Chris Hayes has an interesting editorial on the Egyptian Revolution in this week’s Nation. My attention, in particular, was drawn to these two paragraphs:
Conservative opinion on Egypt is by no means uniform, but it’s not surprising to find right-wingers attacking the pro-democracy protesters and ElBaradei. After all, the foundational thinker of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, was terrified by the anarchic forces that popular revolt can unleash. After the storming of the Bastille in the summer of 1789, Burke wrote in a letter that the French “are not fit for Liberty, and must have a Strong hand like that of their former masters to coerce them.” In 1790 he took to Parliament to denounce the French revolutionaries for having “pulled down to the ground their monarchy; their church; their nobility; their law; their revenue; their army; their navy; their commerce; their arts; and their manufactures” and warned that the door was open to “an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody and tyrannical democracy.”
Few conservatives would see much of Burke in our current occupant of the White House, but there is a certain core affinity. In 2005, when David Brooks first met the young Senator Obama, they reportedly spent much of the time discussing and debating the finer points of Burke’s philosophy. The cardinal principle of Obamaism is that incremental change at the margins is always and everywhere preferable to both the status quo and radical upheaval. In 2004, before he was the presidential candidate of hope and change, the newly elected senator wrote a congratulatory e-mail to his supporters in which he revealingly defined his mission as “making sure that the world we leave our children is just a little bit better than the one we inhabit today.”
This gets at, I think, core existential perspectives on the world. When I refer to a “core existential perspective”, I am referring something that in many respects precedes any particular propositional beliefs or stances. Rather, such perspectives would be like a frame in a painting or a photograph. It wouldn’t be what’s in the photograph or painting, but would be that opening that allows what’s in the photographic or painting to appear at all. And here, prior to any analysis of any particular political events or institution, prior to any judgment, prior to any appraisal, it seems to me that at a very deep and basic level one has always already decided with whether they side with power or the marginalized. This fundamental existential decision, never consciously made, never the result of any sort of rational appraisal or activity of “making things explicit”, is the machine that is always already operative in how one perceives and judges events. This is true in politics, in one’s judgment of social issues, in ones attitudes towards academia, and so on. Always and everywhere one either sides power and authority or with radical democracy (and when I speak of radical democracy, no, I’m not talking about the system we have here in the States).
And it’s here that we get the basic question. When you look at something like what took place in Egypt, do you see terrifying anarchy, law and disorder, and the need for a smooth transition, or do you see the promise of radical democracy? What is it that you see in such moments. What you see says far more about yourself, about your own basic existential orientation towards the world, than it says about the events themselves. Above all, it says a great deal about the nature of your desires. Burke doesn’t come out looking good in his appraisal of the initial stages of the French Revolution, and Obama doesn’t come out looking good here.