Friday, July 22, 2016

MENA Scholars And The US Election

American analysts of the Middle East think frequently about our ethical obligations to people in the region. While we often overestimate our influence, it doesn't excuse a sense of impunity. Analysts do not get to sit on the sidelines when people's well-being is at stake. We are members of society and what we say can have an impact, however small, on those around us. We disagree about the nature of these ethical obligations but not about their existence.

Our obligations don't end at the water's edge. We have obligations to our students, university, our friends and family, and a country that protects our freedom to speak, write, publish, and debate. The affairs of our own government matter just as much as those of the governments we study.

Three facts about last night's Trump acceptance speech are undisputed. First, a candidate for President of the United States gave a speech. Second, that candidate claimed that the country is in a state of lawlessness and that he would restore law an order. Third, this candidate's plan to restore order involves severe, unprecedented restrictions targeting specific groups of Americans. This includes explicit restrictions on the rights of Muslim Americans and de facto limitations on the rights of African-Americans. In the United States, limitations on the rights of one group are a limitation on the rights of all Americans.

This kind of speech from a presidential candidate is unacceptable in the United States of America.

Middle East analysts have seen this story before. America is not the Middle East, but populism is not uniquely a Middle East phenomenon. Our colleagues in the region have risked their well-beings, their physical safety, and their lives to speak against populism in their own countries. Turkey is the latest example but not the only one. 

Our obligation in the United States is to recognize the importance of these efforts by replicating them here. 

It is time for analysts who have seen the slippery slope of populism to call Trump's dangerous speech what it is: An attack on the Constitutional rights of Americans and a threat to our democracy. We respect our MENA colleagues who do the same, but we do not truly respect them if we fail to act in their image when it is our time. This is our time.

In calling out Trump, we must respect (as we have often failed to do), conservative and Republican points of view. But Trump's speech is not the position of the Republican Party. It is a slap in the face to decades of policy designed to promote freedom and liberty as Republicans envision it. And it is impossible to protect the freedom of any point of view - liberal, moderate, or conservative - when populism threatens to censor discourse and silence members of the debate. 

You need not disavow support of Donald Trump. If you plan to vote for him, that is respectable and your point of view is respectable and important. But neither can you ignore the facts as they stand, and the consensus of decades of research on populism and its dangerous path.

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