When People Freely Choose Tyranny
Michael Ledeen, National Review Online:
It’s still a loser.
"The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots." — Erich Fromm
Those of us who advocate democratic revolution are often criticized for an excess of naïveté, for failing to recognize that the passion for freedom is not universal, and that there are many people — perhaps even many peoples — who despise democracy. Given half a chance, these self-proclaimed 'realists' say, much of the world will choose tyranny.
True enough, I know it well. But it doesn't lead me to be more tolerant of tyranny, it reinforces my passion for democratic revolution. READ MORE
In the Face of Evil
I spent the first 15 years of my professional life buried in the archives of the Italian fascist state, after several years as a research assistant to George L. Mosse, one of the great historians of Nazi Germany. Let's call it 20 years in intimate contact with evil in its most active and charismatic form. Among the many terrible questions I attempted to understand, I was perhaps most perplexed at the enormous enthusiasm with which it was embraced by its followers, especially because Italy and Germany were among the most cultured, civilized, and humane countries on the face of the earth. But all that culture proved useless against the onslaught of the totalitarian mass movements. And for most of the fascist era there was no real sign that the German or Italian people had serious second thoughts about living under tyranny, no real resistance worthy of the name...until the dictators began to lose the war, which changed everything. Hitler and Mussolini gained political power in popular elections (please don't quibble, I know they weren't directly elected), were reelected with enormous mandates, and governed without much in the way of opposition until they were finally done in by Allied armies, the greatest instruments of freedom in the 20th century.
When people say, as they often do, with a glint of ethnic or cultural superiority in their angry eyes, that Arabs or Africans or Persians or Turks just aren't "ready" for democracy, that such people prefer tyrants, or that they have no history of democracy and are hence incapable of it, or they have no middle class, without which no stable democracy can exist, or they believe in Islam, which brooks no democracy, I try to remind them that some of the worst tyrannies came from highly cultured Christian countries with glorious democratic and humanistic traditions. And I don't think that Periclean Athens boasted a large and flourishing middle class.
It's silly to believe that a society without democratic traditions can't create a democracy; if that were true there would never have been any democracies at all.
Escape from Freedom
The horror of fascism — in many ways the real model for today's terror masters — is precisely its popular success. It's not just that people accept it, or endure it; they embrace it and celebrate it. Today's Islamofascism is very much in that tradition. It has a lot of popular support, as we have seen in elections in Egypt and Palestine (although the Palestinians were offered a Hobson's Choice between two tyrannical organizations), as we saw in the past in Algeria and of course in the Iranian revolution of 1979.
It's not easy for modern intellectuals to accept the true nature of the Islamofascists, because of the long-discredited but still popular theory that revolutions are a good thing, and are invariably a righteous eruption against social and economic misery inflicted by greedy oppressive governments. In that view, revolutions are signs of progress, another step along the road to modernity.
But, especially in the 20th century, many important revolutions were reactionary outbursts against modernity, a desperate attempt to restore an earlier (and often imaginary) style of politics in which the state, or the leader, made most of the fundamental decisions, thereby sparing the citizens the many agonizing choices that afflict modern man. One of the greatest thinkers to grapple with these issues was Erich Fromm, who explained in Escape from Freedom that totalitarian mass movements helped modern man escape from the burdens of freedom, and then later argued that such mass movements fulfilled a collective death wish, what he called a sort of epidemic of political necrophilia. Fromm is an invaluable guide to much of what is going on in the Middle East today.
When the Iranians overthrew the shah 26 years ago, it was fashionable in the West to hail the revolution and to 'explain' it as an explosion of freedom against a tyrannical dictator. But it was the opposite; it was the sort of pathology that Fromm understood. Khomeini's attack on the shah was not that the shah was insufficiently modern and liberal, but rather too modern, too tolerant, too progressive. He promised to turn back the clock, not advance it; there would be less freedom for women and for infidels, and medieval methods of 'justice,' like stoning to death, would be reinstated. Khomeini offered the Iranians a chance to allay their terrible fear of freedom.
To be sure, many of Khomeini's supporters deluded themselves into believing that his promises were just rhetoric. Others hoped that, once in power, he would "moderate." But he didn't. He plunged Iran into a new Dark Ages, just as Hitler plunged Germany back into a (largely imaginary) ancient mindset with pseudo scientific concepts of race replacing the older tribal categories. Both were 'revolutionary' leaders of a peculiar modern sort: contemporary political techniques merged with archaic ideas. At that time I wrote that Khomeini was the latest example of a well-established concept: clerical fascism.
To those who argue that the flight from freedom is limited to one group or another, of one area or another, or one religion or another, I can only recommend remedial reading of contemporary history. And for those who say we should just abandon such people to their own misery and oppression, I can recommend a more ambitious reeducation course, along with a repeat of Strategery 101. For it is not just an academic question; tyrants hate America, and will invariably try to kill or dominate us. We need to shed all illusions about the nature of such regimes, above all the conceit that they are, after all, "just like us," and whatever differences we have can be resolved by patient negotiation, or cultural exchange, or simple deterrence. I don't believe any of that. I think they are implacable enemies of all free societies. I think the very nature of those regimes compels them to attack us as best they can. I think they have waged war against us for a long time (the terror war was clearly in full swing by the late Seventies, and probably started back in the late Sixties), and will continue to do it until they either win or lose. The policy question, on the answer to which our own survival may well depend, is how best to achieve their defeat.
Revolutionary regimes have fallen both because their own people turned against them, and because they were defeated on the battlefield. In each case, the revolutionary ideology was discredited. We humiliated the fascist revolution in the Second World War, and fascism was drained of its mass appeal. We do not know how European fascism would have ended (or indeed if it would have ended) if the Axis had won the war, but I have suggested that China today constitutes the first case of a mature fascist regime, one in which the ideology is now bloodless, but whose regime remains very nasty, corrupt, and potentially aggressive. Communism had lost much of its appeal in other Warsaw Pact countries even before we defeated the Soviet Empire. Years before the wall was breeched, very few people wanted their country to become a new Bulgaria, and Pope John Paul II once wryly forecast that the last communist on earth would be a North American nun.
Islamofascism seems to me to be on the same track to the losers' circle. The Iranian people loathe it, and would gladly trade it for the Westminster model or their own fine 1906 Constitution. Most Iraqis, even though they are still voting along 'religious' lines, have shown little affection for a new caliphate or Islamic republic. No sooner had they voted for the religious blocs than they sat down and renegotiated the division of power. It's not textbook post-electoral politics, but it bespeaks a distinctly non-fanatical approach to government. Several recent polls show that al Qaeda's popularity ratings are careening downward, while our own are rising. I think these positive symptoms are the result of four main factors: the failure of the terrorists to drive us out of the Middle East, the recognition by most people that the terrorists, from al Qaeda to Hezbollah (that is, from Sunni to Shiite), are evil and must be defeated, and the near-universal conviction that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not the sort of place where one should want to live. That mullahcracy is the closest thing on earth to the much-ballyhooed "caliphate" so dear to the mouths of the jihadis, and while some alienated middle-class Muslims might dream of its wonders, most think it stinks. As it truly does.
Finally, there is the desire for freedom. Most all of us yearn for both freedom and security, and there is no doubt that the exercise of freedom is difficult. That's why Ben Franklin warned that while we had created a republic, we would have to fight to preserve it. The demons that Erich Fromm described so well do torture our souls, and no society is exempt from the totalitarian temptation. But the desire for freedom, as the fear of freedom, is universal, and most human beings will fight for freedom when the time is right.
And that's the nub of the question, I think. The time is not always right, and history is full of examples of romantic democrats losing everything by fighting desperately when they had no real chance of success. But today the time is right. Ours is a moment characterized by radical change, when tyrants feel threatened, when freedom is advancing, and revolution is the defining characteristic of international affairs. John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Lech Walesa, and the others all understood that, which is why Reagan was able to announce that the evil empire's days were numbered, and why John Paul told his followers "be not afraid."
The call for democratic revolution is not at all naive, actually it's far more realistic than the self-defeating inaction of the "realists." If we had supported the revolutionaries with the enthusiasm they deserve, I have little doubt we would not be engaged in Kabuki dances around the Palestinians and the mullahs. Nor would we face such unpalatable alternatives as appeasement-masquerading-as-diplomacy with the U.N. and the IAEA on the one hand, and a potentially disastrous bombing campaign on the other.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute