Pundits on Pluto

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Nicholas Kristof was intoxicated.

That’s not a value judgment. It was The New York Times columnist’s own self-assessment in a February 1 column, his inebriation the result of having been amid a crowd of Egyptian protesters against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the end of January. No alcohol was involved, of course; the crowd was overwhelmingly Muslim. The contact high was, and remains, entirely political.

The square, Mr. Kristof recounted, which in the past had been a place of unruly behavior, had “lost its menace and suddenly become the most exhilarating place in the world.” And the reason was because of the hope he inhaled from “the brave men and women of Tahrir Square,” the “peaceful throngs pleading for democracy.” The participants, in other words, in the “Days of Rage” demonstrations that in subsequent days led to Mr. Mubarak’s resignation.

The Times columnist cited Egyptians he found “everywhere I go” insisting that “Americans shouldn’t perceive their [the Egyptian revolutionary] movement as a threat”; and found it “sad that Egyptians are lecturing Americans on the virtues of democracy.”

He does recount a modicum of menace in some of the sentiment he heard. A medical student tells him that “Egyptian people will not forget what Obama does today. If he supports the Egyptian dictator, the Egyptian people will never forget that. Not for 30 years.” (The student didn’t have long to wait; President Obama quickly endorsed an exit from power for Mr. Mubarak.)

Mr. Kristof thinks that “the protesters have a point” about initial American “equivocation” over the rebellion in Egypt, though he allows that “maybe I’m too caught up in the giddiness of Tahrir Square.” Yes, maybe.

On the same day, Kristof’s colleague at the Old Gray Lady, Roger Cohen, nursed some optimism of his own, citing “the immense distance traveled by Arabs over the past month” and seeing a harbinger of hope in the fact that “the one big subject [Arabs] are not talking about… [is] Israel.”

“For too long,” he writes, perceptively enough, “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the great diversion, exploited by feckless Arab autocrats to distract impoverished populations.

“Now, Arabs are thinking about their own injustices. With great courage, they are saying ‘Enough!’”

Not one to allow an opportunity to criticize Israel fall through his hands, though, he notes that the “fast-growing economy and institution-building [in] the West Bank is an example to the dawning Arab world—and would be more so if Israel helped rather than blocked and hindered.”

But he sees hope all the same that a “representative Egyptian government” could emerge from the Cairene crowds, even if they turn out to be “less pliant to America’s will”; and that it might come to carry “a vital message for Arabs and Jews: Victimhood is self-defeating and paralyzing—and can be overcome.”

There must have been some sort of Stuxnet-like virus infecting the brains of the paper of record’s pundits. The giddiness born of the sight of hundreds of thousands of angry Egyptians seemed to have spread even to the page’s “conservative” columnist, David Brooks. In his own column that same day, he kvelled at the “surge of patriotism” expressed by the Egyptian demonstrators, part of a “remarkable democratic wave.”

“More than 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings over the past few decades,” Mr. Brooks asserted, something about which, he contended, “we should be glad.”

I am not sure to what nations he refers, but what I am sure of is that democracy, for all its wonderful potential, is not a guarantee of anything other than the concretization of a populace’s will.

And that, whatever the identities of those “more than 100 nations,” the most prominent mass expressions of collective will that come to mind are the 2006 Gaza elections that put Hamas in power there, the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 and the rise, a mere 50 years earlier, of the Nazi party in Germany.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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