I’ve often wondered why our form of democracy is so difficult to transplant in Africa and the Middle East. One reason might be because of our diversity. We began as a nation of differing cultures rather than a homogenous one. To get along we had to build a tent large enough to cover most of those differing views. The need to accommodate divergence might be the reason our form of government goes to great lengths to protect the rights of the individual. Contrast this notion of democracy with how it’s practiced in Scandinavia where there’s been a homogeneous population for centuries. Democracy there places emphasis, not on diversity but in promoting social equality. The wealth of the nation is shared and an individual has the right to fail but only so far.
Mark Lilla has examined the failure of American democracy in the Middle East and believes our emphasis on personal freedom is at the heart of the problem. What it loses in translation is how the rights of the individual co-exist with centuries of traditions — a commitment to one’s place in society, a respect for elders, obligations to family and clan and devotion to piety and virtue. “(Our Illegible Age,” by Mark Lilla, The New Republic, June 30, 2014 pg. 47)
Lilla’s essay is dense and complex so I can’t discuss it in full but by placing a spotlight on personal freedom, he raises a question about how far that value can take any society, including our own. When, for example, we extend personal freedoms to corporations — the right to free speech and to hold religious views — have we allowed the concept to override common sense? The Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United and Hobby Lobby feel like open wounds rather than resolutions. How this diverse nation is going to heal and become one again is no idle question. But how far the meaning of individual freedoms can be stretched is another.