Last year, I wrote that Passover has always had a special meaning for me because it was the earliest successful revolt against repression.
Many events have happened in recent months that have been characterized as people oppressed by an autocrat — today’s equivalent of slaves and pharaoh — seeking freedom. The popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Libya have been characterized as the “Arab Spring.” Due to “Media and Pundit Attention Disorder,” some uprisings have passed from public consciousness without follow-up.
Arab Spring may be an unfortunate characterization. In my lifetime, the first time that “spring” was used to describe an uprising was the Prague Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia; the Prague Spring reforms did not survive a Soviet Union-led invasion.
It is too early to discuss the results of the Arab Spring. Most Western analysts believe, optimistically, this is the beginning of Arab democratization, as though the end product of a popular uprising always is democracy.
A favorite buzzword today, when analysts like to proclaim “I get it, but you don’t,” is nuance, pertaining to subtle distinction. For decades, my favorite source for nuance has been Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms.
The dictionary distinguishes “freedom” from “liberty.” “Freedom” connotes the total absence of restraint and release from the compulsion of necessity. “Liberty” differs in two respects. First is the power to choose, as opposed to freedom’s lack of restraint. Second is the release from restraint or compulsion. It is significant that the word of choice during the American Revolution was “liberty.”
In this nuanced world, the Arab Spring is about liberty, not freedom, with an emphasis on the freedom to choose. But to choose what? This is where “democracy” comes in.
“Democracy” cannot be found in the Dictionary of Synonyms, possibly because it belongs to the worlds of philosophy and politics, not semantics.
Most people describe the American government as a democracy. In a strict sense, this is not true because in a pure democracy the people directly vote on everything. We are a representative republic, “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.”
One dictionary definition of democracy tries to harmonize the difference this way: “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.”
It is reported that the Arab Spring is about the overthrow of autocrats. The Dictionary of Synonyms gives “despotic” and “tyrannical” among the synonyms for “autocratic,’ with “dictatorial,” “totalitarian,” and “imperious” among the analogous words. The dictionary does not nuance these words.
I have always liked “imperious” ever since the original Battlestar Galactica, where the head of the Cylons was known as “Imperious Leader.” It alternatively means “characteristic of one of eminent rank or attainments” or “marked by arrogant assurance.” Many world leaders act in an imperious manner.
The United States has told many autocrats who have been targets of the Arab Spring to go — Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Kaddafi of Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen. Mubarak and Saleh were considered allies. However, the administration has not delivered the same message to either Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Bashar al-Assad of Syria, leaders of countries not favorably disposed to America.
The question is who and what will follow the deposed autocrats. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is typical of those who augur democracy, but he tempers his prediction. A month ago he wrote, “Egypt is a mess,” but what is unfolding for Americans is a “reassuring mess.” In appealing for patience, Kristof said “we have to be realistic: roads to democracy are always bumpy.”
Yes, they are, and not all revolutions end up as democracies. The Russian, French, and Cuban Revolutions come to mind. And a democracy can wind up as an autocratic system, as in Weimar Germany, Peronist Argentina, and Chavez’s Venezuela.
We have seen Hamas win the only election sponsored by the Palestinian Authority. Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, enjoys the backing of Hizbullah, whose power in the country’s parliament is growing.
In Egypt, protestors are back in Tahrir Square, this time protesting the ruling military council. What was considered essential for a transition to democracy is now considered as autocratic as its predecessor.
Pesach is a good time for nuance. Consider the discussions of the rabbis in the Haggada. Here are a few questions to stimulate thought at the seder.
Based on the Dictionary of Synonyms differentiations, what were the Israelites seeking when they left Egypt — freedom, liberty, or something else?
What did the Israelites achieve and when?
Was democracy ever a goal of Jews? Is it a means to an end?
How does “having to answer to a higher authority” relate to the concepts of freedom and liberty? It is compatible?
A zissen Pesach.