U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Heartened by History

Ah, the dangers of feeling good about a particular moment in time. Faced with the scenes today in Cairo and the natural high of teaching about eighteenth century political revolutions, I was hard pressed not to feel heartened by the Egyptian revolution.

Today in a class on world history (an impossible class to teach), I discussed the slow development of alternatives to the monarchs of Europe. To make a point, I juxtaposed a image of the Palace of Versailles with an image of Paris in 1700, the point being that Louis XIV had his symbol of power and the people of France had an alternative in Paris. I proposed to the students, that because Murbarak did not have his seat of power outside of Cairo, an alternative community of sorts had to take shape some other way. Radically creative, an alternative community developed on the web. I might be making too much of Facebook’s role in this, but it was hard not to be moved when Google’s man in Egypt Wael Ghonim became a cult hero when he wept openly during a television interview after the host of the show had him look at photos of those killed during the days of protest in Cairo. Here was a revolutionary who Murbarak had arrested for his audacity to create a virtual space to question Egyptian tyranny.

A few weeks back, I wrote about the dilemma of forging a moral diplomacy. One comment about that post rightly pointed to the fallacy of applying moral tests to a nation, rather than to an individual. That is fair enough–I know my Niebuhr. But as I watch the events in Cairo unfold and reflect on the role (the position) the US must play, I find it difficult to imagine that morality has no place in the discussion. Obama has shown his willingness to declare that we must do some things because they are the right things to do. He used that phrase in his most recent State of the Union. Is there not a position to take on Egypt that is at least more right than others might be? And can we not, as a nation, agree that such things are right for reasons that go beyond our stated policies, interests, and laws?

We are not a moral nation, but we are a nation that has debated the moral consequences of our actions and positions. In short, there is way to be heartened by historical events that appear to reflect what is, and should be, right.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ray,

    I’m going to risk reproducing my FB status update on this topic here. I think it at least follows the direction of your post:

    “My heart (insofar as it’s superficially invested in the Egyptian crisis), says hurrah! But my head reminds me of the hazards of power change-overs, military involvement, puppet bureaucrats left behind, momentum, Jacobinism, and the slowness of cultural change. Even so, change from within is better than heavy-handed change forced from the outside.”

    Our moral diplomacy, represented (whether one wants it this way or not) by President Obama, would do well, I think, to promote forces in non-democratic countries that engage in peaceful change from within. I understand that the results may not always be there, or be obvious, but this at least goes toward those ideals we pretend to have (doing things because they’re the right things to do).

    – TL

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