Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 12, 2011

Democracy and Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

It is autumn. The Arab Spring has lost some of its lush promise in Egypt, and a familiar pattern is emerging. We have seen it elsewhere. More freedom means more license for all expression, not just the admirable and uplifting. The hatreds of one group for another, long buried under the boot of autocracy, are suddenly released, widening the fissures along the boundaries of race, ethnicity, class, language, tribe, or religion. So it has been in nearly every country that has thrown off dictatorship, from the Soviet Union to Yugoslavia, and now to Egypt, where churches have been burned, and Coptic Christians massing in protest have been brutalized by security forces and Muslim toughs. Almost invariably, it seems, the path from authoritarianism to democracy passes through the swamp of bigotry.

Even the most astute observers are usually taken by surprise, as Elijah Zarwan of the International Crisis Group confessed to The Washington Post after last weekend’s clashes in Cairo. “What I saw and heard today is a side of Egypt that I’ve never seen before,” he said. “There have always been sectarian tensions simmering under the surface, but now something very dangerous has been unleashed.”

Similarly, many Czechs were startled to hear themselves vilified by Slovaks as arrogant, cold, and aloof the year after the 1989 Velvet Revolution ended communist rule. In turn, some Czechs stereotyped Slovaks as lazy, criminal, and backward. These early signs of friction did not end violently, so they were mostly invisible to the American press. (The editor of The Washington Post’s Outlook section wasn’t interested in a piece after I visited Prague and Bratislava because there had been no street demonstrations. No protests, no problem, she reckoned.) It was only a little more than two years later that Czechoslovakia divided peacefully into two countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

This bigotry syndrome in post-authoritarian periods should be easily recognizable by now. As the iron hand of dictatorship is relaxed, the bad can happen along with the good. Yugoslavia disintegrated into genocidal “ethnic cleansing.” Hungary’s first post-communist election freed rightist politicians to revive coded anti-Semitic innuendo to support candidates who were “real Hungarians.” As Tina Rosenberg wrote in the spring of 1995, “Today many East Europeans want new devils to blame for their troubles. They seek harsh measures to restore order to a complex and insecure world. The trend grows toward Europe’s historic pathology, intolerant nationalism. Gypsies have been beaten or killed almost everywhere, and police often do little to investigate those crimes. Many countries treat ethnic minorities as second-class citizens. Today many East Europeans listen transfixed as Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia, and Istvan Csurka in Hungary wave their lists of names of Croats, Hungarians, Jews, or Gypsies.”

The Soviet Union would probably have remained intact if geography and ethnicity had not coincided. The country’s dissolution occurred along the lines of its fifteen republics, each of which had retained its own “national” identity: Armenian in the Armenian republic, Estonian in Estonia, and so on. The Russians governing from Moscow had tried to channel those national affinities into anodyne forms, such as folk dances and crafts. But beneath the touristy externals there coursed a powerful set of deeper identities: language, religion, historical narratives, and resentments toward Moscow as “the center” that imposed its political, economic, and cultural imperialism. When democratization weakened the center, the centrifugal force of divisive nationalisms prevailed—peacefully for the most part, but with minor wars among such smaller ethnic groups as the Chechens and Abkhazians, who sought independence for their enclaves that were contained inside the new countries.

These are cautionary tales about the fragility of both the nation state and the transition to democracy. From the American Revolution on, independent statehood has been the yearning of the colonized, the downtrodden, and the persecuted, who believe that autonomy will bring sanctuary, prosperity, and self-determination; in other words, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet the nation state is a relatively modern configuration, supplanting the village and the tribe as a means of identity and organization, and not always successfully. In places, nationalism is only a thin overlay across the tribal fault lines of ethnicity, clan, geography, religion, race, language, and class, which remain forceful enough to fragment societies or endanger their democratization.

In Iraq, deposing Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, unleashed furious violence between the majority Shiite Muslims and his fellow Sunnis. This the Bush Administration’s war planners had not expected. In Egypt, the vigilantism against Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population, has provoked the interim military government into a crackdown that the celebrating protesters in Tahrir Square had not anticipated. It has put in question the possibilities of democracy.

So buried prejudices don’t die. They fester. Sometimes they are exploited by the autocratic regime and remain virulent after the regime falls; that happened to the Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Often the prejudices are tolerated or ignored by the dictatorship, because, without freedom, they pose little risk of disruption. Soviet society was replete with underground bigotry by Russians toward Jews, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and the multitude of peoples in Soviet Central Asia; by Estonians and other minorities against Russians; by the Russian “intelligentsia” against manual laborers who were extolled in propaganda posters; and by whites against black African exchange students, who complained about epithets hurled at them on Moscow’s streets.

But since none of those attitudes actually existed in the artificial reality constructed by Soviet Communism, no education in tolerance could be conducted, no attempts could be made to counter the not-so-secret stereotyping. (I stumbled upon this sensitive topic on a visit to Buryatia, by writing about self-segregation there between ethnic Russians and Buryat Mongols, and was vitriolically attacked in print by the Communist Party Secretary, I’m proud to say.)

For many countries, this is the most overlooked challenge in moving toward political pluralism. Without experience in opening attitudes into the sunlight and giving voice to grievances, without a legal and cultural structure protecting minorities from the majority, and without a painful history of discovering and addressing bigotry, emerging democracies suffer and sometimes falter.

Even if they make it through the swamp, firm ground is never easy to hold. Consider the United States, bitterly schooled in the trials of confronting prejudice. There is no enforced silence from above, thankfully. What restrains hatred is a superstructure of inhibitions embedded in moral precepts, civic duty, and national identity—and a hard-won culture of decency. When established movements depart from those norms, it is time to be alarmed.

Last weekend was such a time. In the nation’s capital, the Family Research Council’s Values Voters Summit—an occasion that drew seven Republican presidential candidates—gave the podium to Bryan Fischer, who habitually rants
against non-Christians, gays, abortion rights activists, and the defenders of civil liberties. The First Amendment protects the religious rights of Christians only, he says. “The President’s been a fascist,” he has declared. With straight soldiers unwilling to commit sufficient violence, he claims, Hitler enlisted “homosexual soldiers [who] basically had no limits on the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whoever Hitler sent them after.” He skips over the part where the Nazis put homosexuals in concentration camps.

“I do question the patriotism of groups like Planned Parenthood,” Fischer says in a video. “They are subverting morality. That’s why I question the patriotism of groups like the ACLU, who are subverting the pillar of religion. They are not patriots, ladies and gentlemen, they are unpatriotic and they are un-American.”

American democracy is large enough and stable enough to contain such hatred and not lose its footing. But Mitt Romney was the only candidate to criticize Fischer from the platform. To stay out of the swamp, a little more help from Republicans would be welcome.

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