President Obama’s recent speech regarding the death of Muammar Qaddafi expresses a confidence in enlightenment assumptions which, though unquestionably popular, perhaps shouldn’t be.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau has probably had more influence on contemporary culture than any modern philosopher or other public intellectual. His unbounded certainty of the changeability of human nature, utter disdain for property and high culture, and apotheosis of appetite still have a strong (though often subconscious) hold on the modern mind. His ideas drive current approaches to education and are evident in colloquialisms like “get real” and the modern phenomenon of camping.
But Rousseau’s legacy is perhaps starkest in the arena of political science. Though his writings have led to gross atrocities (e.g. the Reign of Terror) subsequent generations have swallowed his promises about the liberating fruits of radical equality hook, line, and sinker. While President Obama’s recent speech exalting “the people” of Libya proves that Rousseau is alive and well, it also raises some unpopular questions. Here, briefly, are a few of them.
THE PRESIDENT: “Good afternoon, everybody. Today, the government of Libya announced the death of Muammar Qaddafi. This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya, who now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya.”
Who are “the people of Libya?” Not demographically, but rather, what’s meant by the term? Even defining “the people” as everyone who supported taking up arms against Qaddafi leaves out the more than 1,500 downed Qaddafi loyalists, not to mention surviving supporters and those uncertain citizens caught in the middle.
THE PRESIDENT: “We’re under no illusions — Libya will travel a long and winding road to full democracy.”
I agree that some form of government in which the people play a direct role is inevitable in Libya (at least initially) given the brutality of Qaddafi and the zeal for political leveling that has characterized almost all other revolutions of the past two centuries. But is that the best thing for Libya? Perhaps. But perhaps not. The modern age loves democracy, but usually for the wrong reason. We think it offers us the best chance at being “free.” It turns out democracy’s strongest tendency is to devolve into despotism, either in the form of apathetic bullying by the majority or learned manipulation of the quarter-educated masses by the few.
Setting the weaknesses of democracy aside, does any nation, regardless of political structure, have the ability to “determine [its] own destiny?” And based on the behavior of those who captured and killed Qaddafi, would it be good for the individuals of Libya at large to make that determination?
THE PRESIDENT: “For four decades, the Qaddafi regime ruled the Libyan people with an iron fist…The enormous potential of the Libyan people was held back…”
What evidence have we for the “enormous potential of the Libyan people?” The phrase is flattering to us, “the people” of America, but historically the masses don’t have a great track record. And “We the People” of the Constitution cannot truly be considered an exception, not because of faults with that document, but because “we the people” didn’t achieve it—unless by the phrase we mean a relatively small group of well-educated, white males raised as loyal subjects of His Majesty. No, the accomplishments of “we the people” without strong, capable, and empowered leadership, are usually more akin to the fifty or so Qaddafi supporters recently found in a mass grave in Sirte.
Jace is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. He is a life-long Texan and is currently a JD candidate at Stanford Law School. Before heading out to California he served in the Air Force, taught AP Calculus in Honduras, studied at the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law (www.johnjayinstitute.org), and earned his B.A. in Government and B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He enjoys all things old and dust-covered, and his favorite pastime is reading to his wife, son, and daughter.