Something's Happening Here

02/22/2011 06:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Something's happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear"

Recent events make those Buffalo Springfield lyrics from the '70's seem to spring to mind. It's probably too soon to make any solid conclusions, but events in North Africa and the Middle East suggest that something very real may be afoot. Beginning in Tunisia, then spreading to Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Bahrain, and now to Libya, ordinary people in "the Arab Street" seem to be saying they've had enough of dictatorship, and they aren't going to take it anymore. And, encouragingly, freedom and self-determination seem to be the core of their agenda - not Islamism, not sharia law, not socialism, but simply democracy.

As I said, it's too soon to tell how this is going to turn out - maybe the militaries will impose a new dictatorship, maybe militant Islamists will hijack the revolutions, but so far none of that seems to be happening, so maybe, in the words of the old protest chant, "the people united cannot be defeated," and maybe, just maybe, there's a valuable lesson in this for the US - maybe democracy and freedom really are "inalienable rights" and maybe oppression is its own worst enemy in the long run. Maybe the same spirit that impelled the American colonists to rise up in 1776 is inherent in all people and will eventually lead to the demise of dictators, and maybe we can count on that rather than try to impose democracy in countries where there is not yet sufficient pent-up demand for it, resulting in our becoming occupiers instead of liberators.

I'm not saying that we should never intervene - when a dictatorial government becomes aggressive and attempts to spread its rule beyond its own borders, we should defend those who cannot effectively defend themselves - both World Wars, the Korean conflict, and the first Gulf War come to mind as examples - but there's a big difference between being defenders of freedom where it's endangered and being the self-appointed distributors of democracy where we think it should go, whether those peoples are ready for it or not.

I, for one, am very encouraged by the events in the Arab world. They suggest to me that the drive toward freedom and self-determination is, in fact, something that lives in all people and will eventually win out. Thirty years of Mubarak is a long run, but it ended at a time of the Egyptian people's choosing, and Mubarak's plan to pass on his rule to his son in a dynastic fashion was thwarted. I'm sad that it had to take thirty years, but as is noted in the US Declaration of Independence, "all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." Still, as the Declaration goes on, "when a long train of abuses and usurpations... evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security." I guess how long people are "disposed to suffer" will vary from culture to culture, but it's worth bearing in mind that the American Colonies were under British rule for the better part of 200 years before they rose up.

What's really interesting to me in light of the events overseas is the current struggle in Wisconsin between the Governor and many people there. At this writing an Egypt-style demonstration (minus the violence) has been going on for days in Madison, teachers are calling in sick and are being supported by parents and students in their resistance to cuts by a governor who took a state with a substantial budget surplus and, through tax cuts to businesses, created a deficit which he now proposes to meet by cutting services such as education and by breaking the state's unions. The people of Wisconsin seem to be uniting, and something is happening there - what it is isn't exactly clear - but maybe, just maybe, the people united won't be defeated - after all, the sixth-seed Packers won the Super Bowl, so anything's possible.