Friday, May 1, 2009

Cannonball Read #29: The Future of Freedom, by Fareed Zakaria

Before we begin, I would like to have a brief word with the publishers of books about freedom, liberty, and other such thrilling concepts in political science.

Seriously, you guys, if you do not stop slapping Delacroix's "La Liberté Guidant le Peuple (Liberty Leading the People)" over every goddamn cover of every book that even tangentially references the concept of freedom, I am going to come to your offices and whomp you to death with the heaviest of the nine thousand books I now own with the work on the cover. I had two books assigned with good ole France leading the way on the cover this semester alone. I am sick of it. DELACROIX is sick of it, and he's dead. Expand your horizons and find some other freaking art to put on your books. Thank you.

All right, with that aside (and I am not even kidding a little bit about the frequency of that painting's use), I'd like to call Fareed Zakaria's fence-sitting ass out. I know he's a super nice guy and he's a huge boon for CNN and media in general because he's an articulate Indian dude, but I insist that we stop looking at him as a political theorist rather than a really good researcher. He just will NOT take a stand on anything, and this drives me nuts. I went to see him speak alongside the excellent Niall Ferguson at Harvard last year when his latest exercise in noncommittal writing, The Post-America World came out and it's the same shit in person. While it's interesting to see the desire to sell books fight with an absolute lack of innovative angle. That book was about how various foreign entities were outstripping America in various social and economic arenas.

POP QUIZ! Name three of the countries Zakaria was talking about in that book. Don't use the Internet, just write down three random countries that are outpacing the US in...let's say technology, just to keep it narrow.

Did that take you more than 30 seconds?

When questioned about whether or not this meant that America was going to fall off the Superpower pedestal, suffer a drastic fall economically or lose the ability to compete, Zakaria dropped back ten and punted. I remember this because it was the exact point where my brain went "why aren't we somewhere else, drinking gin?" Zakaria proceeded to explain that the actual freaking title of his book didn't fortell any doom for America (...The Post-America World? No way for that to be interpreted as doom-y, eh?) but rather that the book gave a thorough accounting of various nations whipping our asses economically, which may or may not have any kind of effect on the US's stature in the world.

In any case, The Future of Freedom can be summed up thus: "Liberal democracy is good, but you can't force it on people, because that tends to be when the machetes come out."

I don't mean to say that Zakaria is a useless jerk who deserves to be drawn and quartered in the public square. He's a very intelligent man who excels at making political history accessible to the layperson. However, the portrayal of his works as political theory is dangerously misguided, because it promotes the kind of stagnation that cripples discourse and keeps us all bickering about minutae when we should be acting. Were his thoughts promoted as historical or analytical works, it wouldn't bother me so much, but as it is, I feel like he feeds into the laissez-faire observer culture that seems to be developing. It's fine to comment on history! It's actually IMPORTANT to reflect on the history of politics! But to do so and call it something else is a mistake.

The key concept here is that liberal democracy may not be an assumed universal end a la Francis Fukuyama's The End of History, but rather that there's a lot that goes into making a stable, solid liberal democracy. If the creation process doesn't check off all of its necessary items, you run the risk of developing a very fighty, unstable nation instead. This also means that you can't export democracy. I doubt any modern person who's been awake during the past couple years needs much explanation on this point; our foray into Iraq without considering that perhaps a tribal culture used to conflict between all sizes of groups might not have the right mindset for American democracy is a pretty clear example. This is not to say Iraq can and will never be a democracy, merely that our political planning missed this crucial point and the result backs up what Zakaria's saying.

This is worth reading, I just wasn't that satisfied by it. I also cannot stand the disparity between Zakaria's grand titles and the relatively innocuous material between the pages.

304 pages

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