Sunday, May 25, 2003

Freund on Israeli individuation
Last weekend, Michael posed a series of challenging questions about how the Arab world is supposed to attain liberalism if the U.S., "the practical sponsor of liberalism," behaves in a way that isn't supportive of liberalism. Michael cites the example of " Washington's overtly Shiite-centered strategy in Iraq," arguing that if the U.S. is engaged in "a potentially divisive communal game, the Arabs will not behave differently."

I agree with Michael's larger point: If the U.S. fails to enable an open system (of free expression, markets, etc.) to develop in Iraq, a historic opportunity will have been squandered at the expense of Arabs and Americans both. But my argument is that it is the open system that will eventually generate a broadened Arab liberalism, not the example of (frequently self-interested) actions by the occupying American government.

I think there's a lesson to be taken from the Israeli experience, and how its society came to generate a critical "Post-Zionist" dialog despite conditions (continuous external threat, internal communal tensions) that would seemingly reinforce a limited number of communal identities. According to Tom Segev, the Israeli journalist and author, it was Israel's open media that invited citizens "to discover themselves as individuals distinct from the national collective," a transformation that led to further revolutions in journalism, historiography, and much more. Segev calls this transformation "Americanization," but I would argue that it is inherent in an open system, and has little to do directly with the U.S.

(By the way, the Israeli example also addresses another of Michael's concerns: that many Arabs may well prefer a communal identity because they perceive it as a secure identity. Michael is right to highlight the point. But a liberal system wouldn't prevent them from making such a choice, any more than it has prevented Israelis or Americans from adhering to communal identities when they have chosen to do so.)

What Segev is describing is the process of continuous individuation, an apparent inevitability of liberalism. Segev singles out the media as the tipping-point influence, but that's certainly too simple a view; the process is neither simple nor passive. Nor, for that matter, is the process as simple as I'm making it sound. Perhaps we'll be able to follow its progress in Iraq.

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