A week ago two essays appeared in separate newspapers — The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — suggesting much the same thing: The desire for liberty and freedom seem to reside universally in people all across the globe. Both authors, Michael Novak and David Brooks, acknowledge that the debate over this proposition has been heated at times, but that current events in the Middle East seem to shed new light on this apparently universal aspiration.
Our culture has been lulled into a view that nothing can be true universally. We have been convinced, despite the teachings of the Christian tradition, by the arguments that people are determined mostly by separate cultures, religions, and civilizations. Of course we know that people are different, distinctive, and we revel in our wonderful human diversity.
But is it possible there are some things that beat in the hearts of all human beings?
Both essays respond thoughtfully to the dramatic social eruptions in the streets of Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Bahrain, and even Saudi Arabia. Could we imagine such a thing happening even months ago? Could we imagine that even the forces of radical Islam would be sidelined in the face of such revolutionary upheaval, all in the name of yearning for freedom?
Michael Novak makes this statement in the WSJ:
Six years ago, when I first wrote of the “universal hunger for liberty” — deeply implanted in every single human being by the Creator, like a seed awaiting favorable environmental conditions for its flowering — I had in mind especially the slumbering yet restless desire for liberty in the Muslim world. I did not doubt for an instant that one-sixth of the human race would one day be awakened, even with an awful suddenness.
David Brooks says something similar in the NY Times. He talks about the seminal theory of Samuel Huntington, “one of America’s greatest political scientists,” that we are destined for a “clash of civilizations,” that the people of the Middle East, determined by culture and religion over centuries, will have difficulty into the future accommodating to the ways of the modern world. And so we are headed for global conflict of major proportions.
But it seems clear, says Brooks, from the unfolding events of our day, that we need to modify Huntington’s important theory. “Many people,” Brooks surmises, “in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.”
Here then is a conclusion we might make: “Culture is important,” says Brooks, “but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.”
These notions of course have been debated quite fiercely at times. Making such statements about universal aspirations threatens some of the underlying presuppositions of our culture, that culture and context determine everything. But here at least are two thoughtful observers of the powerful current events who lift up the possibility, that despite our very real differences, we are driven by a common human yearning to be free.