In his Farewell Address, George Washington reflected on the requisites of free government:
It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?
Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.
In his interesting column on events in Egypt, the pseudonymous Spengler (David Goldman) portrays Mubarak as a failed reformer seeking to bring enlightenment to the Egyptian people. Spengler’s observations brought Washington’s reflections to mind:
Nine out of ten Egyptian women suffer genital mutilation. US President Barack Obama said Jan. 29, “The right to peaceful assembly and association, the right to free speech, and the ability to determine their own destiny … are human rights. And the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” Does Obama think that genital mutilation is a human rights violation? To expect Egypt to leap from the intimate violence of traditional society to the full rights of a modern democracy seems whimsical.
In fact, the vast majority of Egyptians has practiced civil disobedience against the Mubarak regime for years. The Mubarak government announced a “complete” ban on genital mutilation in 2007, the second time it has done so – without success, for the Egyptian population ignored the enlightened pronouncements of its government. Do Western liberals cheer at this quiet revolt against Mubarak’s authority?
Suzanne Mubarak, Egypt’s First Lady, continues to campaign against the practice, which she has denounced as “physical and psychological violence against children.” Last May 1, she appeared at Aswan City alongside the provincial governor and other local officials to declare the province free of it. And on October 28, Mrs Mubarak inaugurated an African conference on stopping genital mutilation.
The most authoritative Egyptian Muslim scholars continue to recommend genital mutilation. . . .
Obama is a devotee of multiculturalism. He subscribes to the doctrine that all cultures are equal (except of course ours, which has so much for which to apologize). One of the ironies of multiculturalism is its inconsistency with the other tenets of the liberal faith, such as feminism.
I don’t think the case against genital mutilation is one that Obama will be taking up any time soon, but I may be mistaken. The issue arose in Minnesota with the first waves of immigrants from Somalia. State rep. Phyllis Kahn, Minnesota’s leading liberal feminist, helped enact a law prohibiting genital mutilation in Minnesota. (It’s a criminal statute; violation of the law is a felony.) Kahn’s feminism trumped liberal multiculturalism.
Spengler looks at the economic forces at play in Egypt and arrives at a practical recommendation:
The best thing the United States could do at the moment would be to offer massive emergency food aid to Egypt out of its own stocks, with the understanding that President Mubarak would offer effusive public thanks for American generosity. This is a stopgap, to be sure, but it would pre-empt the likely alternative. Otherwise, the Muslim Brotherhood will preach Islamist socialism to a hungry audience. That also explains why Mubarak just might survive. Even Islamists have to eat. The Iranian Islamists who took power in 1979 had oil wells; Egypt just has hungry mouths. Enlightened despotism based on the army, the one stable institution Egypt possesses, might not be the worst solution.
Spengler’s column mixes together disparate observations that are not united by a single theme, but his putative solution that “might not be the worst” seems to me offered in the spirit appropriate to the difficulty of the problem.