Guest Post: Responding to Criticism of John Agresto at Yesterday Morning’s Panel

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Simon Hoellerbauer is a sophomore MLL major born in Austria. He has lived in Ohio since 1998.

A member of the audience, along with Dr. Jim Zogby, criticized John Agresto at yesterday morning’s panel on the Arab Spring, both for implying that Arab culture is incompatible with democracy and for using language that bordered on being offensive. This criticism may not be wholly undeserved, as the language Agresto employed could have been considered rather denigrating. The criticism, however, only served to obscure and push into the background the point that Agresto was trying to make, namely that one of the factors necessary for a successful democracy is a desire for one’s neighbors to be free, a desire to see the “other” be granted rights.

Agresto, in clarifying his points, said that creating liberal democracy in Iraq is difficult when one ethnic group or tribe in Iraq thinks another group as a bunch of “thieving cutthroats.” This language garnered him some laughs, although Agresto later clarified that that was not the reaction he had been seeking. After the rest of the panel members had presented, a member of the audience took “umbrage” at this characterization of Iraqis, to which Agresto responded that he did not want to repeat some of the things that he had heard said during his time in Iraq. It was at this point that Dr. Zogby began to engage Agresto on his statements concerning the need to change the key question from “don’t all people want to be free?” to “do you want your neighbor to be free?”

Agresto did use language that can be considered offensive, but his intent was not to offend. Instead, he was trying to offer examples of  the expressions of sectarian differences he had heard in Iraq. To accuse him of insensitive language is one thing; to accuse him of implying something that he had not in fact said, namely that there is something innate in Arab culture that is incompatible with democracy, goes too far.

The criticism was, as Agresto said himself, very much unfair. Although this point could be taken as a criticism of Arab culture, Agresto did not present it this way, only focusing on the existence of “good” and “bad” democracies. Focusing on the former only takes us away from the main idea. Democracy, uninhibited rule by an aggressive majority, can itself be just as bad as the worst dictatorship. The liberal part is extremely important, but liberal values cannot take hold if people do not want their fellow citizens to have the liberties they also enjoy.

This is true everywhere, not just in the Arab world; it is difficult for a liberal democracy to arise if no one wants to respect the liberties of others. And, in fact, Zogby’s very objection only serves to underline the importance of respect for others’ rights to the establishing of a liberal democracy. Zogby mentioned that America has not solved all of its problems yet, has not become a “free neighbor” type of society, citing the fact that only 70 years after its founding was slavery outlawed, and it took another 70 years before women were given the right to vote. And that is exactly the point: at the founding of America, those in power did not want to grant African-Americans or women any rights. In failing to do so, they established an illiberal democracy that remained illiberal for nearly 140 years.

Am I implying that there is something incompatible with democracy in Western culture? No. Although his example may have been belittling to some extent, Agresto’s point was simply that creating a liberal democracy is hard when there are groups that would not like to see each other in power. And that is certainly true, even for a country that had as much of an advantage as America did.

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