The liberal cliche of the time was that Third World people care more about food than about freedom. This kind of contempt for the political and spiritual dignity of people who live in different circumstances never goes away. It simply gets applied serially to different sets of patronized foreigners. Today we are assured with confidence that Arabs, consumed by tribe or religion or whatever, don’t really care about freedom either.

On Jan. 30 millions of Iraqis said otherwise. They really do care about the right to speak freely and to vote secretly, the ordinary elements of democratic citizenship. ~Charles Krauthammer

Fervent Bush supporters act as though it’s a miracle to be able to get voters to the polls amid so much unrest. In fact, there are plenty of cases where elections attracted lots of voters despite the bombs and bullets flying around them–El Salvador in 1982, Uruguay in 1971, even Russia during the 1917 revolution. Having a well-attended election, as the Russians can attest, doesn’t guarantee a happy outcome.

It’s also wishful thinking to suppose that the Iraqis who voted share President Bush’s shining vision of a free democracy friendly to the United States. A poll in August found that 70 percent of Iraqis want an Islamic state.

As for the prevailing attitude toward America, the leader of the Shiite coalition that finished first in the election said afterward, “No one welcomes foreign troops in Iraq.” Writes Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, “Most Shiites who voted on Sunday [Jan. 30] thought they were voting for an end to U.S. hegemony in their country.”

The people who are the real problem in Iraq, of course, are the insurgents, who are not about to be appeased by the chance to vote. On the contrary, the bloodshed has surged in recent days. As of Wednesday, 15 American soldiers and 153 Iraqis have died in attacks since the elections.

The election was inspiring, but an assessment of its effect on the fate of Iraq will have to wait. The self-congratulation should wait as well. ~Steve Chapman

It was interesting that Mr. Krauthammer should mention cliches, since his column was rife with them: there was the “biased liberal media” cliche (this from someone who works for the Post and advised on that most liberal of inaugural addresses this year), the “Arabs want freedom” cliche (beloved of neocons for its impressive power to express their chauvinism in cosmopolitan tones) and, of course, the cliche that an election justifies the Bush Doctrine–we heard that one in November as well. Since Mr. Bush’s own re-election was not directly related to an endorsement of that deformed ‘doctrine’, it is difficult to see how an Iraqi election could endorse the foreign policy of another country’s government.

If Prof. Cole is correct (and he has a much better record on describing Iraqi realities than Krauthammer), the election was no referendum on American policy, except in the way that it very specifically relates to the occupation of Iraq (and then only negatively). Mr. Bush should be grateful that the poll was not a referendum on his policies–he would have lost any such vote in almost any other country in the world.

Mr. Chapman is right, of course, that it is far too early to know what will come from all this. But from the voting behaviour of Shi’is and Kurds, we can see that most Iraqis who voted did so along sectarian or ethnic lines, quite naturally endorsing their own kind, and that the Shi’is who backed No. 169, the Sistani-backed list, were only doing what they were told.

I would be the last one to begrudge anyone expressing his loyalty to his people or religion, but it is also in just such a society where these loyalties are binding that mass politics is the most provocative and dangerous. It is no accident that democracies in tribal societies organise their politics along tribal lines, and also no accident that such societies are more prone to civil strife than most any other. The tribal or ethnic differences, which might have hitherto been merely facts of life and only occasionally cause for conflict, have become perpetual political boundaries about which regular contests are held. The Ivory Coast is a shining example of how democracy has ruined a perfectly stable and relatively prosperous African country by politicising ethnic groups and turning them into rivals for power.

This is why Krauthammer’s facile remark about Iraqis “caring” about freedom is so very wrong: in the competition for power, political allegiance was defined precisely by, as Krauthammer so profoundly puts it, “tribe or religion or whatever,” which is perfectly normal and perhaps even healthier in a way than the fake identifications predicated on ideological preferences. Nonetheless, whatever their views on “freedom,” it was not the “freedom” to vote that motivated them to vote. Voting was simply the vehicle to advance the interests of the sect or ethnicity to which they belonged and to which they still owe a large share of their loyalty. I imagine that if the interests of the sect or ethnicity, or any more local loyalties of clan or family, dictated hostility to this ertswhile “freedom” then they would be glad to oblige.

What no one in the democratist and “freedomist” camp seems to grasp is that the loyalty to “tribe or religion or whatever” is the sane and normal way that most peoples have organised, and still do organise, their societies. Such loyalties are not really at odds with a healthy liberty, rightly understood, that emerges gradually through customary practice and legal traditions conducive to leaving people to tend to their own affairs. But that is not the “freedom” of which Krauthammer writes, and he is really being entirely misleading by continuing to refer to it as freedom.

Like any Freisinnige (freethinker), Krauthammer is a most dreary, uniforming and life-denying sort, as being freisinnig is not anything like what we might imagine to be a real ‘emancipation’, but simply the forced removal of authorities that provide order and sense to the world in terms larger than that of the individual. Undoubtedly, some of these people have probably thought they were doing their fellow men a favour with this nonsense, and imagined that they were freeing them from the ‘oppression’ or ‘control’ of Church or family or some other hierarchy. All that they did was to deprive people of certainty and meaning, create a spiritual proletariat yearning for the attachments the Freisinnige were trying to strip away from them and thus planted the seeds of the mass man who could be readily herded, controlled, ‘rationalised’ and ‘reformed’.

It is self-evident to the freethinker that attachments to “tribe or religion or whatever” are obstacles to his rationality and reform, and so he hates these more than anything else, and he does not want to accept that, given the choice, people really do prefer their natural attachments over the empty half-life he offers. Hence, those who are conservative or prefer these loyalties are routinely denounced by the cosmopolitan sophisticates as ignorant, bigoted, and so on, because it is inconceivable for them that any remotely rational person could desire these attachments above liberal “values”, and when they define rationality in a way that compels abstraction and detachment from nature it is only natural that they cannot grasp the situation.

Krauthammer sneers at those who perceive in other nations prior loyalties to “tribe or religion or whatever” because he regards people who make those loyalties a priority as regressive and rather frightening, and his global revolutionary faith, if we can call it that, cannot admit that anyone would actually prefer such atavistic attachments to the wonders of “freedom,” which to them is precisely ‘emancipation’ (always a favourite word of levelers, destroyers and other wreckers of human happiness) from all those ties and obligations that sane, rooted people take for granted and respect for the natural, decent affinities that they are. Of course, this ruin of natural loyalties (called “social freedom”) is for the revolutionary but a means to an end, which in the neocon vision is the goal of electing grey, thoughtless technocratic governments from a pre-selected and controlled batch of absolutely identical blowhards, who will establish state capitalism, welfare states and provide useful military facilities for the hegemony, all to the greater empowerment of the neocons and people like them. They have to believe that other nations are not more attached to “tribe or religion or whatever” than to the deracinated, empty “freedom” they offer, because to believe otherwise wrecks their vision of dominance.