First Person: Right All Along, Until We Were Wrong

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Imagination, the liberal arts and why we missed the Arab Spring

pgIBC_Chris-AlexanderIn the spring of 2010, I published a book on the politics of modern Tunisia. That book’s final paragraph contained the following sentence: “It does seem clear, though, that political change in Tunisia will not come about through some dramatic event that suddenly replaces the existing order with a new one.” This was not a controversial view. I held it in ample good company.

Less than a year later, Tunisia exploded in a popular revolt that toppled a government and opened the most dramatic season of political unrest in the Arab world in 50 years. It also opened exciting new research horizons. Political scientists and other analysts will study the Arab Spring for years to come.

Along with the discussions of causes and consequences, similarities and differences, we should ponder a more fundamental question: Why didn’t we see it coming? We tell students that good theories should predict the future as well as explain the past. We might be forgiven for missing small, insignificant events that we chalk up as outliers or exceptions that prove our rules. But why did we miss the most significant wave of unrest in a critical region in half a century?

The nature of the revolts is partly to blame. Serious protest movements don’t materialize from thin air. People build them. Consequently, analysts focus on the organized groups of people who assemble resources, look for opportunities, evaluate risks and devise strategies. This is why we paid so much attention to Islamist parties and movements. They seemed to be the players most likely to organize protest on a scale that could topple governments.

The Arab Spring wasn’t this kind of protest. It appeared to be spontaneous, without leaders or structures. In reality, the Arab Spring movements were not as leaderless as some romantic descriptions presented them. But they did lack the identifiable leaders and structures that we often study. This made the protests harder to repress, and harder to predict.

But we missed the Arab Spring for another important reason. After the Cold War, the Middle East and North Africa stood as the last regional bastion of authoritarian rule. While democratic transitions unfolded in other regions, authoritarianism remained the rule across the Arabic-speaking world. Accounting for this fact became the central task for analysts in government and the academy.

pgIBC_AfterWord-We-Were-RightWe got very good at it. We challenged the popular notion that authoritarian politics is simply the product of an authoritarian culture. We described the resources and the strategies that allowed savvy rulers to manipulate reforms, to co-opt opposition themes and to repress dissent. We made a compelling case that rather than getting swept away by the forces of globalization, interdependence, or expanding democratic norms, authoritarian governments could have lots of life left in them. The fact that regimes in places like Algeria and Egypt continued to survive in the face of popular discontent and vigorous Islamist movements supported these arguments.

Did we do such a good job that we built authoritarian regimes in our own minds? Did we explain authoritarian persistence so well that we undervalued evidence of its fragility?

Let’s rephrase the questions. Did our deep knowledge prevent us from conceiving of alternative realities? Did it hobble our imaginations?

These questions should resonate deeply at a place like Davidson. At their best, liberal arts educations forge rigorous imaginations. These imaginations spring from minds that gather information about the world methodically and analytically. But these minds are liberated by what they know, not held captive by it.

Students interested in global affairs often ask why they should study at a liberal arts college rather than an institution that offers a more specialized course of study. Rigorous imagination is the answer, and it doesn’t come simply from studying facts about political and economic systems. It comes from thinking deeply about how authors develop characters and their worlds. It comes from feeling transported to a place that you struggle to describe with words by a poem, a piece of music or a sculpture. It comes from understanding how physicists use quarks and hadrons and other things we can’t see to explain everything that we do see.

The minds—the imaginations—that emerge from this education do more than predict how the pieces on the chessboard will move. They see how the board might be arranged in fundamentally different ways.

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