Writing recently in Tablet magazine, Lee Smith, who is an editor at the Weekly Standard, criticized what he called the “Arab-ization” of American politics. Smith writes frequently and eloquently about the Arab world, Israel, Turkey and Iran. In this particular piece, he was responding to the Women’s March on Washington and, among other things, what has become a signature chant of the early Trump era: “This is what democracy looks like!”
Smith disagrees. He argues that Trump was legitimately elected president and that protest is only legitimate if the government is breaking the law or failing to fulfill its obligations to uphold the law. He thus likens the excitement on the left for the Women’s March (and no doubt subsequent protests) to the misbegotten enthusiasm with which observers — across the political spectrum, I should add — greeted the so-called Arab Spring.
There are three problems with this argument, though Smith is correct about the almost universal romance with the Middle Eastern barricades. First, the refrain “This what democracy looks like!” is about the diversity of America and the demands of citizens who happen to be nonwhite, non-male and non-Christian. Second, Smith misconstrues the First Amendment of the Constitution. Third, he implies — perhaps unintentionally — that this new “American street” is not unlike the so-called “Arab street” and the images of chaos that it invokes. Yet the Arab street is not an analytically useful concept because it obscures the rich political environments of Middle Eastern societies in which there are peaceful, sophisticated and creative opponents of authoritarianism. That they were crushed in the aftermath of the uprisings has to do with bad luck, mistakes and the willingness of rulers in the region to use force.