By the time my Wednesday “Introduction to Comparative Politics” section rolled around, I’d had three days to imagine the excitement in the discussion we’d undoubtedly have about the Iraqi election.
My instructor had other plans. We could approach the election, he suggested, as a kind of exercise: How did the theories of democratic transition we’d learned about in lecture cast doubt on the coverage we’d been reading in the papers? Slowly, a hand went up. Dipping a voter’s finger in dye, the student suggested, seems to promote the kind of symbolic group identification that we’d read has no place in a democracy. Perhaps reports of heavy turnout were exaggerated by the American press, another ventured. The ideas began to fly: Keeping voter lists concealed was a Shi’a plot. Iraqi voters had no choices, rendering the election a publicity charade. And many Iraqis probably didn’t know what voting was: One woman, a student sneered, showed up to the polling place in an evening dress, as though casting a vote were like a party or a fancy ball! When I wondered if voting, for that Iraqi woman, was even more exciting than a fancy ball, my instructor turned to me and remarked, “It’s always best to be a cynic.”
I wish this attitude were confined to one jaded teaching assistant, or to one peculiarly suggestible section. But too often, I noticed disappointment in my friends’ voices when they admitted that the Iraqi election had been a surprising success. “I heard, and it sucks,” a fellow political science major lamented, when I asked if he’d seen the turnout figures. There’s something deeply wrong with an educational atmosphere that leads a successful student of politics who plans to work for the U.N. after graduating to judge that a high turnout for a democratic election “sucks.”
In a column in yesterday’s News, James Kirchick rightly criticizes my friend’s kind of attitude. Unfortunately, he goes on to write that the election is just one part of a stream of events that proves “the wisdom of the Bush doctrine.” This is just the conclusion that makes many Yale students mistakenly pooh-pooh the election: We fear that admitting any moment of success in Iraq means we must admit the whole mission was right. We are unable to be pleasantly surprised that the Iraqis are not as demoralized as we thought they were; we are unable to be impressed that they braved threats of violence to exert their right to self-expression; we, safe and free, are unable to appreciate astonishing joy and celebration conjured from a landscape of war. Nothing makes us happy. We are unwilling to believe that, as Iraqi Planning Minister Mahdi al-Hafidh told Al-Jazeera, the “Iraqis are looking at these elections as an issue of dignity,” choosing instead to imagine that American soldiers must have stuffed them into evening dresses and forced smiles at gunpoint. This gives us too much credit.
No matter what we think of President Bush, and even if we don’t admire the soldiers who wandered amongst the lines at the polling stations, we should be able to admire the Iraqis. Even liberal Democrats should be heartened that what they hoped was a universal desire for freedom can in fact survive in even the most harrowing conditions. Otherwise, we have lost every compass except for our hatred of Bush, and our liberalism has no heart.
I wish, too, that this terrible, enervating cynicism were confined to Iraq. In the New York Times Magazine (“The Uncommitted,” Jan. 30), Michael Ignatieff suggests that “the [Bush] administration’s ideologues have managed the nearly impossible: to turn democracy itself into a disreputable slogan. Liberals can’t bring themselves to support freedom in Iraq lest they seem to collude with neoconservative bombast.” One might hope that after Bush is gone, our national disenchantment will also pass. But on this campus, cynicism’s roots go deeper.
On the first day of a political science seminar this semester, my elderly professor asked his students what they thought of the condition and direction of the world. As student after student intoned that the world was going to hell, my heart sank. Not one was optimistic, not even cautiously so. That, I sensed, would have been considered the height of naivete.
Sitting in that class, you would never know that, as the Economist reports, “fewer people are dying as a result of war now than at almost any time since the 1920s.” Or that the global GDP is growing at 5 percent, the fastest rate in over 20 years. And that, according to Freedom House in 2003, 65 percent of the world’s people now live in free or partly free countries, up from 53 percent in 1972. Why, then, do so many students have such a depressing outlook?
At Yale, we sometimes confuse education for wisdom and cynicism for sophistication. We view our education as a tool to see through optimism, making us jaded before our time. We believe that the uneducated cannot be wise, and so we disdain the opinions, jubilations and religion of Ohioans and Iraqis alike. Not only is this pessimism sad and distorting, but it has a material harm: It can sap us of the energy needed to make the world better. I’ve seen it in friends who pursue corporate jobs not because they love business, but because they’ve lost faith that they can do any real good in the world.
Grateful as I am to live in a country where democracy is nothing new, I wish I could wear an evening dress to vote without being laughed out of the polling place. I think of a recent article in The New York Times, in which an Iraqi voter dressed in his best blazer and Bedouin headdress revealed he couldn’t say why he was voting for the United Iraqi Alliance, as he couldn’t read. It is too easy to see this and stop reading, concluding — as my “Comparative Politics” section did — that the election was meaningless. But the man went on: “Under Saddam, we were a people who were lost,” he said. “Before, we were not able to talk to officials; they were just punching you, and kicking you.” But elections lead to accountability, he explained, and when you throw the bums out, they can’t throw you in a cell. Of course, democracy is not guaranteed in Iraq, but even small steps are progress. Let’s be smart enough to respect and celebrate them.
Eve Fairbanks and Josh Bendor are seniors in Ezra Stiles College.