THE END OF UNIVERSALISM. Leave it to David Brooks to bury a recantation of long-held beliefs in a Labor Day weekend column. His Sunday column this week is significant, however, because it outlines a conceptual error that was common in conservative and neoconservative circles over the past five years, and which can still be found across the political spectrum. Writes Brooks:

I spent much of the 1990�s (that most deceptive decade) abroad � in Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. People everywhere seemed to want the same things: to live in normal societies, to be free, to give their children better lives.

Now it seems that was an oversimplified view of human nature. It�s true people everywhere want to satisfy their desires, but they also require moral systems that will restrain and give shape to their desires. It�s true people everywhere love their children, but they also require respect and recognition and they will sacrifice their own lives, and even their children�s lives, in wars for status. It�s true people everywhere hate oppression, but they also require identity, and human beings build identities by collectively hating groups that represent what they are not.

All these other parts of human nature impel people to become tribal. People form groups to realize their need for status, moral order and identity. The differences between these groups can be vast and irreconcilable....

People who live in societies where authority is united � as under Islam � are really different from people who live in societies where authority is divided. People in honor societies � where someone will kill his sister because she has become polluted by rape � are different from people in societies where people are judged by individual intentions. People who live in societies where the past dominates the present are different from people who live in societies where the future dominates the present.

Being unable to understand that foreign cultures really are foreign -- that is to say, very different from one's own -- is a common mistake and one, ironically, shared by disparate peoples in different nations. It is the universal mistake of the ego to project onto other actors one's own motivations and fears, and a sign of maturity to recognize the incredible variability of individual personality and values even within a single culture. But it is always a struggle to understand the myriad ways in which people are different from oneself, and an understanding of that difference can only be accomplished through the deployment of imagination, empathy, and calculated observation. Now compare Brooks' just-renounced description of the world with that described by Shadi Hamid of Democracy Arsenal:

the fundamental dilemma for American policymakers � they want democracy but fear its outcomes. For too long, we�ve tried to avoid the question, get around it, or, worse, pretend it doesn�t exist. Instead of supposing that there is some mythical, silent Arab liberal majority that is just waiting to unleash its electoral potential, let�s try to ground our idealism in a fact-based assessment of Arab politics. As I point out in my article, Arab liberals have virtually no grassroots support in the Middle East. And as for �pro-American Arab liberals,� those don�t even exist. Mainstream Islamists, on the other hand, are as powerful as ever (at least partly because the Bush administration�s horrendous foreign policy has made gratuitous anti-Americanism such an easy sell). So, yes, Islamist groups will come to power if there are free elections. It�s going to happen whether we like or not. And it already has in Iraq, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories (and is likely to happen in Morocco next parliamentary election).

What we need, then, is a coherent policy toward political Islam.

What Brooks is saying is that, after years of seeing the world as a reflection of himself, he's finally realized that people are different from each other. And Hamid, for his part, is blaming our foreign policy errors on our government leaders' inability to reconcile support for universal values and rights with the world as it is, which is to say, a place that is full of people who don't think like they do.

--Garance Franke-Ruta

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