Monday, January 31, 2005

The Metaphysics of "Normal Life"

From Ukraine to Iraq, Never Underestimate the Power of Freedom's Example

by Robert Tracinski

Reports from the front lines (literally) of the Iraqi election have begun to solidify in my mind a new integration—one that makes me relatively optimistic about the outcome in Iraq, despite all of the problems and dangers.

I have quietly been gathering evidence for this connection in the back of my mind, without fully realizing it, and all of that evidence crystallized for me last weekend when I heard a single phrase repeated by several Iraqi voters in different cities. They were voting, they told reporters, because they wanted Iraq to be "a normal nation."

This is a phrase that I have heard in reports from a variety of countries, in different variations, over the past few years—all of them in the context of some kind of struggle for liberty against a long tradition of backwardness and tyranny. The repetition of this formula is too persistent to be a mere coincidence. I read it in a newspaper report about a rally of Afghani women just outside of Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, when one woman told a reporter that they longed for the chance at "a normal life." I heard something similar in reports from Ukraine's Orange Revolution, where opponents of the corrupt Kremlin-backed regime talked longingly about moving closer to the "normal" nations of Western Europe. I have even heard hints of it as the driving force behind China's abandonment of doctrinaire Communism; one television expert described the "Chinese dream" as being the desire to "become one of the wealthy nations"—another version of what is "normal."

The crucial question raised by this phrase is: normal—by what standard?

One of the Iraqis who was interviewed (see the first news link in today's TIA Daily) said, "We want to lead a normal life, just like people in neighboring countries." But Iraq's neighbors are Turkey, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. Poverty, oppression, and violence are (both historically and, to a greater or lesser degree, at present) the actual norm in these nations. I don't think that's where all of the Iraqi voters are getting their concept of what is "normal."

Where did they actually get it? And where did the people in Afghanistan, in Ukraine, and also, I suspect, many people today in China and Russia, get their concept of what a "normal life" is?

They got it, clearly, from the free nations of Western Europe, and above all from America. From the way I have seen it used, a "normal life" means, to these people: prosperity, representative government, a mixed-to-free economy, and the rule of law. I don't mean to imply that everyone who uses this phrase grasps that those are the ingredients—and I certainly don't believe that more than a small fraction of them grasp, with any accuracy, the philosophical, cultural, and political requirements for this kind of "normalcy." They seem to grasp it only as a vague, half-understood approximation, as nothing more exact than the phrase itself: "a normal life."

The fact that they don't know its philosophical roots and requirements—and that there is hardly anyone in today's world who can tell them—means that such progress as they make toward this vision of a "normal life" will be slow, halting, tortuous, and constantly endangered. But when I describe their understanding as "vague" and "half-understood," I don't mean that in a disapproving way. Given the context of the societies in which they have been raised, a half-understood approximation of the kind of life possible in a free society in enormous progress. It is the first step toward a fuller understanding.

What seems to be contained in the phrase "a normal life" is not the details of what constitutes a free society, but rather a vision of what kind of life is possible to man when he lives in such a society: prosperity; a profusion of opportunities for education, for expression, for advancement; a life free of physical fear.

The "normal life" we experience in America has not been "normal" as a statistical average of man's life, either throughout history or around the world today. So that makes the fact that it is now starting to be regarded as "normal" all the more extraordinary. "Normal," in this context, is not a statistical term. Neither is it a political or even a moral term—which is why those who use it do not understand its full moral and political meaning. "Normal," in this context, is a metaphysical estimate. It means: that which is possible to man in this world.

I am still trying to grasp the deepest significance of this idea and to gather evidence for my conclusion—but based on what I have been seeing over the past few years, here is my hypothesis. The existence of a free society in the United States for the past 200 years, and of essentially free societies in Western Europe and Japan for the past 50 years, has created a new global standard for what kind of life is metaphysically possible to man. The life of man in a free society has become—for millions around the world—what they long for as a "normal" way of living.

This vision of a "normal" life is still vague and poorly understood, and it is a vision that can still be lost—but it is also a vision that, I suspect, is already beginning to change the world, from Ukraine to China—and, possibly, from Afghanistan to Iraq.