlantic rift is not the function of one president, but the product of deep ideological forces that for generations have worked to shape the divergent views of Americans and Europeans. Foremost among these are different attitudes toward identity in general, and the relationship between identity and democracy in particular.

To Europeans, identity and democracy are locked in a zero-sum struggle. Strong identities, especially religious or national identities, are seen as a threat to democratic life. This is what Dominique Moisi, a special adviser at the French Institute of International Relations, meant when he said in 2006 that "the combination of religion and nationalism in America is frightening. We feel betrayed by God and by nationalism, which is why we are building the European Union as a barrier to religious warfare."

This attitude can be traced back to the French Revolution, when the forces fighting under a universal banner of "liberty, equality and fraternity" were pitted against the Church.

In contrast, the America to which pilgrims flocked in search of religious freedom, and whose revolution amounted to an assertion of national identity, has been able to reconcile identity and freedom in a way no country has been able to match. That acute observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, long ago noted the "intimate union of the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty" that was pervasive in America and made it so different than his native France.
Read it all. While I believe that many of Sharansky's ideas on exporting Democracy to the Third World are overly simplistic (you can't just take Democracy and impose it on countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia that have no democratic tradition of protecting individual rights, because you will end up with the Islamists in power), I believe that this article is spot-on. Americans have a unique and proud heritage of tolerating people who want to 'do their own thing' while keeping them within the societal framework. That heritage is sorely lacking in Europe. It's something from which Israel could learn as well.


At 11:02 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Secularism is a dead. Israelis have Judaism to fall back on and the founding of Israel as a Jewish State highlights the importance of religion to Jewish identity. Its more important than being Israeli and no one talks of an Israeli people. In this age of multiculturalism and the notion the nation state has outlived usefulness, the Jews do not want to integrate with the neighbors a la the European Union. The same might be said of the United States, which refuses to contemplate a North American Union. In short, the EU is very much the exception to the rule about the enduring power of nationalism and faith. There may not be a Europe around in the next 30 years but Israel's commitment to Jewish survival may help to succeed where others fail. While the world wants Israel to take lessons from it, the other side of the coin is even more important in the lessons that Israel has to offer to the world.


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