TCS Daily


Hope Springs Infernal

By Douglas Kern - August 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Hope is the most dangerous of all drugs. And America is the biggest pusher.

Recently I read the final National Review article of Steven Vincent, may he rest in peace. He explained why the Iraqi city of Basra suffers from an electricity shortage:

        There's yet another reason for Basra's power shortage, one that people here 
        rarely mention: Basrans themselves. [...] Basrans' salaries have dramatically 
        increased, encouraging people to splurge on such appliances as washing 
        machines, televisions, computers, and especially air conditioners. [...] Abbas 
        estimated that if Basrans reduce their energy consumption by half, they 
        could enjoy 24-hour electricity. "It would be a hardship, but not impossible." 
        To test his theory, I asked friends if they'd be willing to cut back on their lights, 
        wide-screen TV watching, washing machines and, above all, air conditioning. 
        Without exception the response was no. "Why should we? Iraq sits on a sea 
        of oil," is a typical response, followed by the usual slam against America.

        "Well, of course," Abbas replied, when I gave him the results of my poll. 
        "People were deprived of power for so long, they now feel they have a right 
        to as much as possible."

The wretched of the earth can suffer appalling torments for decades upon decades -- provided that they are kept ignorant and isolated. The prick to revolution is hope. No man is truly poor who does not realize his poverty. When you show a man how comfortable life can be, he cannot be content to suffer as he has suffered. Men will fight for what they have. But they will fight and win for what they almost have.

Consider the civil rights movement in the United States. The hagiographers of the baby boomer generation would have you believe that the enlightened preciousness of students and liberals made the civil rights revolution possible. But the true spark that lighted the fire of justice was the huge economic improvement that blacks enjoyed after World War II. In nearly every quantifiable category, blacks saw massive gains -- in home ownership, in wages, in consumer goods, everything. This taste of comfort provided an irresistible impetus for a growing, motivated black middle class to stand up against injustices that stood between them and the lives they had almost achieved.

Similarly, consider the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and Russia. The most dangerous moment for the Communist regimes didn't occur at the height of the Stalinist purges, or during the genocides in Ukraine and Cambodia. The most dangerous moment arrived when Gorbachev gave the Eastern bloc a soupcon of freedom through glasnost and perestroika. A brief glimpse of the West made the old evils unbearable.

Finally, consider the backgrounds of the terrorists responsible for September 11 and July 7. These men weren't dirt-poor urchins from the Arab street. Many of them came from middle-to-upper-middle class households. Many had college educations or advanced vocational training. These men enjoyed just enough Western prosperity and freedom to find the allure of it intolerable. The irony abounds: Western freedom gave them the freedom to dream of a world without it; Western prosperity funded their mad quest to murder that same prosperity.

We see a similar cultural cannibalism in Iraq today. As Vincent's article illustrates, the average Iraqi now enjoys prospects and possibilities that were unimaginable three years ago. The polling data suggest that most Iraqis foresee a bright future for their country. Yet does this optimism make the ordinary Iraqi happy, or more secure? Perhaps not. The freedom to succeed and prosper is also the freedom to fall and fail -- and in an underdeveloped country, failure means disease and empty bellies, not the gentle ignominy of bankruptcy. Worse, a thimbleful of prosperity creates a hunger for an affluence that may exceed the abilities of the current generation. Through television, through the internet caf├ęs, and through conversation with Americans, the average Iraqi is aware of a world of colossal wealth, spectacular science, and undreamt-of desires, all seemingly within reach. His wants increase exponentially, yet his ability to thrive in a democratic, capitalist country grows slowly and unevenly. The ensuing envy, shame, and frustration are ripe for revolutionaries and utopians to exploit. So behold Basra: a city whose thriving middle-class citizens demand a first-world infrastructure even as they maintain third-world habits of apathy and indolence.

Sadly, the Iraqi insurgency also exults in new hope. Before the invasion, a would-be Iraqi imam proclaiming his desire for an Iran-style mullah-ocracy would receive a personal tour of Uday's industrial-size human shredder. But now, in a free Iraq, anything is possible -- including a rabidly Islamicist government. Saddam Hussein's cruel oppression fell on the just and the unjust alike; in the blessed absence of that oppression, the wings of both angels and demons have found space to unfurl. Hence the flourishing of Iraqi civil society; hence the flourishing of the homicidal rebels.

Properly harnessed, hope can refurbish the cultural foundations of the Middle East. "Realist" commentators have cataloged the qualities that prevent free societies in the Middle East: nepotism, fatalism, anti-feminism, cronyism, anti-intellectualism, et cetera, ad infinitum. But the unbearable urgency of hope can break such chains, if the right moment is seized. The tantalizing prospect of Western prosperity beckons a new generation of Middle Eastern men and women to abandon decayed traditions in pursuit of the good life that, increasingly, they feel they deserve.

"Tantalizing;" the word refers to Tantalus of Greek myth, whose sickening crimes compelled the gods to torment him by exacerbating his thirst and hunger, then keeping food and water just out of his reach -- for all eternity. The hunger for Western affluence does not last into eternity, and affluence does not meet all needs. But for those emerging from poverty, affluence is the very nectar of the gods. We must act while it still entrances.

Now is the critical moment of the Iraqi conflict. The outcome of the shooting war was inevitable, and the election, while splendid and energizing, was only the beginning of the beginning. We must now turn the hopeful yearnings of a liberated people away from the easy fixes of utopians, be they secular or sacred. We must harness the desire for a better life to undermine those cultural deficiencies that hold back the Middle East. And we must give the Iraqis the tools to sustain prosperity by teaching them the plain, dreary lessons of hard work, innovation, perseverance, and integrity that make modern economies function. To relent now is to render all our efforts futile. To succeed is to strangle terrorism in its crib.

To F. Scott Fitzgerald, hope was Gatsby's green light on the horizon -- a light that beckoned him to folly and death, but that also impelled him to self-recreation. We do well to remember that Gatsby's green light is also a green light for wrongdoers. But if hope is a lure to destruction, it is also a cardinal virtue, perhaps by dint of its power to reshape souls for the better.

We must now persevere through the slow, frustrating battle against Iraqi corruption, insecurity, and avarice. This perseverance will be difficult, expensive, and discouraging -- but we began this war because we believed that freedom could conquer tyranny. That belief must endure.

Through our charity, we have made the Middle East a place of hope. With hope and charity, we must now have faith.

The author, a lawyer, is a TCS contributing writer.


 

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